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Know the West

Nation’s largest tribe keeps casinos out


Note: in the print edition of this issue, this article appears as a sidebar to  another news article, "Tiny tribe bets its community on casino."

The Navajo Nation may have found a way to get gambling profits without gambling’s pitfalls.

Last November, Arizona voters narrowly approved Proposition 202, and opened a new way for tribes—including those without casinos—to profit from gaming. Under the new rule, participating tribes are given “slot allotments” that represent the maximum number of slot machines they could legally operate under state law. Tribes like the Navajo Nation and the Havasupai, which don’t have casinos, can lease their allotments to tribes that do.

Although Navajos have repeatedly voted down referendums to allow gaming on their reservation, they may welcome revenue from leasing slot allotments, says Deana Jackson, press officer for newly elected Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley. The Navajos can lease up to 1,400 allotments, which could earn them millions of dollars.

As of April, the nation was negotiating a slot-allotment lease with an undisclosed tribe. The proceeds, says Jackson, would help fulfill basic Navajo needs, like water, power and college scholarships. The tribal council should vote on this particular lease by July.

Althomas Spencer of the Navajo Nation Museum says he expects that the prospect of leasing allotments will generate heated debate, once it becomes more widely known. So far, though, “It really is not out there yet,” he says.

The Navajo’s long-standing aversion to reservation casinos may be rooted in an old story. According to tribal teachings, Nahoolbiihii — “the one who will win you” — once came among the people, tempting them to gamble with him. Soon, the people had gambled away everything, even themselves and their families, and under Nahoolbiihii’s control, they were forced to build what is now called Chaco Canyon.

In the story, a young boy called Naa hoo’ di dahi — “the impoverished one” — was sent from the Holy People. With a knack for numbers, he successfully gambled back the most vital things — stories, kinship systems, land, culture. Nahoolbiihii voluntarily exiled himself, but threatened to return one day. That threat still lingers in the minds of Navajo elders and storytellers.