Francis Somday stood in slacks and a tie, his loafers brushing the dry grass and sandy soil on a hill where a Siuslaw Indian village bustled more than a century ago.
The coastal site overlooks an estuary of reeds and brackish water on the north fork of the Siuslaw River where tribal members once fished for salmon and gathered oysters and clams.
An Indian cemetery surrounded by Douglas firs holds unmarked graves dating back centuries.
These cultural ties were key to the tribe’s legal victory this month over local residents who opposed plans to put a tribal casino on the site of the former village.
“This is the only hope for self sufficiency of this tribe,” said Somday, the tribal administrator. A sign at the property’s entrance reads: “Yes. Casino coming soon.”
When it opens, the casino will be the first in Oregon on nonreservation land.
Gov. Ted Kulongoski last week announced he would not appeal a federal judge’s dismissal of a lawsuit against building the casino, ending a six-year dispute.
Local residents are not happy about his decision.
“If a casino comes to Florence, the town will change and not for the better,” said anti-casino organizer Debby Todd, who is part Cherokee but opposes Indian gaming.
“It’s real nice here. You go to the grocery store and the post office and you got all your socializing done.”
Residents packed council meetings, voicing fears of traffic snarls, gambling addiction and an influx of seedy characters, and the vague sense that the sleepy, oceanfront community of Victorian homes and shops selling knickknacks and lawn sculptures made from driftwood would change forever. “No casino” billboards popped up along the coastal highway, U.S. 101.
At issue, say casino opponents, is the practice of “casino shopping,” or tribes from California to Connecticut snapping up land for casinos near large markets.
People Against a Casino Town, an anti-casino group, collected 2,300 signatures in this town of 7,500 people nestled along the Siuslaw river 150 miles north of the California border.
Mayor Alan Burns, a part-timer who is also owner of the town’s only funeral home, rejected an offer from the tribes to pay for an additional policeman.
In a letter to the governor, Burns said the tribe misled Florence by first saying it would build a cultural center on the site of the former Indian village — called the Hatch Tract — and later announcing plans for a casino.
The city council voted to exclude the tract from water and sewage service.
The Hatch Tract is a promising site for a casino. It will be the closest casino to Eugene, the state’s third-largest city.
The tribe is unapologetic. Officials are quick to cite Oregon coastal Indians’ history of persecution as the reason they had no significant property before purchasing the site of their former village in 1996.
“Congress didn’t pass the 1988 Indian Gaming Regulatory Act for the city of Florence,” Somday said. “It was created so tribes could become self sufficient.”
Under the act, only land owned by tribes prior to 1988 qualified for casino development — but there were exceptions for tribes that recently took land into trust because of cultural ties.
Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton wrote in a letter last fall to New York Gov. George E. Pataki that it is unclear whether tribes have a legal right to off-reservation gaming.
“While I do not signal an absolute bar on off-reservation gaming, I am extremely concerned that the principles underlying the enactment of the (law) are being stretched in ways that Congress never imagined,” she wrote.