Coarsegold community, visitors troubled by Chukchansi casino closure

Sitting in a pizza parlor Friday afternoon, a longtime employee of Chukchansi Gold Resort & Casino said she was “nervous.”

The woman, who didn’t want to be named out of fear she could lose her job, was one of more than 1,000 casino employees who found themselves without work after the casino was nearly emptied Thursday night.

“It’s a hardship to families,” she said from a picnic bench at Gold Mine Pizza. “There are some families where the husband, wife and children work there.”

The casino is the largest employer in the area, she said, and a draw for many tourists.

“There are so many businesses here in the mountain area who have shut down or are struggling, and the casino keeps a lot of people coming here,” she said.

But on Friday a federal judge ordered the casino closed until at least Wednesday after armed tribal members — part of one feuding leadership faction — entered the casino to get to the tribal gaming commission office.

The employee said tribal leaders need to work together. “It’s sad the tribal members that are fighting can’t get to the root of the cause, find common ground and move forward If they are not able to let their egos go, it’s not just them and their tribe that they are hurting, it’s everybody that works there. It’s pathetic.”

She noted that casino revenues have done a lot of good for Madera County since it opened in 2003. The place created hundreds of jobs, and $1 million in grants from casino revenues are awarded to community groups and agencies annually. But the political infighting is undermining the casino’s benefits, she said.

Her husband, sitting next to her, said of the casino, “It provided her (his wife) a job, but other than a job — with all the chaos, you know, it’s actually stressful on the whole family because it puts stress on her.”

Coarsegold resident Donald Lescoulie, who lives just up the street from the casino, learned of its closure Friday afternoon when he walked to the facility to get coffee. His visit was met by security guards and law enforcement scattered throughout the property. Only hotel guests who had previously checked into their rooms were being allowed inside.

He said of the tribe, “They argue about everything forever.”

LX Lewis, a Cheyenne and Navajo artist from Auberry who was pumping gas at a nearby service station, was more sympathetic. Chukchansi’s political infighting stems from decades of “elimination, sterilization and relocation” of native people, he said.

“Little kids were put in boarding homes and missions and it broke their spirits and if you tried to speak your native tongue, your language, you are whooped, you are abused — and they are our grandparents now.”

And unfortunately, Lewis said, abuse often trickles down: “Now, our own people are doing it to ourselves. We’ve been fragmented as a people and we’re still slowly trying to rebuild.”

Diana Oliva, 63, owner of Genesis Novelties, a booth set up in the Coarsegold Historic Village, said a few “bad apples” in the tribe appear to be ruining it for everyone.

Oliva won $106 while gambling at the casino on Thursday but wasn’t allowed to claim it before the facility was evacuated. “How do I put gas in my car?” she said.

Outside the casino on Friday afternoon, Louise Coulombe of Canada had been waiting four hours for someone to bring her the $600 she’d won gambling the night before. She had flown more than 3,500 miles to the casino to celebrate her 50th birthday with friends and family.

The casino evacuation certainly put a damper on the festivities, Coulombe said, but she was glad to be shielded from potential violence.

Oliva said something similar. “They will lose a lot of money,” she said of the casino closure, “but better to lose money than lose lives.”