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Navajo Nation sets sights on first casino

WINDOW ROCK, Ariz. – The Navajo Nation is poised to join the American Indian gaming industry, which generated an estimated $18.5 billion in revenues in 2004, twice the revenues earned by casinos in Las Vegas.

The Navajo people rejected gaming referendums in 1994 and 1997, but in 2001 the Navajo Nation Council passed a reservation-wide gaming ordinance by a vote of 44 to 19.

At the time, gaming was illegal on the reservation except in the chapter of Tohajiilee (formerly Canoncito), near Albuquerque. The council had previously passed similar ordinances, but both had been vetoed by the president and the council did not have the votes for an override.

The Tohajiilee project had been troublesome from the beginning because the chapter, while technically on the reservation, is on 120 square miles of land given to it alone by Congress, and the chapter was not eager to share casino revenues with the rest of the Navajo Nation. Nonetheless, the resolution that made gaming possible in Tohajiilee could technically be applied to the rest of the Navajo Nation, and so the die was cast.

How revenues will be allocated between the semi-autonomous chapters and Window Rock is still an unresolved issue, though the council and the executive branch strongly assert that since gaming is an activity that is regulated by compacts between the council and the states, the central government will make the decisions about how gaming revenues are spent.

Former Navajo Nation President Kelsey Begaye signed a gaming compact with the state of Arizona in 2002, and President Joe Shirley Jr. signed one with New Mexico in 2003.

In July 2004 the council passed a resolution that seemed to allow gaming in five chapters – Shiprock, Hogback and Manuelito chapters in New Mexico, and the Nahata Dziil and Leupp chapters in Arizona – but that allowed all chapters to decide whether they wanted gaming in their communities.

Soon thereafter, a 2004 referendum on gaming was taken off the ballot shortly before the election because the council had already voted to allow six casinos to be built on the reservation, four in Arizona and two in New Mexico, as allowed by the respective state compacts.

On March 1, 2006, the Navajo Nation gaming regulatory office issued the 299-page Navajo Nation Tribal Gaming Regulations, with a public comment period that was extended to May 25.

On June 27, that office issued the final regulations, which cover items including licensing, minimum internal control systems for various operations of the gaming enterprise, technical specifications for gaming devices and the regulation of chips and tokens. A copy of the regulations is available at www.opvp.org (click on the “gaming” link at left).

George Hardeen, communications director in the Office of the President and Vice President, stated that Shirley “has said he would expect to see about $100 million in tribal revenues annually.”

This sum is substantial, especially in light of the Dec. 31, 2005, closure of Mohave Generating Station and the tribe’s loss of royalties earned from coal supplied to the power plant and water used to transport the coal via a slurry pipeline. The plant’s majority owner, Southern California Edison, on June 19 announced that it was abandoning negotiations with the Navajo Nation and Hopi Tribe to resolve coal and water issues and that it would not try to reopen the power plant. Hardeen, however, pointed out, “This decision [for Navajo gaming] long predates the closure of Mohave Generating Station.”

Hardeen said that the next step is to find a site and break ground on the first casino. He said that Nahata Dziil near Sanders was top on the list, but that there is a problem with mineral rights that are owned by the state of Arizona. Other sites currently under discussion are Iyanbito, Shiprock, Hogback, Cameron, Leupp (Twin Arrows), LeChee and Chinle.

There are currently 411 Native casinos in the United States operated by 224 tribes, but unlike the Rio Grande area of New Mexico, northeastern Arizona has relatively few. The 26,000-square-mile Navajo Reservation in Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah is the largest reservation in the country, with about 180,000 of the more than quarter-million enrolled Navajos living on tribal lands.