Native American Tribe Bets On Olive Oil : The Salt Once impoverished, California's Yocha Dehe tribe found success with a casino complex. Now the tribe is using its newfound wealth to grow, bottle and sell premium olive oil.

Native American Tribe Bets On Olive Oil

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Native American tribes run more than 450 casinos across the country. But one Northern California tribe is now trying to diversify its earnings by farming. As Lisa Morehouse reports, that is changing the tribe's relationship with its rural neighbors.

LISA MOREHOUSE, BYLINE: It's harvest time for olive growers in the bucolic Capay Valley, about an hour outside of Sacramento.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking foreign language).

MOREHOUSE: At one small farm, workers rake olives off branches onto a net, which they dump into bins. The fruit's trucked just down the road and pressed into oil at a state-of-the-art olive mill, in equipment imported from Florence, Italy. About 40 growers process their olives here. The mill's owned and operated by the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation. About a decade ago, former Tribal Chairman Marshal McKay visited the olive center at nearby University of California, Davis.

MARSHALL MCKAY: They had this fascinating tale about quality and quantity and the healing benefits of good, fresh oil and how it may be a burgeoning market in California.

MOREHOUSE: Now, the Yocha Dehe tribe mills, bottles and markets extra virgin oil from its own olive groves. It's used in over 200 restaurants, including the famed Chez Panisse. Only decades ago, Native Americans had all but disappeared from the Capay Valley, where they'd lived for thousands of years before European contact.

MCKAY: When outsiders came into the valley - Gold Rush prospectors, cattle ranchers, soldiers.

MOREHOUSE: McKay's ancestors fled to the hills. Many were still massacred. Those who survived were relocated to barren land.

MCKAY: It was a way of slowly killing the tribe.

MOREHOUSE: Eventually, only a few families remained. James Kinter is Yocha Dehe tribal secretary.

JAMES KINTER: I grew up in severe poverty. We used to go pick walnuts on the side of the road to get dinner.

MOREHOUSE: His mom worked in fields and as a waitress.

KINTER: She was a single mom raising three children. You know, and everybody was kind of in those situation, you know, I mean, in the tribe.

MOREHOUSE: In the 1980s, laws regulating Indian gaming began to loosen, and the tribe opened a bingo hall.

KINTER: It was great. I mean, they - to see, you know, people excited about something and it brought us together as a tribe.

MOREHOUSE: Now, they operate the huge Cache Creek Casino, which averages 2,000 visitors daily, swelling traffic on the valley's two-lane highway and reportedly earning hundreds of millions of dollars for the tribe each year. But former chairman McKay says the tribe works to keep its hundred or so members grounded, despite their newfound wealth, awarding higher incomes to members who graduate from high school or attend college full-time.

MCKAY: You know, are you working? Are you doing something for yourself instead of sitting down and just waiting for the handout?

MOREHOUSE: But that kind of money and development makes waves with some agricultural neighbors.

TOM FREDERICK: You can be a hell of a farmer with that kind of income.

MOREHOUSE: Tom Frederick and his wife own a vineyard and winery right next door to the casino. And they're worried about casino-related development in the future.

FREDERICK: It's a concentration of money and power, so we seek some balance.

MOREHOUSE: Down the valley, farmer Thaddeus Barsotti has a different take.

THADDEUS BARSOTTI: I think it's a cool story anytime you see someone go from not having a lot and taking advantage of the opportunities that they're given.

MOREHOUSE: Because he remembers growing up with tribe members in tougher times.

BARSOTTI: That's the American dream, right?

MCKAY: Yeah, that wasn't like that a few years ago.

MOREHOUSE: Former chairman Marshall McKay says growing olives has eased tensions between the tribe and their neighbors.

MCKAY: People were not looking at us in the eye. We weren't looking at them in the eye. And, you know, now it's changed.

MOREHOUSE: They're all working in agriculture now. For NPR News, I'm Lisa Morehouse in the Capay Valley.

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