This year is shaping up to be another major step in the progression of the Chicken Ranch Rancheria of Me-Wuk Indians of California since regaining its federally recognized status in 1983.
The small Native American tribe with less than 40 members is in the middle of construction on the first major expansion of its casino off Chicken Ranch Road near Jamestown since 2010.
A study will also be conducted this spring in partnership with California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, to determine the best types of agricultural uses for about 600 acres that the tribe owns off Highway 108 across from the casino.
That’s in addition to the tribe’s recent purchase of the historic Jamestown Hotel, which it took ownership of on Friday.
“We know we need to constantly move, adapt, and change when it comes to business,” said Tribal Chairman Lloyd Mathiesen.
Since becoming the tribal chairman in 2010, Mathiesen has worked to grow and diversify the tribe’s business portfolio and re-acquire its ancestral lands that were taken by the United States and California governments in the 1950s.
Mathiesen said the ultimate goal is to create a sustainable foundation for future generations, as well as provide opportunities for people in the surrounding community.
“We’re late bloomers, but we’re off and running now,” Mathiesen said.
The tribe lost nearly everything due to state laws passed in the 1950s and 1960s called the California Rancheria Termination Acts that stripped it of its federally recognized status.
More than 100 tribes across the U.S. lost their recognition during the same period as part of broader national policy intended to assimilate Native Americans into mainstream society.
Over 2 million acres of trust land was removed from protected status as a result of the policy, including most of the Chicken Ranch Rancheria, much of which was sold to non-Native people.
The tribe and 16 other small California Rancherias were able to regain their federally recognized status following a landmark case in 1983 filed against the government by Tillie Hardwick, a Pomo Indian woman.
In 1985, the tribe reorganized under the leadership of the late Karl Mathiesen and opened a bingo hall on the reservation that later grew into the existing Chicken Ranch Casino.
The expansion that’s underway will add about 66 percent to the casino’s gaming floor, including nine table games, more than 240 slot machines, and a coffee shop, all of which will be smoke-free.
Mathiesen said the casino’s existing gaming floor is typically at about 90 to 95 percent capacity on any given day. They are hoping to open the new side by May.
“It’s going to allow our guests to have a much better experience,” Mathiesen said. “Hopefully, it will drive more business as well.”
Another casino-related project the tribe has been working on is a new entrance from Mackey Ranch Road, less than a mile west of the current entrance from Chicken Ranch Road, which includes constructing a roundabout on Highway 108.
Mathiesen said the tribe is working with Caltrans on the roundabout, which he doesn’t anticipate will start construction until sometime in 2020.
The tribe’s recent purchase of the Jamestown Hotel at 18153 Main St. is also intended to provide more amenities for guests at the casino while also expanding the tribe’s economic footprint in the community.
Mathiesen said they were in talks over the past year with former owner Charlie Morgan about the purchase, which also included the buildings behind and to the south of the hotel up to Donovan Street.
“We wanted to do something in Jamestown because that’s where we all grew up after the state took our land in the ‘50s,” he said. “We’re excited for this next venture.”
The tribe is hoping to partner with Columbia College to provide opportunities at the hotel for students in the school’s hospitality management program, Mathiesen said.
Diversifying the tribe’s businesses is important to the tribe because it depends on the revenue to fund the tribal government that provides medical care, housing, utilities and other services to its members.
That’s another reason why the tribe is planning to begin a study this spring of the roughly 600 acres of ancestral lands near the casino that it purchased one piece at a time over the years.
Mathiesen said the tribe’s community development and resources director, Stephanie Suess, helped connect them with a team of professors from the Irrigation Training and Research Center at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo.
The team will study the soils to determine the best types of agricultural uses the land can support.
“You’ve got to do soil sampling, figure out what crops will grow, how much water you’ll need and where to get that,” Mathiesen said. “We know it’s going to be a few years out, but that’s why it’s good to get started now.”
Mathiesen said also wants to use the land for agriculture because it’s an important part of the community’s past that’s been steadily disappearing. He suggested the possibility of teaming up with local schools to host educational program on the land.
However, the tribe’s plans for agriculture all depend on obtaining a source of water.
Suess and the tribe’s water consultant have been monitoring a plan passed by the State Water Resources Control Board last year that would divert 40 percent of that water flows from the Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced rivers into the lower San Joaquin River.
One viable potential source of water the tribe has identified is New Melones Reservoir, which is fed by the Stanislaus River watershed.
Water regulators who supported the plan say the additional water is needed for dwindling native salmon runs and prevent an ecological crisis in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the primary source of drinking water for about half of all California residents and more than a third of the state’s irrigated farmland.
Regulators pledged to work with stakeholders on voluntary agreements regarding river flows after the plan was passed amid protests from Central Valley farmers and others, but those have yet to pan out.
Contact Alex MacLean at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 588-4530.