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Longtime gaming holdout Navajos open tribal casino

GALLUP, New Mexico (AP) – After years of saying no to tribal gaming, the Navajo Nation has opened its first casino, Fire Rock, east of Gallup, N.M.

Built on a slice of tribal trust land in northwestern New Mexico, the 64,000 square-foot Fire Rock Casino has 472 slot machines, 10 table games and a poker room. The bingo room seats 400. It is expected to generate $32 million a year for the Navajo Nation, about a fifth of the annual tribal budget.

Some 4,000 people showed up for the Fire Rock Casino’s Nov. 19 opening, with hundreds waiting outside because the facility only holds 1,800, said Patrick Sandoval, chief of staff in the president’s office.

The tent-like structure is temporary until gaming officials can find another site to put up a permanent building, one that may be accompanied by a hotel and truck stop.

The tribe long resisted following the path taken by other Indian tribes that have opened casinos. It voted against legalizing gaming on the reservation in 1994 and 1997 over concerns it would bring increased social ills, such as heavy drinking, and drain the pockets of impoverished Navajos.

Fire Rock 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 problems that alcohol consumption can cause – including domestic violence, drunken driving crashes and public intoxication – as reasons not to allow the casino to serve alcohol, which is prohibited on the rest of the reservation.

But tribal leaders hope the casino will spur economic development on the vast reservation that stretches into New Mexico, Utah and Arizona. The reservation is plagued by poverty, with an unemployment rate that hovers around 50 percent.

“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.”

The Navajo Nation paid for the casino and 92 percent of its 210 employees are Navajo, said tribal spokesman George Hardeen. Also, the tribe isn’t paying a management company to run the casino, so it keeps all the profits. The casino is looking to fill another 70 positions.

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.

Opening day crowds injected $1.2 million into slot machines at Fire Rock and some gamers got lucky as 75 jackpots of $250 or higher were hit.

Andre Cordero, deputy director for the tribe’s division of human resources, did well at first at the slots but ended up in the red.

“I put $20 in and I was all the way up to $80.50 and I lost it all,” Cordero said. “You just kind of get lost in the game.”

But “I had a blast,” he said. “And it was so exhilarating for me because this is a new casino and it’s all Navajo, so I don’t mind losing the money.”

Low-stakes gaming 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.

But the dark side of gaming also has deep cultural resonance for Navajos, whose oral tradition includes stories warning about the dangers of overindulging. 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.”

Even without a casino, the Navajo Nation has been profiting from gaming. 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 tribe is planning one more casino in New Mexico and four in Arizona.





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