CHURCH ROCK, N.M. – On June 19, leaders of the Navajo Nation held a groundbreaking ceremony for the first of several casinos to be built on Navajo land.
Despite the low turnout of a little more than 200 guests, President Joe Shirley Jr., Vice President Ben Shelly and several Navajo Nation council delegates were present to participate in this historic event.
”This was truly a team effort between many different leadership resources,” Shirley said. ”We are very excited about this momentous occasion and I cannot tell you how happy I am to be here today to see this happen.”
The development of Navajo Nation casinos had been delegated to a branch of the formal nation government: the Navajo Nation Gaming Enterprise. The NNGE has complete authority of casino development on the nation. Sean McCabe, a certified public accountant, is chairman of the NNGE board of directors.
”The board consists of five talented individuals, four of whom are Navajo,” he said. ”The NNGE board is unlike any other gaming board in Indian country because of the experience and talent of our members.”
While most tribal members are appointed by tribal leaders, the NNGE board endured a more intense screening process. ”We have board members who have as much as 30 years of experience working with Indian gaming: members who are practicing attorneys and members who have degrees in accounting and business administration, and who have experience in New Mexico gaming and tribal politics.”
McCabe mentioned that the NNGE board has the support from the Navajo Nation administration and council. The NNGE board hopes to open the first Navajo Nation casino in mid-November.
Raymond Etcitty, Navajo, is a graduate of the University of New Mexico Law School and a member of the NNGE’s general council. He has witnessed the development of the nation’s first casino from the start.
”Two of our major challenges have been first to develop a responsible gaming enterprise,” he said. ”This will ensure that our operation can function at an optimal business level. The second is to solidify a casino developer-like expertise, since the Navajo Nation will be constructing several casinos, not just one.”
According to Etcitty, one of the major challenges the NNGE has faced has come from internal pressure from several chapters of the Navajo Nation.
”The gaming compact between the Navajo Nation and the state of Arizona states that the state will only work with one entity from the Navajo Nation,” he said. ”Since we will be building several casinos within the boundaries of various chapters, we are constantly multitasking to get the job done, while minimizing any misunderstandings or misinformation from members and communities of the Navajo Nation. Every chapter wants to be the top priority, but we have to be realistic and patient.”
The Navajo Nation negotiated gaming compacts with Arizona and New Mexico in 2003 under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. The major piece of legislation is the Navajo Nation Gaming Ordinance. However, the NNGE drafted and printed a 300-page gaming regulatory guideline text that implements the ordinance and details the gaming operations from hiring practices, dispute resolution and licensing to how the nation will spend revenues.
”There has been a lot of discussion on how the revenues will be spent,” Etcitty said. ”Initially, most of the money will go back into the enterprise to build five more casinos. Of course funds will be transferred to the Navajo Nation to improve living conditions on our land. There is so much need on our reservation and we are confident that gaming will eventually alleviate some of our burdens.”
The Navajo Nation first voted on a gaming referendum in 1990s, but the referendum did not pass.
”Back then, there was a concern that our government would not develop responsibly. I’ve been with the [Navajo Nation] Gaming Enterprise from the beginning and know that, although we are new to the gaming industry compared to our neighbors, we are moving forward as a unified corporate body. And this is promising.”
When asked about disbursing gaming revenues to tribal members, Etcitty replied, ”A per capita payment is definitely unrealistic and would be very costly just to facilitate because the Navajo population is so huge. We as Navajo must remember that we still have communities that do not have electricity, running water or paved roads. Our priorities are in stabilizing our economic infrastructure and improving reservation conditions.”
Unlike most gaming tribes that began in the early ’80s, the Navajo Nation did not seek outside funding venues for its first casino. Instead the NNGE is funded by a self-financed loan taken out of the nation’s own Land Acquisition Trust Fund, thereby utilizing the value of its large land base.