Longtime gaming holdout, Navajos open 1st casino

By Felicia Fonseca
Flagstaff, Arizona (AP) 11-08

Long a behind-the-scenes player in the gaming industry, the Navajo Nation is now set to open its first casino in the hopes slot machines, poker and bingo will bring in much-needed revenue to the tribe and jobs to its people.

The doors to the Fire Rock Casino, just east of Gallup, N.M., opened to the public on Nov. 19. Set against the backdrop of red rock formations, the casino represents new territory for the Navajo Nation, which only slowly followed the path trod by so many other American Indian tribes.

Navajos twice voted against legalizing gambling on the reservation, in 1994 and 1997, over concerns it would bring increased social ills and drain the pockets of impoverished Navajos, before it was approved.

Billboards along Interstate 40 in western New Mexico declare, “your odds are about to change.”

“We’re just barely getting started, but I sense that a lot of tribes are afraid of Navajos getting into gaming, being as large as we are,” said Navajo Vice President Ben Shelly.

The casino is expected to generate $32 million in annual revenue for the Navajo Nation, about a fifth of the annual tribal budget, which doesn’t include federal money. In 2006, gaming brought in more than $25 billion to the 225 tribes that have casino or bingo operations in 28 states, according to the National Indian Gaming Association.

“Some people like it because it’s going to be a source of employment and revenue for the tribe,” said Harry Walters, a Navajo historian and cultural anthropologist. “On the other hand, it’s also addicting; the people are going to be losing money.”

Low-stakes gambling has always been a part of American Indian culture. For the Navajo, that takes shape in card games, dice games or the shoe game. According to Navajo lore, a wintertime dispute between daytime and nighttime animals culminated with the shoe game that was played to determine whether humans would live in darkness or in light. Tribal members play the game during the winter months, with some betting on the side.

Gambling also has deep cultural resonance for Navajos, whose oral tradition includes stories warning about the dangers of overindulging in gambling. Many feature a character known simply as The Gambler, whose skill wins him nearly everything in the universe but nearly costs him his life.

It’s a familiar story throughout the Hopi and Zuni reservations as well, said Steve Peretti, an addictions counselor in Zuni, N.M., “that people who gamble are going to lose.”

But for a reservation plagued by poverty and an unemployment rate that hovers around 50 percent, tribal leaders are looking to casinos as an opportunity to spur economic development on the vast reservation that stretches into New Mexico, Utah and Arizona.

In anticipation of casinos, the tribe had a feasibility study done in 2005 to identify prime locations. A gaming enterprise was set up to oversee the development of casinos, tribal lawmakers discussed how revenues would be shared with host communities, and compacts were signed with Arizona and New Mexico.


Even without a casino, the Navajo Nation is profiting from gambling. In September, the Navajo Nation signed a deal handing over rights to run more than a third of its allotted slot machines to three other Arizona Indian tribes. The Navajo Nation will receive about $140 million over 17 years under the lease deal.

The Navajo Nation’s first casino was scheduled to open in 2006, but the date was pushed back as the Tribal Council wrestled with how to fund it and whether alcohol and smoking would be allowed.

The Tribal Council initially looked to financial giant JP Morgan Chase to back the casino, but lawmakers abandoned that idea after the bank asked that the tribe put up 125 percent collateral as a term of the loan agreement. The council ended up tapping a tribal trust fund.

The casino will be only one of two places on the reservation where alcohol is served, and it will be limited to the casino’s restaurant. Some lawmakers cited the social ills that alcohol has brought upon tribal members that include domestic violence, drunken driving crashes and public intoxication as reason not to allow the casino to serve alcohol, which is prohibited on the rest of the reservation. The measure passed by only a two-vote margin.

Backers of the casino were upset a few months later when the Tribal Council voted to ban smoking on the reservation, contending it would inhibit gaming revenue. Navajo President Joe Shirley Jr. vetoed the measure, and the council failed to override it.

At a forum during early November in Gallup, tribal members aired concerns about gambling addictions, drunken driving, increased traffic in the Navajo community of Church Rock and the casino’s proximity to the railroad tracks, Peretti said.

One of the major concerns, said Dale Mason, author of “Indian Gaming: Tribal Sovereignty and American Politics,” who served as moderator, is that casino revenues be put to good use.

“That is going to remain until they see some kind of actual product of the money,” he said. “I’m not sure that’s going to come anytime soon.”

Built on a slice of tribal trust land in northwestern New Mexico, the 64,000 square-foot Fire Rock Casino will have 472 slot machines, 10 table games and a poker room. The bingo room will seat 400. The sprung, tent-like structure is temporary until gaming officials can find another site to put up a permanent building, one that Shelly envisions will be accompanied by a hotel and truck stop.

For the former council delegate who debated many of the gaming issues, the Fire Rock Casino is a stepping stone to the other five casinos the tribe is planning – one more in New Mexico and four in Arizona.

“Once we learn how to do things, we can do something else, find another place to build,” he said.

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