Gambling: A tribe hits the jackpot

  • Poker table in progress

    Deadwood Visitors Bureau
  • Indians playing cards

    University of Montana Archives
  • Clinton Pattea, Ft. McDowell Yavapai tribal president

    Elizabeth Manning
  • Mona Nunez in front of remains of her first childhood home

    Elizabeth Manning

FORT McDOWELL, Ariz. - It started as a traditional cowboy and Indian battle - one the Indians were supposed to lose. At 6:00 on a May morning in 1992, a team of FBI agents accompanied by eight Mayflower moving vans invaded the Fort McDowell Reservation. Armed agents broke into the tribal bingo hall and began carting slot machines into the vans. SWAT teams set up guard on the roof.

By then the Indian telephone network was awake and at work. The first calls came from tribal members at the hall. From neighbor to cousin to friend to the media, the message spread: Come down to the gaming center and bring a car or pickup. By the time the vans were ready to roll, the Indians had hemmed in the 18-wheelers with heavy machinery and dozens of vehicles, including the tribe's small fleet of sand and gravel trucks. More seriously, the FBI agents faced a thoroughly awake and angry Yavapai Nation.

As the Indians saw it, this was sovereign land and the FBI was stealing the only dependable livelihood they had managed to find in a century of white rule. Tribal president Clinton Pattea recalls, "After they loaded the trucks, our people blocked the entrance. It was a rather scary situation. They came in without any notice."

"It was lucky for them we're not a violent tribe," says tribal member Nimrod Thomas.

Given the sudden confrontation, anything could have happened. What did happen was the arrival several hours later by helicopter of Arizona Gov. Fife Symington, the toughest-talking and most pugnacious governor in the West. Whether Symington knew it or not, he was coming to negotiate his unconditional surrender.

Civil disobedience appeared to be the only option the tribe had. Pattea says he and other Indian leaders had been trying for years to meet with an Arizona governor to start negotiations over the slot machines. Negotiations were required under a 1988 federal law sanctioning Indian gaming, but the tribes' advances had been rejected by former Govs. Rose Moffort, Evan Mecham, and finally Symington. If the vans left with the slot machines, the tribe would have lost all leverage.

The confrontation must have shaken the governor. Four other raids on Indian casinos that morning had gone well for the FBI. Then he heard of the Yavapai blockade. Fearing violence or a forced agreement less to his liking, Symington started talking.

Within an hour and a half, he and Pattea had worked out a temporary standoff: The slot machines would stay in the vans, but the vans would stay in the gaming center parking lot pending further negotiations. In the following weeks, Arizona's tribes staged powwows next to the vans while the machines baked under the desert sun. Public sympathy swelled.

A little more than a year later, the Fort McDowell Yavapai tribe had a 10-year compact with Symington and a fully legal and open casino. By April 1994, Symington had signed similar compacts with 16 of Arizona's 21 tribes. Phoenix is now ringed by three casinos; 12 others are spread across the state.

The following sidebar articles accompany this feature story:

- Life is a game, but bingo is serious

- The nuts and bolts of Western gambling

- I made $52,000 in 1994 and never bought a pair of shoes that whole year

- Navajos say no - then maybe - to casinos

... as well as another feature story in this issue:

- Deadwood pays dearly for gambling riches