Lost in this week’s headlines about the Glendale City Council’s 4-3 vote to no longer oppose the Tohono O’odham Nation’s neighborhood casino are some critical points about what this new casino could mean for Valley neighborhoods and for the Nation’s sister tribes. At the risk of injecting a dose of fact and reality into the Nation’s overheated rhetoric about soaring tax revenues and “West Valley opportunity,” allow me to set the record straight.
First and foremost, while to date the Nation’s leaders’ public statements have focused on building a casino near 91st Avenue and Northern, in recent legal filings and depositions attorneys for the Nation have argued that the Tohono O’odham have the right to build not just one Phoenix-area casino, but four such properties.
Of course, such an assertion again flies in the face of the Nation’s promises to its sister tribes and to the voters of Arizona during the 2002 statewide campaign to approve the tribal gaming compacts. Then, the Nation portrayed itself as a southern Arizona tribe happy to dominate the Tucson area with its casinos. Little did anyone know that the tribe was already shopping for land in Glendale using a dummy corporation headquartered in Delaware. That same scenario — land purchased anonymously and held for exactly the right moment — already likely has happened again here in Maricopa County. Given the literally hundreds of county islands dotting the Valley, there’s no telling where Tohono O’odham is likely to site its next three casinos.
Nor has the Nation volunteered such information. In fact, Tohono O’odham’s leadership has pointedly refused to reveal the tribe’s landholdings in court, to neighboring governments, or to any inquiring parties.
Such subterfuge and duplicity has played an enormous role in the Gila River Indian Community’s years-long opposition to the Nation’s casino and in the opposition voiced by the majority of Arizona Indian tribes and other tribes nationally. Since its earliest days, tribal gaming in Arizona has been predicated on striking a careful balance — one that allows all tribal economies and Arizona communities to benefit, while restricting gambling to traditional tribal lands. Though the Nation argues that they’ve played by the rules, the truth is they are exploiting loopholes that only exist because its leaders and attorneys mislead other negotiating parties about its true intentions. Through bad faith negotiations the Tohono O’odham Nation has unilaterally changed the rules mid-game, in a way that could invalidate the voter-approved gaming compacts and open the door to Las Vegas-style casinos in multiple neighborhoods.
The possibility of unfettered gaming has created an enormous backlash to the Nation’s casino, birthing a coalition that includes Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, nearly the entire state congressional delegation, mayors across the region, and Gila River and more than a dozen tribal communities in Arizona and nationally. Also opposed to the project: More than 10,000 Glendale residents who signed petitions asking to put the issue on the ballot in November — a request denied by the city of Glendale on procedural grounds. Indeed, while the Nation portrays the recent Glendale vote as an enormous victory, it ignores the two lawsuits still outstanding against the casino and the need to secure permission from U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs to game on the Glendale land.
The Nation also continues to gloss over H.R. 1410, a congressional bill put forth by a bipartisan coalition of Arizona representatives. That bill, written to preserve tribes’ 2002 campaign promise to prevent Las Vegas-style gambling in neighborhoods, passed the U.S. House in a landslide voice vote and is awaiting action in the Senate.
As the leader of a community that has faced its own hard times, I’m sympathetic to the four Glendale Council members who so desperately want to believe the Nation’s promises of riches. Given Glendale’s financial woes, it must be powerfully tempting to believe salesmen and lawyers offering an easy way out. All I can say is, get those promises in writing. Our tribe took the Nation’s leaders at their word for many years, only to find out that their promises were accompanied by secret land deals, broken vows and years of expensive legal mumbo jumbo.
For the Valley’s sake, let’s hope that Glendale’s bet on sudden riches does not turn out to expose three more neighborhoods to gambling gone out of control.
— Gregory Mendoza is governor of the Gila River Indian Community