Tribe believes future hinges on casino
Nicholas Fonseca was born in Sacramento, raised in San Jose (where he lived for 30 years), and decided to relocate to the Shingle Springs Rancheria three years ago.
“Most of the people who live here are descended from one family,” Fonseca said. “This whole reservation is my family. You get to a certain point in life when you want to examine your roots, and I decided that I want to be a part of this community. This is my home, and I want to be buried here.”
A search for their cultural identity is one of the things that have kept the Varona Band together through the miles and years. The tribe is actually descended from tribes located in many areas of the state, including Sonoma Valley and Sacramento. In 1916, the Varona Band settled in Sacramento, in a spot where the Feather River and Sacramento River converge.
But in 1920 the tribe was relocated to the Sierra foothills, with the government citing an outbreak of “White Fever” as the explanation for moving them (reality, however, most likely involved developers eyeing their property).
Around the same time, the El Dorado Band of Miwok were awarded a parcel of land adjacent to the Varonas, on about 68 acres. The Varona could access Old Highway 50 through the El Dorado land.
But in 1966, the state of California constructed the new U.S. Highway 50 directly between the two reservations, cutting of the Varona’s access to the highway. The El Dorado Band slowly sold off their property, and are no longer there.
Today, the Varona see the casino project as a link to their very existence. Jobs are sorely needed on the reservation, which has a 40 percent unemployment rate (the overall El Dorado County average is 5 percent). In addition, many of the Varona Band which are employed live below the poverty level.
“There is no tax base here, and that is why most tribes (in the United States) are in a depressed state,” Moody said. “Their forefathers didn’t have the money to put in sewer lines and electrical lines all those years ago.
“On a reservation, every dime collected from a casino is a tax. It’s collected by the tribal council and is reinvested in the community. No individual gets rich.”
The tribe operates its own library, church, fire department, tribal center and community center. It is one of 67 tribes which have applied for gaming compacts with the state of California. If one is awarded, the tribe could start Las Vegas-style gaming operations in any casino they constructed.
“You just don’t move into El Dorado County and get a job here,” Fonseca said. “There are many in our tribe who would be living here if they could find work.”
Fonseca is involved in bringing several self-help projects to the community, including a Housing Improvement Program which will provide low-income housing for the tribe.
“If this casino gets built, we’ll really be able to go to town with these projects,” he said.
It’s somewhat of a strange transition to drive down Greenstone Road, where rural upscale homes with landscaping and horses grazing in pastures suddenly give way to the more modest homes on the reservation, some consisting of large trailer homes, with children playing out in front.
“In Gold Rush times, there was a $50 bounty on members of our tribe,” Fonseca said. “We were subsequently scattered, and there aren’t many of us still around.
“But today, we have a home. Now it is up to us to build a future.”
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