WINDOW ROCK, N.M. "Two Novembers ago, the Navajo Nation held its first referendum to decide if the tribal government could legalize casinos on Navajo lands. It appeared on the ballot either as cards or a second set of cards with an "x" through them. Fifty-five percent of Navajo voters said "no."


But now that the Bureau of Indian Affairs' budget is shrinking and coal, oil and gas revenues aren't as large as they used to be, the country's largest tribe is discussing gambling again.


"It's been a successful endeavor for many tribes," says Art Allison, chairman of a tribal group pushing for legalization. "It's the best way to create cash for tribal programs."


Gambling would also provide jobs, says Sharlene Begay-Platero, who works on economic development for the tribe. She estimates that five casinos on the edges of the reservation would provide 2,700 jobs and a payroll of $41 million. Presently, unemployment runs a whopping 36 percent.


And though it means more competition, many tribes operating casinos say they would welcome the Navajo Nation because of its political might.


Critics maintain the problems associated with gambling would far outweigh the financial benefits for the tribe's 220,000 members. They wonder whether the casino's revenues would come from the reservation's 6 million annual visitors, or from the Navajos themselves.


"A lot of Navajo families find it hard to make a living as it is," says one Navajo woman at the Four Corners Monument. "The parents might gamble away the money, and it will be hard for the kids."


Many Navajos voted against gambling for religious reasons, and because they associate gambling with the evils of alcohol, corruption and addiction. "We're headed for what the bilagannas (white people) call Hell," Rosalyn Curtis of the Indian Health Service once told the Navajo Hopi-Observer. "It will rise to a height - a maximum - then it's going to fall."


But Herbert Pioche, a Navajo official who favors legalization, says many Navajos gamble already at the Ute Mountain casino near Cortez, Colo.; in fact, he continues, 90 percent of the Utes' business comes from Navajos.


Pioche says the gambling issue is set to go before the 88-member Navajo Nation Council in late April. But even if the council approves gambling, hurdles remain. Navajo Nation President Albert Hale, no fan of gambling for the Navajos, might veto the bill or send it back to the people for another referendum.


There is also the matter of the states. Arizona Gov. Fife Symington has vowed not to sign any new compacts allowing slot machines. And New Mexico's tribes will find out this summer if their existing compacts are legal. If the federal district court finds them illegal, any new compacts could very well exclude slot machines.


Says Begay-Platero: "I don't know what to predict anymore."


*E.M.