The Tohono O’odham Nation, along the Sonoran Desert of Arizona and Mexico, is huge –2.8 million acres. The Nation’s land mass makes it the second largest Native American land holding in the United States, with approximately 33,000 members.
In existence since the late 1800s, the Nation’s 12 separate districts are governed by three branches – executive, legislative and judicial.
Previous chairman Edward D. Manuel, who served in that capacity from 1995-2003, is back on the job after defeating former chair Ned Norris Jr. in a recent election. “We’re ready to move this Nation forward, but we all have to work together in unity,” he told an inauguration ceremony in July. “When we unify, our potential is unlimited.”
Urging not the burning of bridges, but the building of bridges to connect and strengthen working relationships, Manuel told leaders of other Arizona tribes in attendance that, while there were different issues involving different problems, there were also shared issues and similar goals. The Ak-Chin O’odham Runner newspaper quoted the new chairman: “Find the commonalities we have and let’s build on that. We need to network, plan, and collaborate together. Let’s give ourselves the power to create harmony and leave a legacy for our children. Let’s plant a seed of hope for future generations.”
Manuel’s running mate, Verlon M. Jose, will now serve as Vice Chairman replacing Wavelene Romero. Jose told inaugural attendees: “You put us in office. Your job is done. Our job is just beginning.”
Politicians are traditionally given a 100-day honeymoon to get used to their new responsibilities. That honeymoon period just ended and Indian Country Today Media Network sat down with the chairman to talk about his plan of action:
“It was like déjà vu all over again,” he said. “When I was in office in 1995, we were in court with a governor trying to close down our casinos. I come back now, and we’re still dealing with the courts on casino issues.”
Opening up the latest chapter in his 30-plus-year-career in tribal politics, the soft-spoken Manuel is trying to change course for the future. Much of the tenure of the previous chairman was spent in legalese and lawsuits involving a hotly-contested West Valley casino project in Glendale. “My predecessor had a heck of a time in the West Valley, but we have a different way of trying to solve the issues.
“Despite all the setbacks, the casino will open in December,” Manuel says, emphasizing that, “The Nation cannot continue on a path of confrontation – the cost is astronomical and the potential exists of losing public support for Indian gaming. We must redirect efforts to a cooperative atmosphere and toward that end, we have begun discussions with the two sister tribes who oppose our initiative.”
Acknowledging that “you go further faster by cooperating,” Chairman Manuel has met with both dissenting tribes to try and work out differences and is currently setting up a meeting with Arizona’s Governor. “We want to find out how we can work together instead of fighting each other.”
The economic status of his Nation when he resumed office was a major concern. “It was stagnant,” he says. Asked by tribal elders to consider running for another term in office, “One of the reasons I ran again for office was I didn’t see any direction to diversify our economy other than relying on casino revenue. Despite a 10 percent reduction in our budget, we’re not at a deficit, but we’ve been at a low point since the economy went down in 2008. We need to pursue the casino issue and make sure that gets in place, but at the same time we need to look for new ways to generate revenue.”
One key involves development of a major shipping port in nearby Puerto Penasco (Rocky Point), Mexico. “My understanding is that Tucson and Phoenix will be export hubs to Rocky Point and the trucks will be rolling through our highway heading south. We want to benefit from this traffic. We’re looking at everything from an industrial park to warehousing and a major truck stop that offers fuel and showers to accommodate these truckers.” Other projects under consideration include developing expansion infrastructure on existing landholdings near Tucson freeway traffic.
Within tribal lands, Manuel is focusing on self-government issues and needed improvement in the areas of housing, health care delivery, and education. “One of the things that ties into all these areas is our Him dagk, our core values and the guiding principle of all we do, the basis of our culture,” Manuel says. “Relationships are sacred to our way of life, relationships not only to each other, but to everything in the universe.”
The Chairman plans to move expeditiously to bring improvements to his Nation. “Needs have been determined, research done, and plans developed,” he says. “Dollars are the key and that’s why, come December, the doors to our new West Valley casino will be open to generate new revenue.”
Watch the 2015 Tohono O’odham Nation Inaugural Ceremony below: