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.

Gila River Indian Community Governor Gregory Mendoza condemns the cover illustration accompanying this story. See his letter here.

"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."

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Monica Alonzo
Contact: Monica Alonzo