Proposed West Valley Casino Is Pitting Valley Indian Tribes Against One Another
Jiivik Siiki sits inside the Wild Horse Pass Resort just outside Chandler. His black hair parted into two long braids that rest on his back, he wears a small silver hoop in each ear.
Siiki is a member of the Gila River Indian Community who values tribal traditions over the structure imposed by the U.S. government that all tribes adopted in the early 1900s. He's troubled by the ongoing battle his community is waging against the Tohono O'odham Nation over a West Valley casino the Nation wants to build.
His maternal grandmother was Tohono O'odham. He explains in his soothing voice that his community's approach is not the traditional path.
Proposed West Valley Casino Is Pitting Valley Indian Tribes Against One Another
"It makes it uncomfortable at a time when we're trying to strengthen our bonds," he says. "This isn't us. This isn't our way of behaving."
He shudders at the implication of greed associated with his community because of its leaders' political position.
Gila River officials have maintained an exhaustive and costly campaign to frustrate the Tohono O'odham proposal for a state-of-the-art casino west of Phoenix, near 95th and Northern avenues.
On October 30, they posted a plea on a community Facebook page urging residents to support a measure in Congress that would prevent the sister tribe from building the West Valley Resort, just outside Peoria and Glendale's city limits.
"The Tohono O'odham Nation's proposed Glendale casino will encroach on [our] aboriginal lands and put at risk every Tribe's exclusive right to operate casinos in Arizona," the Facebook post read. "That's why our Community needs HR 1410 — and why we need your help."
The bill, sponsored by Arizona Congressman Trent Franks, was approved by federal lawmakers in the House of Representatives but has stalled in the Senate. The narrowly crafted proposal would prevent any new casinos in the Valley until current gaming agreements expire in 2027. A similar law adopted in Arizona in 2011 was overturned after a Maricopa County Superior Court judge ruled it unconstitutional.
Jiivik Siiki and others posted comments after the Facebook post, critical of Gila River's leadership. The issues of greed and waste of financial resources were brought up repeatedly.
"Is there an HR bill that reminds us that we are relatives?" Siiki posted.
Despite four years of vehement opposition, primarily driven by the city of Glendale, the Gila River Indian Community, and the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, the Tohono O'odham Nation has prevailed over and over in state and federal courts, in the halls of Congress, and, arguably, in the court of public opinion.
This sobering reality has softened some critics.
Glendale approved a city resolution opposing the casino in April 2009, just a few months after the Nation announced a plan for it. More than four years and four new council members later, elected officials reached a consensus in October to open lines of communication with Tohono O'odham leaders.
And some Glendale officials report that informal talks could quickly turn into formal negotiations.
The city's new approach hasn't caused all opposition to wane. Leaders of the opposing tribes and state officials — including Arizona Governor Jan Brewer and Attorney General Tom Horne — continue to fight the casino.
Pressing for support of Franks' bill, they accuse the Nation of breaking a promise to voters that there would be no new casinos in the Phoenix area and of threatening to invalidate the state's gaming compact approved in 2002.
Mayors of Scottsdale, Tempe, Gilbert, Litchfield Park, and Glendale parroted talking points about such alleged broken promises in a September opinion piece in the Arizona Republic.
In it, they warned that an explosion of new casinos "anywhere in the Phoenix metropolitan area that [the Nation] chooses" would result if its casino project prevails.
The rhetoric is contrary to a federal judge's ruling in June that no promise banning new casinos in the Valley is included in the 25-year agreement that regulates nearly every facet of gaming, including the number of casinos allocated to each tribe, the number and type of machines permitted inside casinos, and the location of future casinos.
On January 11, during an informational meeting at the Gila River's Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort, Indian Community Governor Gregory Mendoza kept the propaganda attack going.
He told those in attendance that it "pains" him that this dispute continues with the Nation, according to a January 17 story in a tribal newsletter:
"The Tohono O'odham people, they're our hajuñ, our family. And I believe a lot of us here are [part] Tohono O'odham. I am . . . but this dispute is not with the Tohono O'odham people. Our objection [is] to a reckless course of action that is contrary to a promise the Tohono O'odham Nation . . . made to each other and to the voters of the state of Arizona."
The article in the Gila River Indian News fails to mention what U.S. District Judge David Campbell wrote in his June ruling: That "no reasonable reading of the Compact could lead a person to conclude that it prohibited new casinos in the Phoenix area."
Campbell wrote that a matter of such importance — the location of future casinos — wouldn't naturally be omitted from the gaming agreement.
"Both parties had substantial interests at stake and were well-represented during negotiations," the judge wrote.
Yet, to fuel opposition and to overcome such unfavorable legal rulings, foes — ironically even opposing tribal leaders — have taken a page out of the 1990s playbook of anti-gaming state officials, including former Governor Fife Symington and ex-Arizona Department of Gaming Director Gary Husk.
Husk warned the public in 1996 that an "eruption of Las Vegas-style gambling" would result if gaming was allowed to take root in the state. Fifteen years gone by, and Husk's prediction hasn't come true.
But to demonize the Tohono O'odham, Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community President Diane Enos told a newspaper in 2011 that approving the West Valley Resort would be the first step toward statewide gaming, asking: "Do we really want Las Vegas-style gaming in Arizona?"
Tribal opponents long have abandoned the bows, arrows, and sharpened clubs once used to attack neighboring tribes. These days, they wage war against their native brethren with lobbyists, lawyers, and lawmakers.
But their attorneys haven't made convincing arguments. And although their lobbyists have pressed lawmakers to gin up and support legislation to accomplish what they've been unable to, the bills floated — mainly by Representative Franks — haven't gained traction.
Choice land and natural resources aren't at stake in modern-day wars over expanded gaming, taking place in Wisconsin, Michigan, Oregon, and Washington, as well as in Arizona. Instead, in this state, the spoils are a share of the $1.8 billion in annual gross revenues that 23 Arizona casinos generate each year.
Glendale still is mired in lawsuits against the Tohono O'odham, but the shift in its official view of the pending casino is interesting given its former leaders' reluctance to even meet with tribal decision-makers.
By Glendale's tally, it has paid more than $3.5 million in fees to lawyers, lobbyists, and public relations firms in its vain attempt to shut down the Nation's plan. And now there no longer may be majority opposition on its City Council.
Councilwoman Norma Alvarez, a casino supporter, was elected in 2011. Two years later, Glendale voters elected two more casino advocates: councilmen Sammy Chavira and Ian Hugh. A 4-3 split against the Nation seems on the verge of a flip now that Councilman Gary Sherwood, who opposed the casino during his 2012 campaign for office and is the swing vote on the issue, is amenable to hearing from the tribe about ways it can team up with the city.
"We're hurting for money. But even if we didn't have a deficit, any opportunity that we have to bring in revenue to lessen our tax burdens or to provide . . . better services, we need to look at," he says. "That's what we're supposed to be all about."
Glendale's top administrators, public-safety staff, and elected officials have met with the Nation, including at their Desert Diamond Casino in Tucson. Some of the suggestions under consideration are the Nation's imposing a casino bed tax on hotel rooms that would go to the city. Or, the tribe's adjusting the layout of the casino to face bars, restaurants, and retail shops in the city's nearby sports-and-entertainment district. Or, the Nation's covering expenses for city sewer and water lines and police and fire protection.
The Nation notes that it has similar agreements in place in Tucson, where it operates two gaming centers. It has a small casino in Why, and its desire for a fourth dates back several decades.
Congress passed a law in 1986 granting the Tohono O'odham permission to buy nearly 10,000 acres in Maricopa, Pinal, or Pima counties to replace reservation land lost to flooding in the Gila Bend area.
The Painted Rock Dam, built downstream from the reservation in 1960 by the U.S. Corps of Engineers to protect farming communities in southern Arizona, caused water to back up and flood Nation land during the 1970s and '80s. Two decades later, the tribe found a piece of prime real estate — the 134-acre unincorporated parcel near the current sites of the Phoenix Coyotes' hockey arena, the Arizona Cardinals' football stadium, and Westgate, an entertainment district in which Glendale has invested hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars.
The tribe bought the land through a company with no apparent Tohono O'odham ties and quietly sat on it for six years. In January 2009, an announcement by the Nation that it intended to build the state's largest resort-style casino on the acreage was met with immediate opposition from certain leaders representing cities and the state.
Dick Bowers, a former Scottsdale city manager who temporarily served as Glendale city manager, advised the Glendale council in an April 2013 memo that it would be wise to establish a friendly relationship with the Tohono O'odham.
"If the casino never gets built, the relationship will be positive. If it is built, the relationship will be imperative," he wrote.
Bowers' viewpoint was influenced by his years-long dealings with the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community and its Scottsdale-area casinos — Casino Arizona and Talking Stick Resort.
"The casinos on tribal land are a valuable component of the hospitality offering in Scottsdale," he wrote. "We must seek ways to advantage Glendale by the proximity to the resort and its guests."
By contrast, the city's previous administration complained about the heavy burden the proposed casino would place on area businesses and taxpayers without discussing the issues with the Nation.
"We owe it to the public to get the facts and dispel any myths that have been placed before us in the past," says Councilman Chavira, whose Glendale district is nearest where the Nation owns its land. "It's no secret where I stand. At the end of the day, I'd love to see the city and its employees benefit from this project."
The policy shift hasn't gone unnoticed by casino opponents.
Sherwood says he recently received about 640 anti-casino letters, plus telephone calls from members of Arizona's congressional delegation. He's treading lightly, especially with key opponents who've been fighting alongside Glendale against the Nation.
"This can be something positive for the area," he says of the project. "It would help because when we have major events in Glendale, like the Super Bowl, we don't have anything to hold people in the area."
This benefit that the casino would provide is part of his message to casino opponents.
"We're just having dialogue. Period," he says. "If it gets to a certain point where we feel we want to enter negotiations, then we'll let [opponents] know. And there may be a point [when] we ask them to back off the legislation and pull out of the lawsuits. But this doesn't mean that because we pull out, Gila River or the others will pull out. We're just one player."
Gila River Governor Gregory Mendoza told constituents in January that they "did not pick this fight.
"It was thrust upon us by actions of the Tohono O'odham Nation's political leaders and by the lawyers and lobbyists [who] advise them."
Gila River officials repeatedly refused New Times' requests for interviews.
Ned Norris, chairman of the Tohono O'odham Nation, calls the dispute with leaders from Gila River and Salt River "hurtful" and "frustrating."
He says he expected some opposition when the Tohono O'odham first announced their plan, but he didn't expect it to reach such an acrimonious level.
Norris says he understands that the Gila River community, located entirely in the Valley, has the advantage of longstanding relationships with area non-tribal government officials.
Also, he says, "It helps that the governor for Gila River is a Republican. It helps him to get to the Arizona governor and the Republican leadership."
Tribes have spent money on lobbying, elections of friendly non-tribal politicians, and on supporting communities that back them. Since tribes aren't subject to Arizona's Public Record Law, it isn't possible to obtain a comprehensive total. However, federal and state filing requirements regarding political contributions show financial incentives.
In 2010, the Gila River Indian Community donated $50,450 to the Republican Governors Association, IRS records show. Between 2010 and 2014, it donated about $750,000 to both Democratic and Republican candidates and organizations as it touted bipartisan support for its anti-casino lawsuits and legislation.
Throughout 2012, it funneled $165,000 into "Neighbors for a Better Glendale," an independent expenditure supporting anti-casino candidates: Mayor Jerry Weiers, Councilman Sherwood, and two others who lost.
The Nation responded by financing a competing committee, "Residents for Accountability," and feeding it with $70,430 to help pro-casino candidates.
Gila River also donated $26,900 to co-sponsors of Representative Franks' casino-killing bill. Democratic Congresswoman Ann Kirkpatrick, who signed on to HB 1410, received $10,800 from the tribe. Congressman Ed Pastor, who supports the measure, received $7,400, according to opensecrets.org, a Center for Responsive Politics database.
The federal legislation effectively would block any new casino that a tribe envisions near Phoenix until January 2027, when the gaming compact expires.
Gila River's federal lobbying bill in the two years before the Tohono O'odham Nation announced its casino plan was $1.5 million. In 2009 alone, it was $1.3 million. All told, from 2009 to 2013, Gila River has spent almost $8 million on lobbying. By comparison, the Nation's lobbying tab during the same time was $3.3 million; the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community's was about $1.4 million.
This financial roundup doesn't include tribal legal expenses associated with major lawsuits yoked around the casino project.
Of them, only one has been resolved fully. In 2009, a few weeks after the plan for the West Valley Resort were unveiled, Glendale retroactively annexed the Nation's land. It was an attempt to render the parcel ineligible to be taken into federal trust — meaning the acreage would be blocked from becoming part of the Tohono O'odham Reservation and off-limits for a casino.
The Nation challenged the annexation that same year in a lawsuit against Glendale in Maricopa County Superior Court. The Nation lost in Superior Court, but it prevailed on appeal.
Glendale was ordered to reimburse the Nation more than $85,000 in legal fees.
Gila River, Glendale, and the state then filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of the Interior, which approved the Nation's 2009 application to take its West Valley land into trust. The Nation joined the suit as a defendant to represent its interests in court.
The plaintiffs raised various issues in the lawsuit filed in Arizona's U.S. District Court, including that the tribe allegedly had exceeded its allotment of purchased land. They also claimed that the land was "within" Glendale's corporate limits and ineligible to serve as a tribal reservation, that Congress didn't have the authority to approve the law that granted the Nation the right to replace flooded land near Gila Bend, and that the same congressional act infringed on Arizona's sovereignty.
Both federal Judge David Campbell and justices at the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals tossed out all the arguments, except the question of whether the Nation's land was "within" Glendale's corporate limits. The Department of the Interior already had determined that the Nation's unincorporated parcel of county land was not in Glendale.
The appellate court's response was to send the issue back to the DOI to explain how it arrived at its decision. The justices attached no time frame to the request.
Norris hopes that a decision from Interior will come in the next month or two. A spokesman for the federal agency says only that the issue is under review.
And, until the matter is resolved, another lawsuit filed by the Tohono O'odham challenging anti-casino state legislation has stalled in federal court. This statute allows Glendale to forcibly annex land if its owner files an application for the federal government to take the property into trust — a law written so narrowly that it unquestionably seeks to torpedo the Nation's plan.
A federal judge ruled the law unconstitutional, and the state and Glendale are appealing it to the Ninth Circuit. The federal appellate court is waiting for the DOI's second review of the corporate-limits question before it considers the case.
Yet another case filed by Gila River and the state against the Nation in federal court challenged its right to conduct gaming on its property. It was this case that proved the most damning to opponents' claims of broken promises.
Attorneys for Gila River argued that prohibiting future casinos in the Phoenix metro area was a "fundamental premise of the compact." The judge, however, questioned why, if it was so fundamental, that it wasn't scripted into the gaming agreement.
The Nation also showed proof that the state and some tribes had tried unsuccessfully to block casinos on "after-acquired lands."
Campbell stated that the Nation provided verification that state legislators had tried to modify the 1993 gaming agreements in place before those approved in 2002. Lawmakers had tried to "exclude all gaming" on all after-acquired lands.
After-acquired lands are those taken into trust, or turned into reservations, after 1988, the year that the feds established the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. These federal regulations generally prohibit gaming on "after-acquired" lands except in special circumstances, including when a tribe acquires acreage through settlement of a land claim, as the Tohono O'odham did in purchasing the West Valley Resort property.
"The [state] legislation did not pass," Campbell wrote. "From this and other evidence, the Nation exerts that anyone even passingly familiar with the Compact and its negotiations . . . knew that [it] did not bar additional casinos."
The appeal in this case, too, has been stalled until March 20 in hopes that the Supreme Court will, by then, have decided Michigan v. Bay Mills Indian Community — a case in which Michigan is challenging the rights of tribal leaders to open a casino without a gaming agreement with the state.
While the legal issues are pending, the anti-casino campaign against the Tohono O'odham continues on other fronts.
Gila River has circulated flyers with bold type and all-caps threatening: "Our neighborhoods are at risk," and "What's Next: An Indian reservation in your neighborhood" and "They broke one promise. Now they're making countless more."
It portrays casinos as seedy and, ironically, Indian tribes as villains bent on destroying schools, daycare centers, and surrounding businesses: "If an Indian tribe from the Tucson area is allowed to build a casino, [its officials] can lease it to whom they want. If the tribe wants to lease to adult-entertainment businesses, [it] can."
Gila River leaders have been quoted in local newspapers disparaging their fellow tribe, and ultimately, all Indian casinos. They use the same rhetoric that state politicians used to stifle gaming in Arizona.
Former Arizona Governor Symington told the Tucson Citizen in 1996: "The heart of my concern is the social and cultural change that's going to be brought about in Scottsdale, Tempe, and Mesa if these casinos are allowed to tuck themselves in the belly of the city . . . It could have a very traumatic effect on the communities I represent, and I intend to vigorously defend their interest."
Gila River Governor Mendoza was quoted in a Capitol Media Services article last year that the gambling compact promised "to have gaming only on traditional tribal lands and to keep casinos out of neighborhoods and away from homes, schools, and places of worship.''
Mendoza said this several months after the federal court ruled that the compact stated no such thing.
The Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community warned about "risky developments like this off-reservation casino" in a 2013 statement published in the Republic.
Norris says he doesn't understand, nor does his community understand, how a fellow tribe — which also engages in gaming — can justify treating the Tohono O'odham in this manner.
It's a sentiment that crosses tribal lines.
"One of my concerns is that it disrupts the harmony between us," Gila River member Severio "Ace" Kyyitan is quoted in his tribe's newsletter as saying. "We've got other issues challenging at our doorstep: state, federal. As indigenous people, we need to continue that unity and that harmony together."
Jiivik Siiki, who has a master's degree in American Indian Studies, explains that before the Spanish, before the Mexicans, before the Americans arrived on the scene, the Gila River, Salt River Pima-Maricopa, and Tohono O'odham were one people.
"We're all related. We speak the same language," he says. "We pray together, we mourn together, we harvested fields together."
It puzzles him and others that officials of his tribe claim the Tohono O'odham are trampling on Gila River's aboriginal lands.
But the underlying fight is not about ancestral lands — it's about money.
Overall, gaming is a financial boon for Arizona: Tribes have contributed more than $721 million to support education, emergency and trauma care, the tourism industry, wildlife and conservation, local governments and charities, and nonprofit organizations.
A Gila River attorney commented during a community meeting in January that if the Nation opens its West Valley casino, the Gila River people will lose about 30 percent of their current annual gaming revenue in the first year and possibly more in years after, according to the tribal newsletter.
"These losses would result in the reduction of jobs and services, such as transportation and housing. Per capita payments [funds the tribal government shares with community members] would also likely be reduced," the article continued.
Gila River operates two casinos just outside Chandler — Wild Horse Pass and Lone Butte — and a third, Vee Quiva, in the West Valley. Salt River Pima-Maricopa's casinos are near Scottsdale.
Vee Quiva is the only gaming destination in the West Valley and will remain so if the Gila River Community can continue to stall the Nation's plan.
The Nation is certain that it cannot convince its competing relatives that its West Valley casino should be built. Instead, it will continue trying to make inroads with Glendale — the West Valley's only city opposed to the plan. Individual politicians across the Valley have expressed support or opposition, but Glendale is the only municipality to formally adopt an opposing position.
Surprise, Tolleson, and Peoria have made public — and official — their support of the Tohono O'odham's West Valley casino.
"Opposing tribes engaged East Valley mayors to try to thwart positive development in the West Valley," says a letter last September from these west-side cities. "[East Valley] mayors certainly understand the overwhelmingly positive impacts casino resorts have brought to their communities."
When the Nation first revealed its West Valley Resort proposal, it touted that construction of the resort would have a more than $300 million economic impact on the area, including generating 3,000 jobs. While opponents accused the Nation of inflating the figures, Peoria and Tolleson quickly rallied in support of the project.
The West Valley cities criticized the East Valley municipalities for "supporting desperate and dangerous attempts to deprive our residents of the same benefits they currently enjoy."
While the Nation relishes any endorsement, Glendale's is most important.
"If we can demonstrate to the Department of Interior that Glendale is welcoming . . . that's going to be helpful," Tohono O'odham Chairman Norris says. "We've always been knocking on [Glendale's] door."