After resisting the Indian-gaming trend for decades, the Navajo Nation now plans to build up to six casinos within its borders beginning this year.
Twice, in 1994 and 1997, tribal members voted against gambling initiatives. Critics expressed concerns that state gaming compacts might undermine tribal sovereignty and that casinos would encourage social ills such as crime, addiction and alcoholism. Tradition, too, may have been a factor in holding off casinos — an often-cited Navajo legend warns of the perils of gambling (HCN, 5/12/03: Tiny tribe bets its community on casino).
But in 2004, with unemployment hovering near 50 percent and with neighboring tribes profiting from gamblers, the tribal council opened up the reservation to casinos, a decision affirmed by Navajo voters at the polls.
In January, Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley Jr. announced that the first casino will be built in Sanders, Ariz., as early as this summer, with one in Shiprock, N.M., likely to follow.
Shirley anticipates that the first two casinos alone will generate $100 million annually. Besides, says George Hardeen, Shirley’s spokesman, many tribal members already frequent casinos on neighboring reservations.
Not everyone is pleased by the imminent arrival of slot machines and poker tables on the 27,000-square-mile reservation, however. Navajo activist Lori Goodman, who is fighting a proposed power plant on the reservation, says there are better ways to stimulate economic development (HCN, 9/05/05: Pollution for jobs: a fair trade?). "But casinos and power plants, they’re the easiest."