Several Dutch Bros. Coffee Shops are located around Eugene. The co-founder of Dutch Bros. opens a horse racing track with casino machines, directing customers and their money away from Oregon Tribal gaming facilities. (Mary Grosswendt/Emerald)

Dutch Brothers co-founder Travis Boersma’s controversial proposal for a horse racing operation has been blocked by the Oregon Department of Justice.

On Oct. 4, 2021, Boersma submitted a proposal to the Oregon Racing Commission in which he requested permission to reopen a racing track in Grants Pass and introduce The Flying Lark, where visitors could use gambling terminals. Boersma said he intended to revive the horse racing industry, but many have said he planned to do so in a way that would steal from and violate the sovereignty of local tribes.

The Oregon Department of Justice ruled Boersma’s plans to implement gambling machines as unconstitutional on Feb. 11, and on Feb. 14 the Oregon Racing Commission took its first step toward blocking his proposal from moving forward, prompting him to terminate his vision for The Flying Lark.

After Boersma made his agenda public, Native tribal leaders quickly mobilized and called on government officials to reject the initiative. They said that non-tribal entities operating a gambling facility is illegal, based on Oregon laws that give Indigenous tribes an exclusive claim to gambling facilities, which provide funding for public services on reservations.

Members of the University of Oregon’s Native American Student Union supplemented these efforts and called for the community to boycott the Dutch Bros. coffee stands that widely populate Eugene.

“Why would Travis Boersma as a businessman, and as a non-Indigenous, non-Native man attempt this plot that would impact the legal rights, the state ordained rights of countless tribal members?” Ashley Younger, a member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma and former president of the NASU, said. “Exploiting someone’s culture for money — that’s so just tasteless and awful, and I just think that integrity is worth so much more than the possibility of monetary reimbursement.”

Related: "Opinion: Dutch Bros. founder robs income from Native tribes"

The morning before the Oregon Department of Justice’s ruling, Younger organized a protest in opposition to Boersma’s operation near the Dutch Bros. stand on Franklin Boulevard, culminating in a group of about 12 people. There, protestors etched their frustrations on the sidewalk using chalk.

Younger said her motivations to host the protest stemmed from her desire to foster an important discussion and opportunity for learning.

“I think that it would be really, really lovely if we lived in a world where we could have a conversation with someone and say, ‘This is really unethical or this is very harmful, or damaging, or just not a good action or a good thing to do. Could you please stop?’ And then have them stop,” she said. “I think that would be really wonderful.”

UO student Ryan Oppenheimer said he attended the demonstration to become more knowledgeable about issues related to Native American culture, just as Younger hoped.

“I came to watch and learn,” he said. “I haven't really been much of a protest person in the past. I've been more like a silent activist just because I just haven't really pushed myself to speak up about many things, so I’m doing this to get out of my shell and also because I want to become more educated about indigenous issues.”

Now that Boersma no longer intends to invest his time or money into The Flying Lark, Younger hopes others will reciprocate the action taken against his operation in the future to make up for the injustice experienced by Indigenous people.

“I'm glad that it didn't go through, and I'm grateful that, at least legally, people recognized, and the state of Oregon recognized and acknowledged, that it's not OK and really did work to keep the sovereignty and also the respect of the tribes and the tribes’ rights,” she said. “But it's so much deeper because it's not just about the treaty, and it's not about money… It's about years and years and years and years of repeated harm.”

UO Associate Professor of Native American Literatures and Director of Native American and Indigenous Studies Kirby Brown said these events encapsulate why Native studies should be a core component of general education.

“That just illustrates, to me, the need for Native Studies at all levels of the curriculum so that when questions like this arise, people will have an educational and intellectual foundation to understand not just the history, but also what needs to happen in a contemporary moment,” he said. “Native studies is not just for Native people; Native studies is for everyone. So when you have judges or entrepreneurs or lawyers or nonprofit directors who are in rooms, making decisions about land, about economies, about relationships, about resource management, you want those folks in those rooms to be educated.”

Younger echoed the intrinsic need for learning and education. She said she cannot imagine herself supporting Dutch Bros. until Boersma proves to have grown from his attempts to interfere with the revenue of local tribes.

“I never want the worst for people,” she said. “I always wish people the best, and I want to believe that most people have integrity and are good at heart. If he makes an effort moving forward to try to do something really, really wonderful and really helpful toward the tribes that he was really going to exploit, then perhaps, at that time, I'll consider supporting.”