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A battle is brewing--or fermenting, we should say--in the Santa Barbara wine country of Central California. It's a fight over land and the desire of one Native American tribe to spread out. The Chumash band of Santa Ynez Mission Indians have a reservation and a casino, and the tribe wants to expand, but it's clashing with some of its rich and famous neighbors. NPR's Ina Jaffe reports.
INA JAFFE reporting:
On a weekday afternoon, the cavernous Chumash Casino is hardly jam-packed, but it's also far from empty. The gamblers are mostly older folks trying their luck at some of the 2,000 slot machines. A younger crowd shows up as the night wears on. The casino's the only thing in the Santa Ynez Valley open 24/7. Francis Snyder is the spokeswoman for the tribe.
Ms. FRANCIS SNYDER (Chumash Spokeswoman): When we opened this in August of 2003, we opened the doors to the public at midnight and there was just a stream of people coming in. It was so exciting to see that.
JAFFE: The crowds have grown, and so have the fortunes of the Chumash. Until very recently, they'd lived in deep poverty. Now the casino reportedly clears $200 million a year, and each tribal member gets 300,000. The tribe won't confirm those figures. The casino complex has grown to include a luxury hotel, three restaurants and a concert hall, all squeezed onto a narrow piece of land where the reservation runs up against the valley's main road.
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JAFFE: And just across from it is the old-fashioned center of the little town of Santa Ynez.
Ms. CAROL HERRERA (Women's Environmental Watch): Everything is family owned. There are no chains; it's all people that live here.
JAFFE: Carol Herrera heads Women's Environmental Watch. She stands on a bluff at the edge of town next to land recently purchased by the Chumash; seven acres to the west, another six to the east. The tribe's in the process of putting the land in trust, meaning that it would become federal property under the tribe's control and no longer subject to taxes or local regulations. Fear over what the Chumash might do with the land has rallied the community, says Herrera. A couple of local groups have even filed formal protests with the federal government.
Ms. HERRERA: It's supposed to be a rural, pristine, tranquil area, and everybody that lives here is going to fight very, very hard to maintain that. And we will assist them because that is the correct environmental thing to do.
JAFFE: Chumash tribal Chairman Vincent Armenta says valley residents shouldn't worry about the tribe's plans.
Mr. VINCENT ARMENTA (Chumash Tribal Chairman): We want to build a museum and cultural center, which we feel is important not only to the public but to ourselves, as well. And what a great place to have.
JAFFE: The cultural center would share the land with a retail complex and a park. In any case, Armenta says, he's willing to listen to community concerns.
Mr. ARMENTA: But as I'm listening, the individuals I'm speaking to need to understand the rights of the tribal government.
JAFFE: The tribe's sovereignty had a lot of appeal for one local resident. Fess Parker, the actor who once played Davy Crockett, is now a winemaker and real estate developer. He proposed selling the Chumash nearly 750 acres of prime agricultural land just east of town. Parker says after they put the property in trust, he would partner with them on a resort development.
Mr. FESS PARKER (Real Estate Developer): When people make the kinds of money that tribes are capable of making, that money has to be placed somewhere. They simply cannot afford to leave it in the bank.
JAFFE: When the tribe announced the deal, the local opposition went wild. They saw Parker using the tribe's sovereignty to bypass regulations protecting agricultural land. Hundreds protested. Some local restaurants stopped selling Parker's wines. But the 81-year-old Parker was resolute.
Mr. PARKER: It's not for money, it's not for me. I probably will never see the results of what I can put together. But I'm not prepared to go sit on the front porch in a rocking chair.
JAFFE: Since this interview, Parker's deal with the Chumash appears to have stalled, but the intensity of the opposition to the tribe's expansion plans hasn't died down. Drawing attention to it perhaps is a celebrity of some of the locals. Elton John's lyricist Bernie Taupin lives here, so does actress Bo Derek and bandleader Doc Severinsen. Rocker David Crosby's hilltop front yard looks across a valley of horse ranches, pasture and vineyards.
Mr. DAVID CROSBY (Singer): Isn't that pretty? OK, now stick a piece of Las Vegas in the middle of it and tell me if you'd let it happen without a fight.
JAFFE: The tribe has said it has no plans for another casino, nevertheless, Crosby, like many of his neighbors, just doesn't trust them.
Mr. CROSBY: Their attitude in general has been, `Well, you know, your parents did it to us and now we're going to do it to you.' They essentially have been very uncooperative, very unfriendly and dismissive.
JAFFE: But tribal Chairman Armenta doesn't feel obligated to explain himself to community groups.
Mr. ARMENTA: They need to understand that the tribes in California have the right to do this. We're willing to work with county government, but understand it's two governments working together.
JAFFE: In fact, the tribe and Santa Barbara County began formal negotiations last February, but earlier this month those talks collapsed. The county is now officially opposing the tribe's attempt to put the land in trust. Armenta says county officials are, quote, "basically declaring war on any issue the tribe is faced with." The county attorney says the two sides will continue to talk. Ina Jaffe, NPR News.
BLOCK: To see photos of some of the people and places involved in the casino dispute, go to our Web site, npr.org.
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