For more than a decade, the Navajo tribe resisted casino development - That’s now changing

Pity poor Noqoìlpi.

One of the great characters of Navajo folklore, Noqoìlpi started out as the luckiest gambler who ever lived. The man just could not lose, and at his peak he owned acres of land and houses, valuable possessions and scores of slaves, all won through the all-or-nothing games of chance in which he engaged with neighboring tribal members.

But then the gods conspired against him, and Noqoìlpi lost everything – even his own freedom – in a series of daring high-stakes gambles.

So powerful is the story of “Noqoìlpi: The Gambler” in Navajo culture that it’s very likely his tale of boom and bust influenced Navajo voters when, over the course of about 10 years, a series of gaming referenda were placed before them.

Again and again through the 1990s, those referenda were shot down by often significant margins.

“The original draft of our gaming ordinance came up in the early 1990s,” said Ray Etcitty, a tribal member and legal counsel to the Navajo Gaming Enterprise. “It was put together by some Navajo attorneys and it was approved by the Navajo Nation Council. At that point I believe it was given to the then-president, whose concern was that the people did not have a voice in the decision.

“He recommended that instead of just approving a gaming ordinance, that it should be given, as a referendum, to the people. In 1995 and 1996 it was voted down by about 55 percent opposed. We then had another referendum in the late 1990s, around 1998. It was voted down by about the same margins.”

According to Etcitty, there appeared to be two concerns by the voting public about the gaming referenda. One involved the Navajo story of Noqoìlpi.

“He was a person who gambled, according to Navajo stories, and does not win in the end,” Etcitty said. “He ends up losing. Therefore in the Navajo tradition, in Navajo thought, the gambler is not someone who is looked kindly upon.”

A second, perhaps more significant concern, Etcitty said, was a general lack of confidence in the then-Navajo government, a sentiment faced by many incumbent Republicans across America today, as voters prepare to cast their ballots nationwide in November.

“They wanted the government to be restructured to be more efficient,” Etcitty said of Navajo voters of the 1990s. “Their perception of the government was not good, so they did not want to support gaming. They were disenchanted with the government operations at that time.”

Meanwhile, across the country, Indian tribes were reaping often tremendous benefits from gaming, using casino dollars to boost their economies and rebuild long-neglected infrastructures.

While the nation’s largest Indian tribe – both in terms of membership and reservation size – repeatedly gave the thumb’s down to gaming, it nonetheless pursued other economic development options, such as natural resource management.

In recent years, however, as unemployment on the Navajo reservations began to climb and the states of Arizona and New Mexico began to finalize compact negotiations with various tribes with reservations within those state borders, the Navajo people began to reconsider their staunch opposition to casino development.

“I think they started to see a window of opportunity closing as other people were negotiating in Arizona and New Mexico and compact provisions and different compacts were being signed,” said Mike Devaney, chief operating officer of the Navajo Nation Gaming Enterprise.  “I think they began to see that they needed a bigger voice in those negotiations.”

Initially, the tribe considered a limited approach to gaming on Navajo land. There were proposals to restrict casino development to a Navajo “satellite reservation” just outside Albuquerque, for example, and keep it off of “Big Navajo,” the larger reservation that stretches over three states (Arizona, Utah and New Mexico).

“That was how it was eventually approved by the Navajo Nation in early 2001,” Etcitty said.

Then tribal leadership mulled the prospect of leasing their slot machine allotments in Arizona to other gaming tribes in that state.

“Arizona allowed something called ‘holding arrangements,’” Etcitty said. “That was where certain urban tribes that benefitted from gaming could lease slot allocations from tribes located in rural areas, who did not benefit as greatly from gaming. “The Navajo Nation at that point began exploring the idea of leasing our allocations in Arizona.”

Two years ago, the Navajo finalized their “pooling agreement” with two Southern Arizona tribes. Once that door was open, Etcitty said, the tribe finally decided to pursue gaming on “Big Navajo” as opposed to a satellite location.

“We put together some public hearings and pursued another referendum, and this time the people approved gaming,” Etcitty said. “That gave the green light to the Navajo Nation to begin pursuing it fully. Prior to that it was very limited because nobody wanted to go against the wishes of the people.”

Other political questions immediately came up, however. How would the casino enterprises be set up and regulated? Who would be in charge?

“The Nation is comprised of about 110 communities, called chapters,” explained Etcitty. “Each chapter wanted to run its own casino and keep its own revenues and negotiate everything individually. But the main Navajo body said it would do this on behalf of the Navajo because if not there would be parasite gaming, meaning there would be gaming operations located every ten miles from one another. In order to maximize revenues, it was thought that the Navajo Nation as a whole should create one corporation.

“In October of 2006, the Navajo Nation officially created the Navajo Nation Gaming Enterprise, the entity designated by the Navajo Nation to conduct gaming. That was designated pursuant to both New Mexico and Arizona compacts.”

A $35 million loan from the Navajo Nation Land Acquisition Fund provided the financing for the Fire Rock Casino, the first of six proposed gaming enterprises on Navajo land, in the tribe’s Church Rock Chapter, three miles east of Gallup, on historic Route 66.

The 68,000-square-foot property, which was scheduled to open last month, will have 472 slots (Konami, IGT, Williams and Aristocrat, run on the Konami slot system), six blackjack tables, an ultimate Texas Hold’em, a three-card poker table and five traditional poker tables. It also will feature a 402-seat bingo hall.

In an interview before the  scheduled opening, Devaney said a feeling of high anticipation permeated the administrative offices of the gaming enterprise.

“Right now it’s all logistics,” he said. “It’s all bringing things together in a timely fashion and a delivery schedule that will not get in the way of construction."

Despite the fact that the casino will launch in the middle of the worst economic crisis since The Great Depression, Devaney said he’s not overly worried that consumers might stay home and cling to their cash.

“We’re not concerned at the locations that we have in mind, because we are entering markets that are not penetrated,” he said. “So while there’s always a downturn, they will be new ventures within those markets. Obviously we would have done what we would have done if the economy was better. But we’re not going to do poorly.”

Of a greater concern to Devaney, he said, were the limits placed on the use of alcohol and tobacco use reservation-wide.

“We had a smoking issue that was before the council and it was passed, vetoed and then the override failed,” Devaney explained. “The smoking issue would have severely hampered our success because it would have been the only casino in the world where you could not have gone outside or to designated smoking area to smoke.

“Thankfully it was successfully defeated. But we did make a compromise: It will be 21 or over only, and only about 20 percent of the facility will have smoking.”

“We’re trying to build an economy and supply jobs and education for the tribal members and it’s all a balance. Everything in life is a balance.

As for alcohol, limits were placed on where it could be consumed at the casino, along with a requirement that food must be purchased with alcoholic beverages.

The Navajo Nation’s first experiment with casino gaming will draw its primary business from Gallup and from outlying areas and travelers on Route 66.

“It will be 50/50, but our growth will come from developing the traveling market and drawing people from Arizona and Albuquerque,” he said.

Competition from the robust Albuquerque gaming market is not a major concern, Devaney added.“Not at all. If you offer a superior product, people will come. We’re going to offer a superior product.”