Wanna Bet? The Tohono O'odham Want to Build a Casino in the West Valley -- Now It's Up to the Feds to Make It Happen or Break Another Promise to the Tribe

Albert Manuel walks through the desert near Gila Bend, reminiscing about the days when Indian villages sprawled across the landscape. He grew up in this southwestern desert, played under its mesquite trees, and hunted quail and dove with his brothers.

"We'd go to the water tank or sit under the trees," Manuel said. "Everybody took care of each other here."

In those days, the Gila River meandered through the Indian reservation about 100 miles southwest of Phoenix. The Papago Indians, now the Tohono O'odham Nation, settled into the small villages of Vecho, Diak, and Sil Murk along the banks of the river.

photos by Monica Alonzo
Lorraine Marquez Eiler stands over the remnants of a grill in what was the old Gila Bend Indian Reservation. Repeated flooding forced tribal members from their land and carried away crosses from their cemetery.
Lorraine Marquez Eiler stands over the remnants of a grill in what was the old Gila Bend Indian Reservation. Repeated flooding forced tribal members from their land and carried away crosses from their cemetery.

Families lived on the 22,000-acre reservation in homes with cactus-rib walls, clay floors, and thatched rooftops. In 1882, the federal government established the Gila Bend Indian Reservation, one of four in Arizona that make up the Tohono O'odham Nation.

By 1909, Washington cut the reservation by more than half. Even so, it was plenty big enough for tribal members to gather wood, hunt, worship, and raise families.

Villagers did not feel cramped until 1967, when they were forced to leave their homes because of continual flooding from Painted Rock Dam — built in 1960 by the federal Corps of Engineers downstream from the reservation to protect farming communities in southern Arizona. Water backup from the dam flooded reservation land repeatedly during the 1970s and '80s. Livelihoods were destroyed, including a 750-acre farm that helped support the tribe.

The villagers gathered their personal possessions and were ushered a couple of miles south onto what is known as San Lucy Village, a 40-acre tract that essentially is all that remains of the Gila Bend reservation. They left behind their homes, their feast house, a community dining hall, and a way of life they would never recapture.

They could not leave behind their most valuable possession, though — the San Lucy Chapel. So after the last Catholic Mass was offered at the tribe's tiny house of worship, villagers removed every religious object and embarked on a two-hour procession to San Lucy Village. It was a long, sad march for the tribe.

"It was a trail of tears," says Lorraine Marquez Eiler, a tribal councilwoman in San Lucy. "The only thing we were able to salvage was that little church. The whole thing is a tragedy."

The smaller reservation had some modern houses, a new church, and a feast hall. But tribal hearts ached for the old villages.

"Moving to the new site created a big rift as to who we are," says Manuel, tribal chairman of Sun Lucy. "We'll probably never get to the point where we've been made whole again."

The forced move was the latest in a series of broken promises made to the tribe by the federal government.

First, because of pressure from land-hungry white farmers, the feds reduced the reservation to about 10,000 acres. Then, the government said it would help the impoverished tribe improve its land for agriculture. Before that could happen, the feds approved the dam, which flooded reservation land and forced the tribe to move.

Then, almost two decades after the Tohono O'odham settled San Lucy Village on the 40 acres, federal lawmakers promised tribal leaders in 1986 that they could replace the about 10,000 acres irreparably damaged by Painted Rock Dam — a pledge that the tribe became determined to make Washington keep.

It would take the tribe almost another two decades to find a chunk of real estate it wanted, a 134-acre parcel in the West Valley. In acquiring the property, tribal leaders were shrewd, using the same tricks that non-Indian developers use in land deals all the time.

The Tohono O'odham Nation purchased the land through a company with no apparent ties to the tribe and quietly sat on it for six years. In January 2009, the Nation shocked certain state and Valley political leaders when it announced that it owned the property and intended to build the state's largest resort-style casino on it.

The leaders, including Governor Jan Brewer, Glendale Mayor Elaine Scruggs, and U.S. senators Jon Kyl and John McCain, lined up to fight the Nation's proposal — arguing that it violates state gaming laws and that a casino in West Valley suburbia would destroy neighborhoods.

Barely mentioned by the politicians were the 10,000 acres lost to flooding that squeezed the tribe and its way of life onto 40 acres.

Although the federal legislation that enabled the Tohono O'odham Nation to buy the property was supported by McCain, Senator Barry Goldwater, and other prominent politicians of the time, tribal leaders are hardly surprised that a federal official like McCain is now speaking out against the reservation designation and casino project.

If McCain and other detractors are successful at blocking the project, tribal leaders feel, it would be still another broken promise by the feds.

Tribesmen like Manuel are living every day with the results of the broken promises over the Painted Rock Dam.

While the four reservations in the Tohono O'odham Nation add up to 2.4 million acres — about the size of Connecticut — San Lucy Village quarters are tight. Several generations of families in the 500-person community are packed in modest homes marked by decades of poverty.

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25 comments
Francine Romesburg
Francine Romesburg

This is a fabulous article that I wish to print to add to my book of information regarding TO Nation and it's plight with the idiocy of City of Glendale fighting the proposed Casino that is legally allowed to be built according to all court cases, The 1986 Gila Bend Reclamation Land Act, Arizona Gaming Compact, and Prop 202. This is so sad. I believe the TO Nation's Dream of this beautiful Resort/Convention Center/Casino/Atrium will become a reality in 2012 and there are many of us who can't wait and have been helping TO Nation fight to WIN!

NamU
NamU

I wish they were building an incinerator instead so they could just burn all the foreign invaders who now live in stolen Native American Indigenous lands and decimate it with their pollution.

James Bailey
James Bailey

Wouldn't it be a hoot if the Tohono Oódham Nation purchaed the Coyotes Hockey Team!!!

That would be hililarious - those old coots over in Glendale would have to lick the boots of the very tribe they condemn now instead of Ellman's boots.

Trina
Trina

Ok with the greed thing, Do you know where AZ gets a lot of money for everyday funding that ALL state citizens use? Casino's, not just TO casino but all casino's. We think that the nation is just greedy then we better look again. Look how far this soverign nation has come and the future of where it wants to go. Think of the economy boost for the city of Glendale not just the boost of money for the nation. Everyone get a piece back and you people in opposition to the tribe as well. I'm sure you have used some kind of state funded program for yourself but for your family as well. If not what the hell do you drive on. . . roads are funded so you can get to and from work. Park and Rec where your family enjoy thier time together. Remember people we all win in this decision. Also Eric it is not just your city it is other peoples as well. You may have an opionon but there are a lot of other people involved as well. The politicans involved in stopping this project have to remember who helped get them into office. It's all about money and yes it is a major issue but as I have stated before, everyone wins from this type of establishment. So what if purchases were done on a low, either way those opposed would have tried to stop it someway. I just hope that people will stop and see the big picture and what this will do for not only Glendale's economy but for AZ and the people of the Tohono O'odham Nation. We are looking to protect the future not destroy it.

billT
billT

Glendale leaders dont seem to have a good grasp of economic development. They made a better that sports, bars and restaurants could never be hit by a recession. They were wrong. Now they are scared shitless this casino will be the final nail in the coffin for westgate and Jobing.com. This is Ed Beasely and Elaine Scruggs trying mitigate their bad decisions. The tribe should not have to pay for the stupidity and lack of vision of Glendale decisionmakers.

Eric
Eric

You could take this land and sell tacky turquoise jewelry on it and I would not mind. You could sell Fry Bread on it and I would not mind. You could put up historic native-american dwellings and I would not mind. You could erect a massive statue of an extended middle finger up in the air at us, and I would not mind. You could erect an outlet mall on it and I would not mind. You could move every Tohono O'odham nation tribe member into a massive condo building on the property and I would not mind. You could use it as a seasonal football game "cheap alternative parking lot" and I would not mind. You could use it as an administrative HQ for your OTHER casino operations and I would not mind.

But you decided to deceptively acquire the land and secretly plan to develop a casino on this land in the middle of my neighborhood. This I mind.

Knock off all the charges of racism and whatnot. This has nothing to do with homelands, longing for simpler days, yearning for Gila Bend or anything even remotely related. It has to do with your insensitivity over land use in a suburban neighborhood. Apparently you are not satisfied with the profits being realized from casinos located within traditional reservation lands. Either you're not getting the revenue, or you're getting plenty, but just want more. That's not my problem to solve.

I was OK living in an area where casinos were located nearby, but not in my neighborhood. Now they'll be moving into the domain where I live. I can't have that. I won't have that.

I think you members chose unwisely. You had to be arrogant and push the issue right into the middle of the developed urban centers. And as a result, you'll probably lose more than you gained from this. If you think that the feds will side with unchecked and unrestricted gaming growth in urban areas, you have seriously misjudged us.

Francine Romesburg
Francine Romesburg

You are so very wrong in your thinking. This is not your land. It is unincorporated land within Maricopa County which is deemed allowed to be purchased by TO Nation to build economic development. They did not do so deceptively as you state. what they did do is purchase the land as all white businessmen do, under a third party to keep the price down. they learned well from us on how to buy wisely. They wanted to make sure this time, the feds kept their promise to them. I, personally don't blame them. We don't live all that far away. I've spoken to many people who live near the area and have no problem with the building of the Casino. In fact they welcome it. It's way better than another office complex sitting around empty, or strip malls with empty store fronts, or even more bars, or better yet, more strip joints. As it stands now, it is just a huge empty piece of land sitting there doing nothing right beside a huge empty office complex that went bankrupt twice. The Resort is a beautiful building, as well as a 3 acre atrium, walkways lined with trees, Convention Center, Restaurants, and shopping. Parking and the Casino will be over near the on / off ramps of the Loop 101 so how does that effect you. Your neighborhood as you call it is about a mile down the road. There is office buildings, gas stations, restaurants, empty land, empty buildings, fields of something growing there, what used to be and maybe still an egg/chicken farm, mall with more buildings, parking, restaurants, and a movie theater further west of the Casino. Homes/neighborhoods/apartments etc., don't really start until almost a mile eastward. Guess you don't mind the Strip joint a little further down the road on Northern do you. That is okay. Let's get serious. This will create much needed jobs and revenue to revitalize the City of glendale and Westgate. Only thing at moment keeping Westgate alive now is the Wednesday Bike night, Big Boy's toy show once a year, maybe a few overpriced concerts, and oh yea, let's not forget the money losing Coyotes games that don't bring in much revenue, and all the huge lighted Billboards around the way cool dancing waters that promote all Gila River Indian Community Casinos that are anywhere from 45 minutes away to over 1 hr away. that's all ok though. Bars are plentiful all around the area, off track betting and poker all down in the Westgate City Center Plaza. Go figure. But, oh my, not a Casino. Can't have that now can we. Get a clue.

Nancy Phillips Watkins
Nancy Phillips Watkins

I don't agree with your comment-I also live in the area of the proposed casino--- and hand made Turquoise jewelry is NOT tacky!

Trevor
Trevor

So it's OK for the tribes way of life to be destroyed for the benefit of us for more than a century, but it's not ok for them to do something that benefits them in "your neigborhood"?

I'm pretty sure they couldn't and wouldn't have their 22,000 acres cut down to 40 and then flooded by the gov't, but it happened and they dealt with it. Their not trying to take your half-acre property and cut it down to 100 square feet and then flood it.

The only reason people are mad now is because they're using the same progressive, deceptive, underhanded techniques that the u.s. gov't has been using for decades to acquire land and allow you to have your beloved neighborhood. If you don't like, don't patronize it.

Eric
Eric

I'd be more than happy for the feds to write them a check to allow them to purchase some other piece of property (that doesn't sit in the middle of my city) and open any casino they like. Likewise, if they want to buy this piece of property and open a Walmart with a "no-sales-tax" gimmick, I'm fine with that too. But no way do I want a casino in my city. Just no way.

A casino will not help the tribe recapture its "way of life" next to the river. Sad that they have chosen casinos as their new way of life.

JayMarno
JayMarno

The Glendale property acquired by the Tohono O'odham and purchased through a fictitious company, is entitled to be transfered into trust and deemed by the U.S. Department of Interior and Bureau of Indian Affairs to be an Indian reservation by the terms of the $30,000,000 Gila Benda inverse condemnation settlement Act and payment proceeds, BUT it is not eligible "Indian Lands" upon which any gambling casino can be built and operated. The Indian Gaming and Regulatory Act of 1988 prohibits class II or class III gambling on lands acquired by any Indian tribe after October 1988. The Glendale property was acquired in 2003 and is, not only ineligible for gambling, but is NOT ENTITLED TO one of the specific EXCEPTIONS to the general prohibition on gambling which exceptions are set out in 25 USC 2719. The land can be used, however, for other types of economic development as provided in the 1986 settlement Act.

darwin
darwin

It's nice to know that "Sara Mae Williams" would be willing to divide this money to dept. around the Nation. But then what? Think of it like your check comes in, its spent. Now what? The casino idea is to have continuous money for the Nation so we CAN have money for education, O'odham based stores. etc. to continue living in a world that wants to ________________ O'odham way of living.

Indigenous Citizen
Indigenous Citizen

The idea that the Tohono O'odham are infringing on City interests is looney. "Arizonians" squatted on Tohono O'odham land, not the other way around. The selected lands replace 10,000 acres? This is reflective of American responses to all things "Indian". We are invisible until the next time we get in the way. As long as we act the hollywood image, we are ok, but watch out if "they" feel that we don't play the part. The Tohono O'odham face outright institutionalized racism veiled under capitalistic greed. BUT, this is AZ: America's latest Ol' Southern Hospitality State!

Tony Perille
Tony Perille

They better let the Tohono O'odham Nation put up that casino. If John McCain, Jon Kyl and Jan Brewer is going to stay in office becouse I and a lot of people will not vote them back in office.

Nancy Phillips Watkins
Nancy Phillips Watkins

I won't vote them back into office no matter what they do! But I would like to see the casino built.

Fact Check
Fact Check

Sorry, John... you might want to check your facts again. The land is unincorporated. Glendale has treated it as such and public documents confirm this. Heck, even a visit to the assessor's website shows this.

bob chiago
bob chiago

Regardless of the opposition by the politicians mentioned, it seems that the problem is with the inability of the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, to make a decision to place the 134 acre parcel in trust so that it will become a reservation of the Tohono O'odham (TO) Nation. The Federal Government needs to fulfill it's responsibility to the TO Nation or return the lands it had taken for the Painted Rock Dam.

Politicians support Luke as a base for the F-35 and they want the Coyotes to remain in Glendale because they help the economy. A casino would probably be even more helpful to the economy as it's a 24/7 operation.

The two casinos operated by Casino Arizona adjacent to the City of Scottsdale have been positive economic engines to Scottsdale and have not increased the crime rate.

Sara Mae Williams
Sara Mae Williams

My name is Sara Mae Williams and I am a member of the Tohono Oódham Nation. One month and a half ago, I left the comforts of our Nation to live and work on a sustainable living farm in Obera, Misiones, Argentina for three months. While I have kept many of our Nations people updated with my travels, they in turn have kept me updated with information about issues regarding our Nation. I have never had the opportunity to properly respond and with the news in regards to our latest casino development, I would like to share my thoughts with you, respectively.

Recently, I have read responses from all sides of the West Valley Casino development issue, and there are many people for and just as many against, the entire casino development. Like a see-saw there sits three governments, Arizona State and all their supporters on one end, Tohono Oódham Nation and all their supporters on the other end and riding snug in the middle waiting to make a decision, the Federal Government.

While the issue of the land acquisition in the West Valley area is a no-brainer, I believe the real issue we as a Nation should be more concerned with is whether or not the West Valley Resort is in the best interest of our ¨People¨ to spend $500,000,000 dollars, that our government either has or will receive by loan, to invest in one (1) casino.

While I have read the numerous reports provided by our Nation from, The State of the Tohono Oódham Nation to the newly released Seth Waxmen Report and the West Valley Resort Study II. I can´t help but wonder, where is the voice of our Oódham People, where do we as a ¨People¨ fit within the West Valley equation?

A little over two years ago, we as a Nation elected our current Executive Administration, there was a new prospect for change on the horizon, hope was in our hearts for a new theme rang out, which said to the pèople, We:sig T-we:m. All of us Together...

We:sig T-we:m?

Not to be disrespectful and some might take it a such, but I have yet to see this idea actually practiced. Decisions have been made and are continually being made and often I feel that our Nation´s ¨People¨ are the last to be properly informed. I have yet to see a report written to the People on the State of the Tohono Oódham Nation´s Economy.

While the United States grapples with high-unemployment, States on the brink of bankruptcy, homes in foreclosure, and now many American´s find themselves in financial ruin. So, in the midst of a National recession, where does the Tohono Oódham Nation stand and how has it affected and effected our Nation?

I think by answering a few questions and properly informing our people about all aspects of the project, they in turn can make an informed decision on whether to support or not support the West Valley Resort project. I strongly believe that if we are going to spend money on gathering people´s decision about the project, off Nation, we should also spend money on gathering our own people´s opinions about the project, on Nation.

As far as, my own opinion is concerned, without all the logistics laid out, I currently do not stand in favor of the casino. The one question, I would like to ask the People of the Tohono Oódham Nation is simply,¨If you had $500 million dollars to spend and knowing what you know about the current economic situation, would you invest in a casino and if not, what would you do with $500 million dollars?¨

My own answer to this question is this, If I had $500 million dollars...

First, I would give $20 million to TOCC to finally build their new campus, I would give them an additional $10 million to begin a language and culture institute, where curriculum can be developed to be taught in all our school from Headstart to College. I would give 10 million to every school from new headstart centers to highschools, that need to either be built or remodeled. Remaining money can go toward program development. I would invest in Renewable Energy projects that not just benefiting the big business that have the money to buy energy but for our own people to benefit, as well. I would give $50,000 to every family that is willing to learn and build a sustainable earthen home, remaining money can be used to invest in solar technology. I would invest in job creation for our people and hopefully diminish our high-unemployment. Create quality human resource programs that get our people back to work, programs working for our people, not against them. I would shut Basha´s down and start our own grocery chain selling traditonal foods grown by our own Oódham farmers, meat provided by our own Oódham ranchers...and on and on....

Ultimately, what I am saying here is that I would invest in our ¨People¨. In the end, with this thought in mind, I think I would still have 100 million left over...

Unfortunately, I feel that this project has left a lot of people feeling uneasy. At the core, our brothers and sisters all over our traditonal Oódham land leave us to stand alone in pursuing this endeavor.

I wonder, if it would be in our best interest that if we, as a whole, We:sig T-we:m, find that this project will be beneficial to our, People, that we go forward, United and if so, maybe all our Oódham will follow. If not would it be so terrible to invest in our own ¨People¨?

In the words of the late Wilma Mankiller she once said, ¨In Iroquois society, leaders are encouraged to remember seven generations in the past and consider seven generations in the future when making decisions that affect the people.¨

Casinos do not define us, our People do....

gordinaz
gordinaz

I do think its all about"greed" but not on the part of the Tohono Nation but from the politicians. Once again the stall to allow the minorities to have something for themselves. Instead of looking at the benefits for the state after all the funding cuts for education, day care, etc...that the 8 percent could go to. If Gov. Brewer feels it is wrong then let her take a pay cut and sacrafice for our state as the middleclass do. If it was a white run corporation doing this, the white rich institutions would be all for it. But anything coming from brown in this state is all bad. And the worry about neighborhoods? why dont they take care of the neighborhoods of south phoenix, central phoenix, instead of just worrying about the affluent neighborhoods of the new west valley. Everyone is out for their own self interests thats how its always been and if the state is not willing to help let the various races that have found a way to survive in these pityful times then let them be.

pietrainer
pietrainer

No shit the tribe wants to make money. Its not masked in the article. They are doing it to make lots of money. Glendale is trying to stop it because they will lose lots of money. Its all about money. The story was very upfront about this and its the basis of the entire battle.

sadie
sadie

The City of Glendale are acting like a bunch of hypocrites. I guess they had no other choice since Scruggs was asleep at the wheel.

John
John

I like how the author is trying to mask greed as longing for a lost homeland, like any of these Tohono O'odhams will actually live there, all they want is casino $$$$, Why dont they build one in Gila Bend?

besides, the law being refered to only allows for UNICORPORATED areas to be annexed by the tribe, not west Glendale, hence the judge stopping it

VikThor
VikThor

Best of luck to the Tohono O'odham!

 
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