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Waiting for Tish Non 

While tribal members are eager for the Bear River Band's new houses near Loleta, others fear urbanization of a rural haven

Marcie Jake, 72, sat in a stuffed blue plush chair in the small living room/dining room/kitchen of the tiny apartment she shares with Leonard David Frye in Basayo Village, a HUD-funded tribal housing complex owned by the Bear River Band of Rohnerville Rancheria. It was warm and half sunny outside, a typical noontime in mid-May with predictions of rain or shine equally likely. The door was open, and smoke trailed from the cigarette in Jake's left hand, propped above an ashtray on a side table, toward the open air.

Frye, 75, sat nearby, quietly missing out on most of the conversation on account of his poor hearing. But he liked a joke. Jake, raising her voice, asked him how old he was: "I'm 34!" he said. The space around them was cluttered with things in bags on the floor, stuff on the tables, stacked boxes in the hall. Hardly enough room to live in, let alone store things, said Jake.

Overhead, the ceiling rumbled under a cavalcade of little feet as several children in the upstairs apartment ran across the floor; they opened and slammed their front door and clattered down the stairs. They clattered back up the stairs. And down again. And it's been more or less like that since Jake moved in four years ago, after leaving Del Norte County to come home to Humboldt County at the urging of her son. Jake grew up not far from here, on the Rohnerville Rancheria when it was still on Loop Road near Fortuna.

"I don't want to comment on it," she said about the noise, her lips pursed. It wouldn't be politic, is what she meant. But the walls were thin, anyone could tell that.

Jake said when she moved into the apartment, she'd expected to be surrounded by other seniors. But the list of tribal members waiting for housing overflowed with young families, some living at the time as far away as San Diego, some homeless. In the end, the few seniors who did move in were outnumbered.

"I told my son, I don't want to live here," Jake said. "I said, 'You watch, in two weeks all hell's gonna break loose.' And sure enough, two weeks to the day all hell broke loose. People fightin' and drinking, drugs and the whole bit. Kids gettin' beat. Down here" -- she gestured out the door -- "they had an ax and knife fight. And I thought, 'I'm going back to Hiouchi.' And I'm still saying that today."

But she won't flee to Hiouchi. Because, by the end of this year, Jake likely will be in a nice new house on a spacious half acre at Tish Non Village, a master-planned community the Bear River Band plans to build near Loleta.

On May 12, the Bureau of Indian Affairs published a Notice of Final Determination to accept into trust 113 acres near Loleta for the benefit of the Bear River Band of Rohnerville Rancheria. Thirty days from the date of the notice, in June, the tribe, which bought the land in 2005, will sign the deed over to the United States of America. That procedure will release the land from state and local control, granting the Bear River Band sovereignty over it.

And then, the Rancheria can commence construction of Tish Non Village: 58 houses (26 will go up, to start) and a community center, and later a ballfield, a recreation center open to everyone, not just tribal members (with a competition-sized swimming pool, indoor track, basketball court and more) plus a hotel, an assisted living center, and, perhaps, an RV park. And it will all be designed and built by local companies.

The future village site is on a hilly green perch above the Eel River Valley, less than two miles southeast of Loleta and directly across Singley Road from the Rancheria's existing 60-acre trust land. With a good arm, you could stand in the Bear River Casino parking lot and toss a rock into the site's tangle of wild radish and grass. Or, from the tribe's new mini mart and gas station, your rock might hit the stack of blue and gray utility pipes waiting to be installed on it.

It took about four years for the Bureau to accept the land into trust. An environmental assessment of the proposed project had to be done, and public comments fielded. The tribe had to prove there was actual buildable land on the property -- turns out there's about 80 acres of it -- and that the land was in fact within the aboriginal territory of the Wiyot Nation, to which the Rancheria belongs.

And there was a frustrating technical holdup: The previous owner, cattlewoman Edith Fearrien, had leased the mineral rights beneath the land to Foothills Resources, a gas and oil exploration company. Those rights include surface access. So, in order to build houses on the site, the tribe needed to regain control of the mineral rights. Otherwise Foothills would have the right to roll a rig right into the community and drill through somebody's nice flower garden (for instance). The tribe and Foothills had agreed to a lease transfer, but before it could go through Foothills entered bankruptcy, which legally prohibited it from relinquishing the lease. The trust process stopped, until last December when Foothills' lease expired.

For the Bear River Band, which spent a quarter of the last century landless, its members scattered to the wind, the ability to finally move forward with Tish Non will be huge -- a chance to bring more of its 400-some members, most of whom live off reservation and even in other states, physically back into the fold and make them homeowners, to boot.

For some of the band's non-tribal neighbors, however, Tish Non looms as an urban menace to their peaceful, pasture-centric way of life -- already marred, some say, by the casino. The County of Humboldt, likewise, frets about the impact of a higher density development in an area zoned for rural residential and agricultural use, as well as about the loss of property taxes combined with a likely increase in demand for fire and emergency services. The county loses zoning control of the project when the land is taken into trust, but it still has to provide fire trucks.

"Tish Non" means "three rivers." Before contact with Euro-Americans, the ancestors of the Bear River Band of Rohnerville Rancheria members lived within the Eel River Delta region, fed by the Eel, Bear and Mattole rivers. They belonged to the Wiyot Nation, whose aboriginal territory extended from present day Rio Dell, through Alton and the Eel River Valley, up onto Bear River Ridge, through Fortuna, Eureka and Arcata to the south side of the Little River. Beyond that was Yurok territory.

Bear River Wiyot made trails that took them over the swooping green hills down to the river, to the beach, where they fished and clammed.

Post-contact, the people were scattered. Some were killed, some sent away. A reservation for those left was proposed, then dropped. Then the federal government gathered many of these "landless and homeless Indians" into small rancherias, sometimes mixing in people from other tribes. In 1910, the Bear River Band of Rohnerville Rancheria was established on a 15-acre parcel near Fortuna.

But then the government decided to mainstream the people, and terminated many of the rancherias -- took away their trust status, deeded the land to the individuals and made the people sign away their "Indian-ness." By the 1960s, there was no more "Bear River Band of Rohnerville Rancheria." The people scattered.

In 1983, the terminated rancherias won a class-action lawsuit -- Tillie Hardwick v. the United States of America -- which charged that the terminations had been illegal. The rancherias, including the Bear River Band, were restored as federally recognized tribes.

But there was no more Bear River Band land. Nearly all of it had been sold out of Indian hands. The Rancheria's been slowly trying to pull itself back together ever since.

Aileen Meyer, the Bear River Band's current tribal council secretary, and the tribal chairperson from 1987 to 1988, helped reorganize the rancheria in those early days when it was restored. And she led the search for a new land base, eventually finding the 60 acres on Singley Hill where the Rancheria sits today.

"It was a long, hard ride," said Meyer, 66, in an interview a couple of weeks ago at the Rancheria's offices, where she was working her way through a stack of checks, signing each one with a strong, graceful flourish. Meyer has gray-tinged dark hair, short and feathery, and she exudes forcefulness. She wore a black sweatshirt, with the Bear River Casino logo on it, over a bright red blouse, and sipped from a bottle of water likewise labeled "Bear River Casino." "We first looked at some land in Hydesville. Oh, it was beautiful land. But the neighbors thought the land wasn't 'good enough' for us."

"They just didn't want Indians," added Bruce Merson, sitting next to Meyer.

Merson, who has short white hair and blue eyes, is the tribe's housing director and casino comptroller. He isn't Indian, but he's worked with the tribe for 10 years. "The tribe has really treated me like family," he said, to which Meyer joked, "He's like that guy in Dances With Wolves: We can't get rid of him."

But the Hydesville land, she continued, it actually was in a floodplain and genuinely not suitable. And it was too small, as were most of the parcels the tribe looked at.

The tribe had 160 members then. Now it has more than 400. Only 30 of them live on the current Rancheria trust land, in 10 houses, because only 20 acres of the site was buildable -- the rest was silty -- and the casino takes up a good portion of that. Most Rancheria members live off the reservation -- about 150 in Humboldt and Del Norte counties, said Merson, and another 150 elsewhere in California, and in Nevada and other states. Another 40 or so live in Basayo Village, which Meyer agrees has issues.

"The apartments are small, the families are growing," she said. "It's getting worse. We need to get those people into bigger homes."

About half of the first 26 homes at Tish Non will be given to current Basayo Village residents, young families and elders alike. The other half will be given to low- and moderate-income tribal members living elsewhere off the reservation. They won't have house payments, but residents will pay a homeowners fee to cover such things as utilities. And though basic rectangles, the houses, designed by JAG Architects and built by Pierson Co., will have water-heated stained-cement floors and big porches.

Merson said after these initial 26 homes are filled, he'll still have 48 families on his housing assistance waiting list. Meyer added that the tribe hopes to someday offer homes that higher income tribal members can buy.

And yet more people are coming home.

"In the last year, I know of at least 10 tribal members who relocated back to Humboldt County, from Oregon, for job opportunities at the casino and with the tribe," said Merson. Last year, he added, the tribe employed 320 people for a total of $10.6 million compensation plus health and other benefits.

"They shoot their guns all night, they have noisy dogs, there's a lot of foot traffic," said Maretta Calkins one day, over the phone, a few weeks ago. "And then you get people sneaking around the back way [up Singley Road through the neighborhood, instead of down the shorter, quicker route to Highway 101] when they drink too much at the casino. They're just not the best neighbors."

Calkins lives up the hill from the Rancheria. She fears the Rancheria's expansion and loathes the casino, which she claims has brought a plague of crime, drunk driving and other commotion to her rural neighborhood. No, she says, she doesn't ever gas up at the Rancheria's new Pump & Play gas station/mini mart/gambling zone, "because they don't pay taxes." She also resents that the Rancheria doesn't have to follow county zoning on trust lands.

But the road's the main concern. The Singley Hill Homeowners Association, in fact, has been in a protracted legal battle with the Rancheria over the obligation, per its liquor license, to abate nuisances -- namely, perceived impacts to Singley Road by casino traffic.

A couple of weeks ago, Singley Hill resident Terry McVicker walked along Singley Road, pointing out the trouble spots she too blames on casino-related traffic. "It used to be so quiet here," she said.

In between the intermittent too-fast cars, you could still hear a cow heave a deep breath over by the fence, or horse teeth tearing grass. Here, said McVicker, is where a car passed another car on the uphill, nearly sideswiping her parked car. See that 15 mph curve sign? That's where a truck rolled one night, pinning an occupant under it in the bushes. And here, in this curve with the cypress trees, is where numerous speedsters, including an inebriated teenager, have lost control. There's where people keep driving into the fence. And, she pointed down Echo Lane, there was a burglary down there just the other day. McVicker stopped and pointed at the pavement. Look, she said. Some drunk stole a farm machine from a nearby field one night and drove it along the road, punching in deep stuttery ruts.

But McVicker isn't anti-casino. "The people of California voted to allow Indian gaming," she said. Nor is she against Tish Non Village. "Nope, nope. The thing that can be controlled is the safety on this road. We could live side by side, doing our own business."

But finding a mutually agreeable and effective way to force, or entice, casino and other Rancheria traffic south toward Highway 101, instead north through the neighborhood, has proved elusive.

Aileen Meyer disagrees that the casino is causing that much trouble on the road. "I resent it," she said of the complaints. "Because I live here." She says the rancheria has tried various road solutions, working with the county because it is a county road. They experimented with multiple speed humps. The neighbors didn't like them -- they said drivers just gunned their engines to get over the humps, or else drove around them and up onto people's lawns. They suggested a roadblock across Singley, with breakaway gates for emergency vehicles. The CHP and the fire responders nixed that one. They proposed barriers along Singley and Bear River Drive, the casino exit, directing people south; the BIA said no, there's no safety issue on Bear River Drive. The casino then got Caltrans to kindly put up a sign to help steer traffic between 101 and the casino and its restaurant -- but first Caltrans required the tribe to build a separate restaurant entrance, away from the rest of the casino.

"And that is another appeasement we did for the neighbors," said Meyer.

"We also paid $1.1 million to make that south end of Singley Road straight and nice," added Merson. "And that was a totally voluntary effort."

The road concerns the county, too. That, and other considerable issues. Last week, by phone, the county's community development services director, Kirk Girard, noted that if a private person had come to the county and applied to do the same project the Rancheria is proposing, on the same site, he would have advised the Board of Supervisors to say "no." It entails a major conversion of agriculture lands into residential. No other local tribe has proposed a project quite like it, he said. "However," Girard added, "the history of the Bear River Tribe is very unique. Its land has been whittled down. So for the tribe I can see the project does make sense."

County Supervisor Jimmy Smith, in a phone interview, said that although the county will soon lose jurisdictional say over what Bear River does with the Fearrien land, he has been steadily begging the tribe, in person, to commit to regular consultations with the county, the neighbors, the local service districts and others who might be affected by the development. He and the rest of the board have also asked that the tribe commit to minimizing, and mitigating, off-reservation impacts. And, they've told the tribe they'd like to see it combine resources to support mutual services, such as hooking up with the Loleta Community Services District to built joint wastewater and water treatment plants. As for that, the tribe has responded that wouldn't be economical -- it would mean dealing with the state coastal commission, and why do that if you don't have to?

The county will lose $22,000 in property taxes once the land's taken into trust. It's not much, says the tribe, and the tribe donates far more than that each year to local service clubs, schools, the Loleta Volunteer Fire Department and more. As well, the tribe has regularly funded a position in the Sheriff's Office, and agreed recently to again give the county $66,000 to pay for the position for another year. Smith wants the tribe to commit to funding the position multiple years.

"The tribe is not obligated to do anything," he said. "But if you build 26 more houses -- and if you were to build an RV park or other facilties there, on top of a gas station, mini mart, casino, restaurant -- you're creating an attraction and you're going to have a lot more people, and you're going to have more calls for services."

Smith says the county can't count on the small gaming impact fund the state is supposed to disperse to areas affected by casinos. "Some years we get a little dab of money to split amongst four gaming areas of impact, because there's four casinos."

On May 18, the tribe wrote to the Board that it would, indeed, conduct outreach in the immediate community around it. It would continue its historic level of donations. And, it said less specifically, it was committed to working with others to offset impacts.

Josefina Streeter, 28, is getting ready to leave her hometown of Carson City, Nev. She's only been to Humboldt County once, when she was 8. But this winter, she'll move here with her husband and their four children. Streeter's grandfather was Wiyot, and she's an enrolled Wiyot member. Recently, she learned she'd been awarded a four-bedroom house at Tish Non.

Streeter wants to move for practical reasons -- she'll be a homeowner now, not a renter. But she's looking forward to getting to know her relations, who include current Rancheria chairperson Leonard Bowman, her cousin. She and her husband will have to quit their jobs in Nevada to move -- he's a commercial driver, and she works at the Washoe Tribe's senior center cooking and driving. But Streeter said they're confident they'll find work in Humboldt. "We've always worked, we have good work backgrounds," she said. "And my 9-year-old son's really excited. He's been going on Google Earth and looking at where we're moving, and saying, 'There's the ocean! There's the rivers!'"

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Heidi Walters

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Heidi Walters has been a staff writer with the North Coast Journal since 2005.

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