- The Development of a Gaming Enterprise for the Navajo Nation
Since the late nineteenth century, federal policy affecting the Navajo has vacillated between efforts to assimilate the people (the Diné) into the dominant non-Native population and policies of various kinds of federal support for tribal communities and the Navajo Nation. Beginning in the 1970s, the federal government recognized in practice the sovereignty of the Navajo Nation and began granting enhanced decision-making powers to tribal leaders over the nation’s affairs. This shift in policies supported self-determination for the Diné, a major goal of Native people. Self-determination has found its most controversial expression in the development of tribal casinos.1 This study of Navajo gaming considers the importance of oral tradition, the impact of cultural integration, and the economic potential gaming presents for the Navajo Nation. It also provides a view of the Diné experience within the broader scope of the development of Indian gaming in the United States and the resulting cultural and economic impact gaming has had on Native American populations in general.
By the beginning of the twentieth century, due to the effects of environmental changes, subsistence economies, and social changes, the needs of Native Americans were of little consequence to the dominant culture in the United States. The Diné, or Navajo, remained relatively self-supporting, living on a large reservation straddling lands in Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico. They were a farming people, and their greatest wealth lay in their horses, goats, and especially sheep. Sheep were [End Page 295] central to Navajo family cooperative activities and the “symbol of the life, wealth, vitality, and integration of the subsistence residential unit.”2 Sheep remain today an important symbolic and emotional center of Diné life.
Preserving one’s possessions was held in high esteem. The fear of losing property is deeply ingrained in Diné culture, and all things that threaten livestock have to be resisted. In Son of Old Man Hat, a classic Diné story recorded in the 1930s, Old Man Hat tells his children: “The herd is money. It gives you clothing; the sheep gave you that. And you’ve just eaten different kinds of food; the sheep gave that food to you. Everything comes from the sheep.”3
By 1930, after several years of severe winters and drought conditions, the Bureau of Indian Affairs administered a stock-reduction program in an effort to curb land erosion. With the implementation of this plan, a crisis for traditional Diné life was at hand. At the time, the government clearly misunderstood the erosion cycle and its causes and blamed it largely on overgrazing; the government acted to protect the development of the Southwest rather than to benefit the Diné; and the government failed to understand that sheep were the social and cultural basis of the Navajo economy. The interests of the Diné were, once again, subordinate to those of the dominant groups. The tragedy was that the Diné were never given a chance to develop their own programs and responses to the situation. Instead, the government forced the Diné into a position of desperation.4
By 1940 most Diné families had only a few head of livestock and a small plot of tillable land, and many of them were on the government “dole.” In the name of conservation and self-determination, the Diné were made dependent on wages and various public programs for their living. The Diné no longer relied on agriculture and livestock for their subsistence. They were no longer a self-supporting people. The Diné had become dependent: “Once the traditional economy was broken and the Navajos, no longer able to support themselves, were pushing into the market and onto welfare, development of other resources became inevitable, no matter what the cost. The Navajo reservation remained overgrazed but in addition strip-mining, radioactive rivers, and mines which caused cancer and other maladies dwarfed overgrazing as an environmental problem.”5
The second half of the twentieth century found not a revitalized Navajo [End Page 296] economy but an exploited one. Strip mines and uranium mines destroyed the land and the people’s health to an extent sheep never...