It finally is happening. The once-reluctant Navajo Nation is finally joining the ranks of the other 225 tribes in America and will open their first casino in October. After watching efforts to open a casino fail twice on reservation-wide ballots, the lure of the easy casino money became too great to pass up again.
Their first casino, the $22 million Fire Rock Casino, will be located at the Church Rock Chapter east of Gallup, NM. The new casino will sport 300 slot machines, a bingo hall and other table games. The Tribe projects an income of $32 million in the first year.
Opening just one casino will never do for the largest Indian tribe in America. With a population of more than 200,000, the tribe needs a lot of gaming revenues to make the business venture worthwhile. They have five more casinos on the drawing boards; one near Farmington, NM and the others in Arizona.
Unemployment and poverty have become a way of life on this 25,000 sq. miles Indian reservation. The tribal leadership has watched with extreme patience the financial boom brought to other impoverished tribes by casinos. Although there are still many members of the tribe that object to the tribe's move into Indian gaming, the handwriting has been on the wall for too many years and the continued reluctance of the federal government to live up to its financial obligations to the tribe, most Navajo leaders felt the time had come to set aside the concerns of many tribal members and to take the plunge.
The optimism of the tribal government is on display on billboards posted along I-40 as it winds past Gallup. "Your odds are about to change," read the signs and they signify that hope is still eternal to the poorest of the poor.
Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley Jr. is absolutely ecstatic. For years he has struggled, along with his council, fighting the debilitating poverty and unemployment that has prevented the tribe from moving forward. He calls the 50 percent unemployment on the reservation "atrocious." Along with the unemployment, the infrastructure of the Nation has gradually deteriorated over the years. "I believe that this casino will bring the Navajo Nation back to the independence it once had and I think that most of us are tired of depending so much on the federal government," Shirley said.
Although the people of the Navajo Nation voted against casinos in 1994 and 1997, the Council approved limited gambling in 2005 and canceled another referendum on gaming at the same time.
President Shirley campaigned for re-election with the promise that he would bring legalized gaming to the reservation. His election victories in 2002 and 2006 convinced him that the people were also ready for the change.
According to the National Indian Gaming Commission there are now 423 Indian gaming casinos operated by 225 tribes in 28 states. The latest report by the commission shows that Indian gaming had revenues of $26 billion in 2007. It showed a growth of 5 percent over the revenues produced in 2006. Nevada casinos brought in $12.85 billion.
There are outside factors that have caused a definite drop off in the gaming revenues of some tribes. The high cost of gasoline and the slowdown in the economy is starting to have an impact on gaming revenues. More people are reluctant to drive long distances to gamble, but instead are staying closer to home. The mortgage crisis has also contributed to the small decline.
According to the Albuquerque Journal, New Mexico's tribally owned casinos reported a combined net win of $700,330,214 in 2007 ¬- a 7.5 percent increase over 2006.
The 5 percent overall increases in Indian gaming revenues nationally mark the continuation of the annual growth of Indian casinos. Phil Hogan, Chairman of the National Indian Gaming Commission and an enrolled member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, said, "The continued growth is significant considering recent economic struggles throughout the country. Indian gaming continues to be an important factor in local Indian economies."
The people of the Navajo Nation deliberated for 20 years before climbing aboard the gaming bandwagon. It is a token of their resilience and a reflection upon the foot dragging of the United States government that has pushed the largest Indian nation in America to reluctantly step into the world of Indian gaming.
(Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, was born, raised and educated on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. He was the founder and first president of the Native American Journalists Association and the founder and publisher of Indian Country Today, Lakota Times, and the Dakota/Lakota Journal. He can be reached at email@example.com)