The Cowlitz Tribe's plans for a reservation and casino have fueled a bitter battle including questions over whether the tribe has roots here.

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LA CENTER, Clark County — It was a Tuesday afternoon at the Last Frontier Casino and already six games of Texas Hold’em were under way, with mostly middle-aged men sitting stone-faced around felt-covered poker tables.

The Last Frontier is one of four minicasinos that straddle the main drag into town. They’re the only card joints in the county, and they have been a welcome boost for this former farm town.

But for several years now, this also has been the center of a clash over history and money: The Cowlitz Indian Tribe wants to turn an old dairy farm outside of town into a reservation, and build a huge casino complex to lure gamblers, diners and shoppers north from the Portland area.

It has been one of the most contentious battles over tribal gaming this state has seen.

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The lines are not drawn just between the tribe and the cardroom owners, who fear being drowned by the competition. It has also brought opposition from an Indian tribe in Oregon, which owns a casino that would compete. And it’s drawing fire from locals who say it would forever change their community.

Yet the Cowlitz Tribe says it has thousands of local supporters who back the casino and the tribe’s efforts to help its 3,600 members. They argue that the development would be a much bigger economic boost than the cardrooms ever were.

But the debate has also become a fight over history, and whether the Cowlitz Indians, who got federal recognition just eight years ago, can even claim traditional territory in the area.

“I’ve never seen the likes of it,” said state Sen. Margarita Prentice, D-Seattle, one of four lawmakers who votes on gaming compacts between tribes and the state. “It’s the meanest one I’ve seen.”

Building a reservation

The Cowlitz got federal recognition in 2000, and it was upheld on appeal in 2002. The tribe has had administrative offices in Longview for years, but since recognition, it has opened health clinics in Longview and Vancouver and is turning an old school in Toledo, Lewis County, into apartments for elders.

Of the state’s 29 federally recognized tribes, the Cowlitz are one of the only ones without a reservation (the Samish Indian Nation in Skagit County also does not have a reservation). The Cowlitz have applied to the federal government to turn 152 acres the tribe purchased into trust land — which would give them the right to build and operate a Vegas-style casino, with a full range of gaming activities from slot machines to card games.

The Cowlitz vision for the land just off Interstate 5 includes a hotel, restaurants and shops and eventually, administrative offices, a cultural center and other tribal services.

For the casino, the tribe has teamed up with the Mohegan Tribe of Connecticut, operators of the country’s second-largest casino, to build up to 160,000 square feet of gaming space. Plans aren’t final, but the casino alone would likely cost at least $500 million.

The casino would be managed cooperatively by the Mohegans and the son of the Cowlitz tribal chairman for its first seven years.

The application to turn the land into reservation trust land is pending with the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), but no one expects a decision until the next presidential administration.

A gambling hub

La Center became the county’s gambling hub in the late 1980s, after Vancouver banned cardrooms and their owners migrated north. Unlike tribal casinos, non-Indian cardrooms or “minicasinos” are restricted to poker and blackjack games.

“No one else wanted them,” said Betty Sue Morris, a former state legislator who now chairs the Clark County Board of Commissioners. “La Center was in hard shape financially and said, ‘We’ll take you.’ “

La Center has grown from 450 people in 1990 to roughly 2,000 now, and it receives nearly 75 percent of its entire operating budget — or about $3.4 million a year — from gambling taxes.

No other city in the state even comes close to that level of dependence on gambling taxes.

Neither of the cardroom owners, nor La Center Mayor Jim Irish, responded to interview requests.

But Irish has publicly said in the past that he opposes the Cowlitz casino because it would be bad for his city and its economy. The City Council, as well as the councils in Vancouver and nearby Woodland, have passed resolutions vowing to sue the BIA if it approves the Cowlitz’s trust-land request.

The opposition

From his house on five acres just outside town, Al Alexanderson is happy to explain why he doesn’t want a tribal casino near his property.

“Noise, lights, oil dripping off hundreds of RVs, generators running day and night,” Alexanderson said. “It’ll be real different than what is here now, and it won’t be beneficial to the critters or the neighbors.”

There are plenty of other reasons his neighbors oppose the casino here, he said. Some are morally opposed to gambling. Others worry about traffic congestion, housing shortages and increased crime. Some are concerned that it would bring foreign-born workers, whose children could overwhelm the school system. Still others worry about the casino’s impact on a state park about a mile east of I-5.

But he and other opponents also argue that the Cowlitz don’t belong around here at all. They should build their enterprise farther north, in the Kelso or Toledo areas, where their old village sites and burial grounds are, Alexanderson said.

“Wrong tribe, wrong place,” he said, adding the Cowlitz “may have traveled and traded here, but it’s not their homeland.”

That argument has been backed by the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, which operates the Spirit Mountain Casino about 85 miles south, west of Salem, Ore.

The Grand Ronde also argue that the Cowlitz’s traditional homeland is about 50 miles north of La Center.

“This is not about a tribe fighting a tribe,” said Siobhan Taylor, a spokeswoman for the Grand Ronde. “It’s a tribe fighting for what’s right in terms of land rights and history.”

The Grand Ronde also join many La Center residents who point out that the management arrangement would mean Dave Barnett, the son of tribal chairman John Barnett, “will make millions before their tribal people see a dime,” as Taylor puts it.

“It’s about greed,” she said.

Alexanderson and others contend the tribe even picked the casino site to benefit the younger Barnett. He bought 70 acres in 2001, and the tribe took out options to purchase the rest of the 152-acre parcel, which it did after receiving federal recognition.

“This project has been marked by deception and an in-your-face attitude from the beginning,” Alexanderson said.

“More than a casino”

At the Oak Tree Restaurant in nearby Woodland, longtime resident Myrtle Adams spotted the Cowlitz Indian Tribe emblem embroidered on the back of Phil Harju’s jacket and came over for a chat.

“I’m all for it,” Adams told Harju, who was having lunch with John Barnett, the tribal chairman. “All for the casino.”

Barnett and Harju say they get that a lot. They call casino opponents a “well-funded, vocal minority,” and point to 3,000 signatures they’ve collected from locals as proof of grass-roots support.

A reservation and casino would make it possible to provide education, housing, health care and other services to the tribe’s members, they say.

“We’re going to be good neighbors,” Harju said. “What the Cowlitz Tribe wants to do is to take care of the Cowlitz people.”

And he rejects accusations of cronyism flung at the Barnetts. The younger Barnett took it upon himself to research potential sites, and chose the La Center property in part because there are no other tribal casinos within 50 miles, John Barnett said.

“For many Cowlitz members, this is more than a casino — this is a homeland for the Cowlitz back in Cowlitz country,” Harju said. “I can’t believe the audacity of people who want to tell us where our reservation should be.”

Tribe’s historic presence

There’s no question the Cowlitz had a historic presence in the area, said Stephen Beckham, a history professor at Lewis & Clark College in Portland.

Even though the name “Cowlitz” doesn’t appear in the journals of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, the explorers in 1805 wrote of the “Hu-lu-etul” people as living along the Columbia and Lewis rivers.

Most scholars now recognize the Hu-lu-etul people as the Cowlitz, Beckham said.

“Admittedly it’s the south part [of Cowlitz territory] but that doesn’t mean they weren’t there — they were,” Beckham said.

But it’s an argument that hasn’t swayed casino opponents. They think a modern interstate and proximity to Portland are bigger motivators to the Cowlitz than their history.

“I do think it was extraordinarily aggressive [of the tribe] to select a site that would destroy the cardrooms,” Alexanderson said. “They did that with eyes wide open.”

And he says that if the Cowlitz win, there will be only one option for him and his family.

“We will cut our losses and go.”

Sara Jean Green: 206-515-5654 or sgreen@seattletimes.com