Timbisha Shoshone Tribe Secures Approval for Long-Awaited Casino in Inyokern

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After a long, winding journey full of hurdles and legal battles, the Timbisha Shoshone Tribe, based out of scorching Death Valley, has finally received a green light from the US Interior Department to build a casino in Inyokern, California. The approval has come two years after a similar venture planned for Ridgecrest dissolved into a fiasco.

With roots stretching back over a millennium in Death Valley, which saw its mercury crack one record after another just yesterday, the tribe has been seeking permission to construct another casino – this one placed a considerable 130 miles away from its home on the reservation. However, their journey toward that goal has been fraught with challenges.

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On July 8th, a note in the Federal Register indicated that the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), a division of the Interior Department, would take the land designated for the casino into trust — a vital condition for tribal gaming. The news first found daylight in The Ridgecrest Daily Independent.

The proposed casino is set to be built in Inyokern, an officially recognized spot lying approximately eight miles west of Ridgecrest and about two hours’ drive east from Bakersfield, California. The tribe, which comprises roughly 300 members, dreams of erecting a 20,000 square-foot casino, complete with a gaming floor spanning 10,000 square feet and a hotel tower towering three stories high. They have chosen a site that is situated 130 miles away from their reservation in Furnace Creek, deep within the heart of Death Valley.

Their traditional home territory, however, doesn’t permit the tribe to build a casino within its boundaries as it forms part of the Death Valley National Park and thus falls under federal restrictions. Owing to this, the tribe has been attempting for nearly a decade to bring their casino plans to life in the Ridgecrest region.

While initially greeted with support from the city council, with a few dissenting voices cropping up, the project soon found itself in hot water. In 2016, Ridgecrest entered into a municipal services agreement (MSA) with the Timbisha as the tribe sought approval from the BIA. However, the tide turned as locals voiced concerns over social factors and the impact on water resources.

In a dramatic turn of events, Ridgecrest officials decided to pull the plug on the agreement in late 2018, arguing that the project was tearing the community apart. They further contended that the MSA had reached its expiration date in October 2018 as no land sale had taken place.

This decision was met with strong legal rebuttals from the Timbisha, who claimed that under the MSA terms, the city was still required to sell the land and even threatened litigation. Concurrently, the tribe accused the BIA of intentionally stalling the project approval, sparking a lawsuit in May 2019 that alleged undue political interference.

In the midst of this chaos, a letter from the BIA emerged, showing project approval dating back to September 27th, 2018 — just before the city council claimed the MSA had lapsed. The tribe asserted that the letter was intentionally suppressed by someone within the BIA to grant the council ample time to withdraw from the agreement.

By 2020, the city council reached a settlement with the tribe and its developer, Global Investment Enterprise Ridgecrest (GIER), agreeing to sell the land to GIER for $5.5 million in exchange for a cessation of all pending litigation. Their joy was short-lived, however, as the pandemic struck and funding for the project evaporated. The revived land-sale agreement expired in February 2022.

Yet, they have finally caught what could be a much-needed break. The BIA’s recent approval of the new location marks a crucial leap forward for the tribe’s plans to shift their project eight miles west. Despite all their trials, the Timbisha Shoshone tribe’s vision to build a casino in Inyokern remains alive and strong.