The Navajos’ Bitter Struggle With Casino Gaming
It isn't easy for a committed Christian to be the President of the Navajo Nation. When Kelsey A. Begaye was elected as head of the largest Native American tribe in the States in November 1998, Christians were elated. But Begaye would soon need raw courage and Solomon's wisdom to face the kind of challenges that God had in mind.
On God's agenda is the redemptive destiny of 250,000 Navajo people. Most live sparsely on their ancient land in vast areas of northern New Mexico, Arizona and southern Utah. But within the mural-painted walls of the Navajo Council hall in Window Rock, Arizona, there's a battle going on.
Six years ago, the Navajo Legislative Council began an all-out push to bring casino gaming to the reservation. Led by a strong contingent of gaming supporters, they held a public referendum in 1994, advocating plans to build five casinos on tribal land. It was rejected by 4,623 votes. In 1996, the Council circumvented the referendum and voted their own resolution to authorize gaming, but it was vetoed by former Navajo President, Albert Hale, who honored the public's vote. The Council's Economic Development Committee tried another public referendum in 1997. It was also defeated, but by only 2,782 votes.
Begaye Takes Up The Fight
When Begaye took the office of the presidency in '99, he made a stand that did not engender favor with most Council members. He bravely stated, "This administration firmly believes in the strengthening of family values; this administration does not support gaming on the reservation." Having recently served as speaker of the Council, President Begaye knew what he would be up against.
When the Council voted again in 1999 to "decriminalize" casino gambling, Begaye stood by his beliefs and vetoed the resolution. He said, "I oppose this particular gaming provision, not only because it goes against the belief of the administration but that of the vote of the people." He reminded the Navajo nation to adhere to the morals "given to us through our Navajo cultural teachings." By these statements, he was setting himself up to become the target in a heated debate. One councilman accused Begaye of allowing his Christian beliefs to influence his stance. The criticisms and accusations flew.
In their January 2000 session, the Council passed another resolution allowing gambling to be a Navajo economic initiative. Begaye vetoed again on February 4th. The Council attempted to override his veto, but when their ballots were counted, the override failed by 12 votes.
Opposition to Gaming
Christians are a small minority on the reservation. Yet they have been influential in holding back the tide with their votes and prayers. After the 1997 ballot count, a group of "grass roots activists" from the Tse Bonito Community Bible Church celebrated with cheers and waved anti-gaming banners. Led by Pastor Milton Shirleson, they joined hands praising God in a circle of prayer.
But Christians aren't the only ones against gaming. According to the Farmington [NM] Daily Times, Navajo medicine man, Johnson Dennison said, "You have to understand it involves losing, power, desire, winning ... you'll develop a habit from gambling ... you gamble for every bit of property you have, and in the end you lose everything."
Other critics document enormous social problems caused by gambling. A Chairwoman of a Navajo Health and Social Services stated, "It's no secret that since casinos opened in the State of Colorado, we have seen an increase in domestic violence and child sexual abuse within the communities of our agency [in New Mexico]. I see children. . . abandoned and neglected in the cars while their parents are inside gaming. I see women abused because there's no money left for rent or food."
Looking for Economic Solutions
Advocates say casinos will bring benefits such as clinics, senior citizen centers, scholarships and youth centersand especially jobs. This is certainly a strong attraction to a people whose average yearly income in 1990 was $14,106. Unemployment was 45 percent, and 56 percent of Navajos lived below the poverty level. Their situation is just as urgent today, even though strides in economic development have been made by the present administration.
A Navajo economic task force identified 22 revenue-gathering possibilities, and concluded that gaming is a top business opportunity. But opponents say there are other options. One delegate from Shiprock, New Mexico stated, "I have said it time and time again on the Council floor. We must cut down the red tape for our own Navajo entrepreneurs."
We cannot simply stand outside the reservation and wring our hands. There are immediate opportunities for Christians to offer assistance. In a telephone interview with the author, President Begaye stated that his first step to achieve economic independence for the Navajo Nation is to "establish mutual and respectful partnerships." These appeals to advance Navajo entrepreneurs and business partnerships should set off an explosion of offers from Christian business partners, entrepreneurship trainers and financial investors. It is obvious that Navajo innate creativity and ingenuity could create cutting-edge businesses, attracting not only tourists, but the American public and the world market through the World Wide Web. If Christians respond respectfully as servants, we could also offer salt and light to this beautiful nation in our midst, stumbling on the threshold of the 21st century.
Quotes and information for the article were taken in part from The Daily Times, Farmington, N.M. The author is grateful for their help.
Mary Lou Totten is a free-lance writer and Director of FACE, the Fellowship of Artists for Cultural Evangelism, which has had short-term artist ministries to the Navajo people for 17 years.