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Tribal Warfare 

It’s Indian vs. Indian with Arnold in the middle, as the fight over the flood of money from reservation casinos heats up

Thursday, Sep 30 2004
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Illustration by Tra Selhtrow

CAPAY VALLEY — Paula Lorenzo, the 54-year-old, tattooed, Harley-riding chairwoman of the tiny Rumsey Band of Wintun Indians, looms over the surrounding patchwork of orchards, vineyards, and fields full of hay, horses and sunflowers in this bucolic valley about an hour northwest of Sacramento as if she were, more or less, Ben Cartwright.

If you had to pick the single most powerful and influential person in Yolo County, it would have to be this short grandmother of six — or Paula, as she’s called by just about everyone who knows her or has heard of her.

It’s one hell of a long way to come for someone born into an obscure tribe that had its traditional lands snatched away, for a youngster who was on welfare, that is, when she wasn’t working in the fields picking walnuts, tomatoes and grapes. “I hated the grapes,” she says with a laugh, waving her hand. “Too many bees.”

Paula elicits a totally different kind of buzz nowadays. A high school grad, she’s now a foundation trustee at nearby UC Davis. The charitable contributions made by her Tribal Council help float a fleet of community organizations, including the local symphony orchestra, the police and the fire department. An organizer from the hotel workers union that represents her work force goes so far as to call the boss lady a “visionary.”

She and her tribe of barely 46 souls, only half of them adults, now are the biggest private employer in the county — providing jobs for 2,500 people out of a total population of 170,000. The Rumsey have also helped bring Hewlett-Packard into the county. With the advice of some top-notch financial advisers, Paula and her tribe are heavily invested in the stock market and real estate. The office buildings they own in Sacramento have the state of California and, until recently, the IRS as tenants.

The Rumsey Band and its investment partners are also the largest owner of government-leased real estate in Illinois, collecting hefty rent from the DMV and the Department of Corrections. The city of Springfield is practically being redeveloped with money that Paula’s tribe have invested. They also own a Ford dealership. And the Rumsey are turning 300 nearby acres into a golf course.

Oh, yes. Then there’s that Cache Creek Casino and resort hotel the tribe opened this spring with a B-52’s concert, just a mile or two south of the Rez. The impoverished Rumsey edged into the gambling business in 1985, when they opened a small bingo parlor. “Back then, I was happy just to be a floor clerk,” Paula says. “I was happy to have a job.” By a decade later, the Rumsey had added a handful of primitive “pull-tab” slot machines. And Paula and the Tribal Council were socking away the money for the members. By 2000, the first Nevada-style machines were introduced, and the overall fortunes of the tribe took their definitive turn — free health care, tuition, and increasingly juicy monthly checks for everyone (with the tribe even taking care of individual tax returns).

The just-opened, all-out, whiz-bang Vegas-class casino takes matters to a whole new level of prosperity. A veritable money machine, with just under 2,000 slots in a 66,000-square-foot casino, each one cranking out maybe $300 a day, on peak days it has as many as 10,000 customers. Toss in the blackjack and pai gow tables, the 200-room luxury-level hotel, the 600-seat showroom with 12 fog machines and a state-of-the-art sound system, the gourmet restaurants and the spa, and it totals up to maybe $200 million, or maybe half again that much per year. Enough, roughly, to pay back the total investment in one calendar year.

“Yes,” Paula says with a smile. “Where we’ve come from has been a humbling experience that allows the tribe today to really enjoy life.”

“The world has changed 180 degrees for us,” Paula adds as we sit and chat in the gleaming Tribal Council chambers. “From welfare checks and state subsidies, from standing in line for government cheese, from a reservation that was really 56 acres of plowed dirt, to now being able to buy whatever we need, to all of this.”

All of this includes a reservation of the sort never seen in any cowboy movie — an idyllic home for the 26 family units, branching off only three family trees that make up this tribe. That patch of plowed dirt that Paula played on as a child has been replaced by a couple of dozen breathtakingly crafted homes, many of them mansions of 4,000 to 5,000 square feet, with detailed metalwork and custom glass, and sweeping architectural flair, nestled into a country-club setting of curving creeks and arching bridges. Squadrons of shiny Hummers, Caddies, SUVs and chromed-up hogs squat in the driveways. The ultramodern tribal offices, a new fully computer-equipped school, a community center and a performance space occupy center ground.

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