Flagstaff, United States – On the southwestern corner of the Navajo reservation, Twin Arrows Casino Resort towers over the empty Arizona desert, its lurid neon lights drawing travellers from the historic Route 66 highway to its bright Las Vegas-style gaming floors.
Crossing through the arid plains of western Texas into New Mexico and Arizona, the path of the famous US roadway is punctuated by Native American-operated casinos.
“These casinos are about creating jobs, about sourcing Navajo products and building our economy,” said Geri Camarillo, media representative at Twin Arrows Casino. “But it’s more than that. For most [non-native] people, casinos are the only indication they have entered unto sovereign native lands.”
Discussion about indigenous peoples around the world enters its second day on Tuesday at the first World Conference on Indigenous Peoples at the United Nations’ headquarters, in New York City.
Recognition of Native American sovereignty was given a historic boost in 1988 with the passage of the federal Indian Gaming Regulation Act (IGRA), which recognised the rights of tribal nations to operate casinos in states where the practice was otherwise outlawed.
“This is simply a recognition that tribal pueblos are nations unto themselves,” said former New Mexico governor and 2012 presidential candidate Gary Johnson about the IGRA. “That Indian sovereignty extends to gaming.”
|The Twin Arrows Navajo Casino Resort [AP]|
Since then, 237 tribes in 28 states have opened more than 400 casinos, a $27bn industry providing much-needed jobs and revenue to the US’ poorest minority group. Yet, for some people in the US, the expansion of the controversial gaming industry into the American mainstream has raised concerns about the impact of casinos on society.
“The government experiment with casinos has failed,” said Guy Clark from the Stop Predatory Gambling Foundation “It’s an aggressive form of taxation that benefits well-off people at the expense of those that are struggling.”
Describing the social ills associated with casinos, Clifton Below – a member of the New Hampshire anti-gaming group No Slots – told Al Jazeera: “When casinos enter communities you see increased social inequality, addiction, violence and alcoholism.”
Speaking to the disproportionate effect of gambling on the poor, Clifton continued, “These are a product of the simple fact that casinos function to transfer money from the many to the few.”
While few argue against the notion that casinos create a system of winners and losers – both on and off the gaming floor – many point to the largely positive effect gaming has had on Native Americans.
Professor Thaddeus Conner, who studies the impact of Indian gaming in the southwestern United States, told Al Jazeera: “It’s allowed them to become a bit more independent, to invest in social programmes and infrastructure so that it benefits the tribe as a whole … For some indigenous groups, casinos have provided the first prospect of economic self-determination in over 200 years.”
For Sean Pierce, a tribal elder from the Shiprock Chapter of the Navajo Nation, the importance of casinos is fundamentally about self-determination.
Standing near a mural depicting the treaty signing between the Navajo and the US, Pierce said, “This [Twin Arrows Casino] is an expression of our sovereignty. The constitution [and] the treaties gives us autonomy. That is our right.”
The Indian Gaming Regulation Act recognised this right, ushering in high-stakes gaming under the condition that casino revenue would return to the reservations to support services such as education, healthcare, and infrastructure in conjunction with the federal government, as per treaty agreements.
While a handful of casinos have benefited greatly – with 20 gaming operations controlling 50 percent of the total gaming revenue, according to the National Indian Gaming Association – many tribes such as the Navajo have struggled to lift themselves out of poverty.
Yet at Twin Arrows, the newest of four Navajo casinos, the poverty associated with the reservation is all but absent. The 210-room resort and casino combines the allure of high-stakes gaming within an air of cultural authenticity foreign to the likes of Las Vegas or Atlantic City.
Everything, the design of the casino represents our culture, our oral stories, our history.
“Each of our casinos embodies where we come from. The pride that we have [is] in who we are as Navajo,” said Ronda Ray, a pioneer of the Navajo gaming industry.
Twin Arrows’ Carrillo said, “The design of the casino represents our culture, our oral stories, our history.”
Anxiety about the affects of casinos was expressed for years, and was a primary reason behind the Navajo Council’s rejection of opening such establishments.
However, the profitability and largely positive impact of casinos on the nearby tribes compelled the 200,000-plus members of the Navajo nation to begin gaming.
Today, the four Navajo casinos employ more than 1,500 people, 90 percent of whom are Navajo. “It has enormous support from the community. It’s the largest job initiative not only in Navajo nation but in all of Arizona,” said Ken Johnson, players club manager at Twin Arrows.
Other means of economic development include the sourcing of products from the Navajo reservation.
“We are a Navajo casino, and we like to support our affiliate businesses on the reservation,” said the chef of the four-star Zenith Steakhouse, holding up a 32-ounce “Tomahawk” steak supplied by Navajo ranchers.
“We are part of something greater. We are creating a strong foothold for Navajo into the future, to make sure they’re vibrant and flourishing.”
‘Who is seeing the benefits?’
Yet on the expansive Navajo reservation, the benefits of casinos for the people are hard to quantify. Al Jazeera’s attempts for comment from the Navajo council about the use of casino revenues were denied.
The scene at Firerock Casino is in stark contrast to Twin Arrows. Here, hundreds of predominantly Navajo costumers sit in front of slot machines, card tables, or at the bar located near the gaming floor.
As Melissa Bell, a Navajo women from nearby Flagstaff said: “Someone is getting rich off of Twin Arrows, but it ain’t us. If Twin Arrows is for the tourists, Firerock is for the people. And the people are struggling.”
Frank Chavez is a Navajo who lives near the Flowing Water Navajo Casino, which like Firerock draws primarily from the impoverished Navajo community. “When you come to these casinos it’s all Navajo. It’s no good. They are taking money from the pockets of poor Navajo, and who is seeing the benefits?”