Longform

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.

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.

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Monica Alonzo
Contact: Monica Alonzo