COLUSA A little tribe with a casino on a road to nowhere 60 miles northwest of Sacramento has become the biggest employer in Colusa County and a role model for many of California's gaming tribes.
The Cachil Dehe Band of Wintun Indians has used casino revenue to reclaim the tribe's lands, restore its ancient culture and provide jobs, health care and other services to this rural county.
"They are one of the best examples of what a smaller gaming operation can still do for a tribe," said Susan Jensen of the California Nations Indian Gaming Association. "They show you don't have to make a ton of money to make a huge difference."
The tribe's name means "Home is where the river bends" in its native Patwin language, which the 100-member nation is also working to bring back, along with its time-honored ways of praying, healing and governing.
One breezy afternoon, Hazel Longmire, the tribe's vice chair, and Rick Mitchum Jr., its secretary-treasurer, stood on a platform overlooking that bend in the Sacramento River. Behind them was the past, a tribal cemetery plowed under by a levee. In front of them was Deer Island, which the tribe now owns, along with 13,000 acres of farmland and a 5,000-acre Outdoor Adventures game preserve with elk, deer, wild boars, turkeys and pheasants.
"We're trying to get back to our roots and let everything replenish itself our plants, deer, pheasants," said Longmire as she watched the muddy green water swirl around Deer Island. "There's a way of taking care of yourself not only through medicine, but spiritually knowing who you are."
To make their lives whole, the tribal members earn 40 percent of their income from farming, rental property, health care and other non-gaming enterprises.
Elder Wayne Mitchum, who campaigned in 1998-2000 with Vice Chairman Nolan Gonzales for Propositions 5 and 1A to legalize Indian casinos, said he had envisioned using gaming profits to develop other businesses to protect the tribe over time.
"Our exclusive rights to gaming won't last forever," Mitchum said. "When that day comes, we can feed and heal ourselves."
Last fall, the threat to Colusa's gaming became real when Gov. Jerry Brown agreed to the state's first two off-reservation casinos, including Enterprise Rancheria's plan to build a casino outside Yuba City, 37 miles away. That casino could "open the floodgates to urban Indian casinos and drive Colusa and other small tribes out of the gaming business," said Doug Elmets, a spokesman for five casinos, including Thunder Valley and Jackson Rancheria.
The Colusa way
Colusa's turnaround began with an Indian bingo hall in 1986. It entered into a compact with the state in 1999 and opened its casino in 2000.
Wayne Mitchum, who served as chairman for 20 years, said his tribe has honored the compact or treaty it signed with the state that said Indian gaming was to be used "to promote tribal economic development and self-sufficiency."
"We kept our promise," he said. "We look at that casino as a tool. We're farmers getting back to our roots and what we had."
Over the years, Cachil Dehe Wintun had been among the poorest of the poor. Nearly every adult member suffered from diabetes, and all were on welfare, said Longmire. "Tribal members weren't living beyond their 50s."
A grandmother now, she remembers having to wait outside a dentist's office when she was 9 because the dentist wouldn't treat Indians inside his office. "I had to stand on the sidewalk while he checked my teeth," she said.
Today, the tribe maintains a hotel and 1,273 slot machines fewer than Thunder Valley's 3,500, but enough to jump-start other enterprises. Among them: dental and medical clinics, one of the few dialysis centers in Northern California, an early learning center and an after-school tutoring and counseling program. It also has a wellness center that includes a gym, a spa and a pool. Everything is open to the public.
The tribe co-owns a rice mill, and its 13,000 farmland acres include walnut and almond orchards.
Other commercial property includes a new building housing the Colusa County District Attorney's Office, with bulletproof glass and remote-control cameras. Its co-generation plant produces power for the casino, hotel and tribal offices. Its wastewater treatment plant contracts for business.
Cachil Dehe Wintun is one of the few tribes that runs its own casino, opting not to rely on a management group, said CEO Bonnie Pullen. Pullen and tribal planner Tammy Fullerton have guided the tribe's projects and investment.
The tribe provides insurance for all 600 employees, Pullen said. "We've taken tax-takers and turned them into tax-makers who buy homes and spend their money at local hardware stores, gas stations, markets," Pullen said.
No tribal member is on welfare, only one has diabetes and all live on the tribe's 200- acre reservation. "It's been a complete turnaround," said Ambar Mohammed, the tribe's executive affairs manager.
The tribe helps care for the community as well, supporting local charities. It has donated $2.6 million to Colusa County over the past two years, Mohammed said. And when storms and floods have knocked out power and left people homeless, many have taken refuge at its casino, gym and community center.
Colusa County officials applaud the tribe's metamorphosis. "When I first moved here they had a little bingo," said Denise Carter, chairwoman of the Board of Supervisors, who works out at the tribe's wellness center several times a week. "It's been incredible to see them grow over the past 20 years."
The tribe, down to 30 adult voting members, is determined to restore traditions suppressed for a century after white settlers discovered the wild river valley.
The tribe once clung to life at the old reservation on the river several miles north of the modern casino. For generations, members survived by picking fruit and nuts in nearby orchards.
Wayne Mitchum and Longmire remember filling lard buckets with prunes, apricots, walnuts and almonds for $3 an hour. "Now it's turned around; we are the farmers," Longmire said. "It's nice to sit in the shade under our trees, rather than having to work them."
The new reservation features a gated community and a cedar roundhouse for ceremonies, one of only four in the state.
On a recent Saturday night, the casino was packed with gamblers playing slot machines that have financed the tribe's spiritual and cultural comeback.
Across the parking lot, about 100 Indians filled the roundhouse built by Wayne Mitchum and his son with casino cash a decade ago. The Indians observed an ancient ceremony known as Hesi or Kuksu. It was once called the "Bighead cult," named after the dancers' splendid headdresses made of porcupine quills, hydrangea blossoms and white feathers.
They sat on blankets and benches in a circle around an open fire pit that sent smoke swirling through a hole in the ceiling. Children and elders prayed and danced side by side to the beat of drums.
The sacred dance was led by two dancers clad in ceremonial skins and headdresses, one dressed as a mythical animal, the other a hunter. Around the fire, the hunter with a little bow stalked the birdlike figure.
Tribal members tossed pennies into the circle, and a path of coins led to the fire pit. "We use pennies as prayers because the state of California says we can't use clam shells from the river," said Rick Mitchum.
Other than that, the ceremony is practiced the way it has been for 200 years, he said. "The casino's allowed us to do this," he said.
The tribe, which is down to one fluent Patwin speaker, has used gaming revenues to create its own Patwin dictionary and phrasebook. Along with its medical clinic, the tribe has nursed its ancient healing arts, which rely on herbal medicines and prayer.
While other California tribes have fought over casino revenues and festering family feuds, "disenrollment's not an issue for us because we only have 30 voting members," Rick Mitchum said. "Our sense of value is a little bit different. We're not too worried about possessions."
The tribe is still evolving, Wayne Mitchum said. The monthly per capita payments of several thousand dollars aren't tied to educational attainment, so there's not much incentive to finish school.
"We've developed our own welfare state, and this instant wealth is like a double-edged sword," he said. "Everybody has a home. We have one generation that goes to the mailbox and picks up a check. We're trying to cure that and work with the babies and young adults."
Wayne Mitchum does see signs of progress. "Our kids are finishing high school," he said. "We even have some in trade schools and kids are looking at going to college, which is way cool compared to my generation."
Call The Bee's Stephen Magagnini, (916) 321-1072. Follow him on Twitter @stevemagagnini.