« Return to this article

Know the West

Tribal casinos don’t like competition


The Northern Edge Navajo Casino sits on an otherwise empty chunk of desert alongside northern New Mexico's San Juan River, just inside the Navajo Nation's borders. It's a perfect place for a casino, right across the river from Farmington, N.M., home to hundreds of energy-field workers with cash burning holes in the pockets of their dungarees.

The casino opened last year and is already bringing in sorely needed revenue, with nearly 400 new jobs. Gaming has proven to be a relatively low-risk wager for most tribes; it's fairly recession-proof and immune to the global price swings that plague natural resource development. In 2012, tribal casinos nationwide pulled in $27.9 billion, along with another $3 billion to $4 billion in gaming-related revenues from hotels, golf courses, restaurants and the like. That's about twice as much as a decade earlier.

Economists generally agree that casinos have had a net positive impact on tribes and neighboring communities. A 2002 National Bureau of Economic Research paper concluded that after four years of operation, "Casinos appear to have changed the economic climate on reservations considerably" -- increasing employment and decreasing the number of working poor. The extra money has enabled tribal governments to build much-needed hospitals, schools and other infrastructure. Still, there are clear downsides: The same study showed that after casinos opened, larceny, violent crime and bankruptcies increased. Despite the drawbacks, however, most Southwestern tribes -- with a few exceptions, including the Hopi -- have embraced casinos.

At least, they embrace their own casinos. But when a new competitor wants to add to the 55 existing Southwestern Indian emporiums, it's not always welcome. There's little nearby tribes could do to stop a casino like Northern Edge, built on an established reservation. But when a tribe tries to build on a newer reservation or on non-reservation land, it must get federal and state approval, and that involves politics. Tribes have spent millions on lobbying and campaign contributions in hopes of swaying that process one way or another.

That brings us to the Fort Sill Apache Tribe, made up of the descendants of Geronimo and his warriors, whose tale M. John Fayhee relates in this issue. The tribe is currently based in Oklahoma, for complex historical reasons, but many members want to return to their ancestral homeland in the borderlands of Arizona and New Mexico. They've already created a brand-new, largely uninhabitable reservation on a scrubby 30-acre parcel in the middle of nowhere, N.M. To raise enough cash to buy better land, they want to open a casino on their new property.

That's sparked a complicated political battle. The Obama administration generally favors such proposals in the name of tribal sovereignty and economic development. Yet some of the region's established gaming tribes, including other Apaches, oppose the casino because of the competition it would bring. It's yet another tangled thread in the messy and fascinating story of Geronimo's descendants.