Navajo Casinos Stimulate Economy — At A Cost

By Laurel Morales
November 21, 2013
Courtesy of Twin Arrows Navajo Casino Resort
Symbols of Navajo culture are everywhere. The chandelier hanging in the entryway is inspired by the creation story.

In the not too distant past people driving Interstate 40 through northern Arizona may have noticed the two giant red arrows that appear to be shot into the ground, and not much else.

Travelers now whizzing by Twin Arrows can’t miss the giant, lit-up sign inviting them into the Navajo Nation’s newest casino. On that side of the highway the arrows point toward the sky. That’s the direction Navajo Nation Gaming Enterprise CEO Derrick Watchman said the casinos can take the tribe’s economy.  

“Last year across the country Indian gaming had roughly $27 billion in revenue creating thousands and thousands and thousands of jobs,” Watchman said.

About half of the Navajo Nation is unemployed. Many people live without electricity and indoor plumbing isolated on dirt roads. So stepping out of the outhouses and tumbleweeds and into the glittering new casino resort, you can’t help but notice a disparity.

The Navajo Nation Gaming Enterprise is trying to do something about that. It has created more than 1,300 jobs of various pay scales at four casinos. Eighty percent of those employees are Navajo.

It’s been five years since the Navajo Nation opened its first casino. For two decades the tribe resisted the lure of the quick money maker. They feared the social ills that tend to come with gaming — compulsive gambling, alcoholism, crime and loss of culture. 

Players Club Manager Kenneth Johnson is proud to work here. He recently gave a tour and pointed out the many cultural symbols — some subtle in the shade of wallpaper or face on the poker chip, some not so subtle. On the screens above the slot machines, you can watch an animated film that illustrates the tribe’s creation story. 

“So you have the different elements depicted,” Johnson said. “You have earth, fire, water and wind. So he’s giving the gifts to first man and first woman.”

Courtesy of Twin Arrows Navajo Casino Resort
Twin Arrows is the Navajo Nation's fourth casino. The tribe plans to open two more. So far the revenue is going into paying back the building loan. Eventually it will go to the tribal government to hire more police officers, build better schools and pave roads.

There’s a clear effort to hold onto the tribe’s roots and inform visitors. About 65 percent of the patrons at Twin Arrows are non-native. At the tribe’s three other casinos in New Mexico, more Navajos are spending money.

While no alcohol is allowed on the reservation, the tribe decided to make an exception at its casinos to stay competitive. And they’ve paid the price. The average number of public intoxication arrests is up 77 percent in Church Rock, N.M., since the first casino opened there, according to tribal police records.

“It’s not as concrete or it’s not as black and white as because of the casino there’s that many more incidents,” said Erny Zah, spokesman for the Navajo president. “That’s part of it. But the other part is we also have four more officers in the community of Church Rock. And that alone brings more law presence to that community.”

Zah said the tribe plans to have more officers stationed at the new casino as well.

“Economic development comes with costs,” said Kathryn Rand co-director of the Institute for the Study of Tribal Gaming Law and Policy at the University of North Dakota. “In particularly economic development based on gambling can come with costs.”

But historically Rand said the economic development options available to tribes have been incredibly limited.

Laurel Morales
On one side of the Interstate two giant red arrows point toward the ground. On this side of the highway the arrows point up. That's where the Navajo Tribe hopes the casinos take its economy.

“Not just by where reservations are located, but by lack of market, by lack of a taxable land base by reservation communities that are already struggling with some of the most dire socioeconomic circumstances in our nation,” Rand said.

Since the federal government passed the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act in 1988, casinos have become a viable way for tribes to jumpstart their economies. But Rand said the most successful tribes use the casinos as a launching pad to diversify.

The Navajo Nation recently announced plans to do just that and build an outlet mall, RV Park and entertainment complex next to the Twin Arrows casino.