OAKHURST, Calif. — Scattered by a century of dispossession, the Chukchansi Indians barely cling to this mountain below Yosemite that was once homeland.
They have no reservation or rancheria. Not quite squatters and not quite homesteaders, a few dozen families live on federal land allotted to them. In the language of bureaucrats, they are known as "allottees."
But the Chukchansi do hold one asset--their designation as one of the nation's 545 federally recognized tribes--and it is a trump card tribal leaders plan to cash in on.
Last fall, a Minnesota gaming group called DreamCatcher was flipping through the Federal Register and came upon the Chukchansi on Page 54,367. Soon, the developer and tribal leaders were drafting plans for a 60,000-square-foot casino amid the giant oak and gentle streams of this Madera County mountain community.
Tribal leaders hope to deal their first hands of pai gow and Texas hold 'em in the summer of next year, but don't count on it. Since word leaked out, the Chukchansi have been bickering among themselves over the wisdom of such a project, not to mention whose allotted land will be selected for the casino--a $2-million jackpot to the winner.
And the debate has touched the larger community, with whites and Native Americans trading accusations over who is ransacking whose land.
"We've been accused by our own of going behind their back," sighed Gilbert Cordero, chairman of the tribal council. "We've been accused by whites of insensitivity to the environment."
One of the three casino sites belongs to Cordero and his family. Some Chukchansi, citing a conflict of interest, want to recall the leader.
"Whether it's my land or not, the issue is the same," he said. "This tribe needs jobs and housing. This tribe needs a health clinic and a day-care center. The casino can get us all that."
Oakhurst is dotted with well-to-do Angelenos who picked up and ran in their middle years, hoping to retire on this mountain.
Their roots run five and 10 and 15 years deep now, certainly not as deep as the Chukchansi but deep enough to have witnessed California history fold back on them.
Out of nowhere, they say, their Shangri-La has been overrun by a building boom tied to the Yosemite tourist trade. And with the planned casino and other big projects on the drawing board or under construction, the future only beckons more.
The carpetbaggers have become the carpetbagged.
"I was a community activist in Pasadena," said Bill Rihn, a retired engineer who designed seismological equipment. "I fought the traffic and smog and growth. Then my wife and I moved here a few years ago to get away from it all. Now we're faced with the very same issues and I'm fighting again."
Not too long ago, Oakhurst had no traffic lights, no fast-food restaurants and one motel. Rural and rustic, it was refuge for an odd mix of artists and society dropouts, flatlanders looking to beat the hot summers and drug smugglers looking to hide their assets.
But in the past decade, as the population doubled and redoubled and then doubled again, to 13,500 residents, main street has become one giant signboard. Burger King, McDonald's, KFC, Taco Bell. Best Western, Shilo, Ramada and Holiday Inn. There are more real estate offices than churches. Three stop lights now govern the traffic to Bass Lake, a few miles north, and to Yosemite, an hour away.
"We ought to be ashamed of ourselves," said Brad Ditton, a longtime developer and real estate broker known for good-quality projects. "We've ravaged this place."
Ditton says he feels a stitch of guilt each time he spots another backhoe--42 at last count--clawing away at the mountain. "I've subdivided probably 1,000 lots by myself but I never thought it would come to this."
In recent months, with the blessing of the Madera County Board of Supervisors, who convene 40 miles downhill, developers have broken ground on a shopping center, a Ramada Inn and a 1,000-seat theater where former members of the New Christie Minstrels will perform.
Then in February, word leaked out about the planned Chukchansi casino, and while the scope of the enterprise has been kept under wraps, it clearly would alter life here. All three prospective sites are in wooded areas with inadequate road service. One site is next to a church in the middle of a residential neighborhood.
Because the Chukchansi are a federally recognized tribe, local government has no say on the casino. This has left residents without the usual legal challenges. Instead, they must count on the U.S. Department of Interior, which handles Native American affairs, to ensure environmental safeguards.
"We have tried to make it clear that our opposition to the casino has nothing to do with the Indians," said longtime resident Harold Young, whose lawyer son once counseled the Sioux at Wounded Knee, S.D. "This is a bedroom community, for God's sake. We can't take any more of this unplanned growth without destroying the quality of life that brought us here."