Hundreds jammed the hearing room at the Madera Fairgrounds and about a hundred waited outside for a chance to get in.
Part of the controversy is because most of the members of the North Fork band of Mono Indians live in and around the foothill community of North Fork, about forty miles away from the proposed casino site north of Madera. The tribe is asking the federal government to declare the three hundred acre Madera site Indian land, so they can build a casino. "North Fork Rancheria is going through the process to take the land within our historical area with the benefits to game. It is a federal process, North Fork Rancheria is following the letter of the law," said North Fork Chairperson Jacquie Davis-Van Huss.
But many, including State Senator Dean Florez believe the tribe is violating the spirit of state law which was designed to keep Indian casinos in relatively remote locations. "The question is whether this sets a precedent for other tribes, for them to follow suit," said Senator Florez, "Every tribe I know would like to move to a better location."
Tribal leaders from two other tribes which have casinos, Table Mountain and Chuckchansi, spoke out against the deal, claiming allowing the North Forks to move to a busier location puts their casino's at a disadvantage. "They're taking unfair advantage really, what could you say, cuts into our investments that we've made by playing by the rules," said Picayune Chukchansi Chairman Morris Reid.
But the North Fork Tribe is in a unique situation. The government broke up their reservation long ago, they technically have no land. They believe they've proven the land north of Madera is part of their ancestral home and they say the other tribes are picking on them. "It's really a shame when we have our neighboring tribes and close relatives of ours that don't want us to follow the process and achieve what they've been able to achieve," said North Fork Vice Chair Elaine Fink.
Aside from the land dispute critics of the project say it will increase traffic and air pollution. And some feel it will be a corrupting influence on the community. "It's product will be gambling addicts, alcoholics, drug addicts, broken home," said Chowchilla resident David Rogers.
Despite all the comments the Bureau of Indian Affairs is only concerned with potential environmental conflicts. The agency will decide if the site along Highway 99 can be Indian land.
The tribe will then have to negotiate with the governor, but they are confident with their plans to share revenue with the state and community Schwarzenegger will agree.
The process however will still take months.