From 1492 to 2022, the point of white colonization (settler colonialism if you will though that term is really just the academic jargon of the day and flattens experiences across the globe while also downplaying resistance and agency) has been to find any resources that people of color may have and wrest them for whites. There are any number of examples of this. I mean, heck, the next Scorsese movie is about this very topic when it turned out that oil was on Native lands in Oklahoma. It’s the same today. Some of the tribes have managed to pull themselves out of poverty through casinos. So naturally, whites want to take that away and put the money into their own pockets. That’s what’s happening in Oregon right now.
But over the past year, Mercier has witnessed what seems like a slow-motion train wreck. An obscure state agency in charge of horse racing is shepherding something called a “racino” through the permitting process, basically creating the state’s first private casino, 233 miles south of the Spirit Mountain Casino in Grants Pass, Oregon. By potentially permitting machines that blur the line between horse racing and slot-machine gambling, the Oregon Racing Commission has brought the project to the edge of completion. The ORC effectively developed the plans behind closed doors, locking out both the public and tribal leaders and threatening an essential source of funding for tribes in Oregon.
The racino is owned by the state’s newest billionaire, Travis Boersma, who co-founded the drive-through coffee chain Dutch Bros. In 2019, Boersma bought Grants Pass Downs, the horse-racing track in his southern Oregon hometown. The next year, he hired Randy Evers, who served as the ORC’s director from 2007 to 2013, as the track’s president.
Boersma’s stated aim was to resuscitate Oregon’s necrotic horse-racing industry. The state’s oldest track, Portland Meadows, could not sustain overhead and shuttered early in 2019. When Boersma purchased Grants Pass Downs, he knew that horse racing alone wouldn’t keep it afloat. So he decided to use a model that’s gaining steam across the country: Tether his racetrack to a racino stocked with a brand-new generation of “historic horse-racing machines,” or HHRs — flashy, color-saturated LED terminals built by slot machine companies. Portland Meadows already had 150 HHRs, but they were an older version that showed animations of historic races, with names and dates redacted so gamblers couldn’t know the outcome. They weren’t particularly popular or profitable.
Boersma’s HHR machines have no visual indicators to connect them to horse racing. But the internal math they use is based on pari-mutuel wagering, so they legally qualify as horse-racing. They don’t generate random numbers the way traditional slots do, even though they replicate the slot machine experience. This loophole could allow the proposed business — the Flying Lark — to tap into the casino market without legally being considered a casino. Boersma calls it an “entertainment venue,” rather than a gambling destination.
Only tribally owned casinos are legal in the state; Oregonians voted against legalizing private casinos in 2010, and then again in 2012. But the ORC, an unelected commission of governor-appointed lawyers and veterinarians, was poised to greenlight Boersma’s project anyway. The commission was flexing enormous power over the future of Oregon gaming without consulting tribes or considering the threat its decision posed to their economies.
In a pixelated Zoom meeting in May 2021, the Oregon Racing Commission’s current director, Jack McGrail, answered questions before the state’s Legislative Commission on Indian Services. The meeting marked the first time the ORC made any effort to discuss the Flying Lark with tribal leaders. For an hour, the tribal leaders asked questions and expressed their concerns about the project, noting the lack of consultation from the agency, which acted without legislative or public input. McGrail was there to clear the air.
“I apologize if that outreach was not sufficient,” McGrail told council members. “We perhaps underestimated the impacts of these initiatives on tribal interests. Moving forward, we will endeavor to make sure that the tribal interests are at least notified, considered and have a seat at the table.”