Casinos no salvation for native Americans
SEDONA, ARIZ. — To get to Sedona you travel through a lush, winding canyon, its juniper and cypress trees lining a pleasantly gurgling stream. Then you emerge into brilliant sunlight and clear blue skies and into this exquisite little town over which rugged red rock pinnacles and buttes - Cathedral Rock and Courthouse Butte and Chimney Rock and Coffeepot Rock and others - keep dramatic sentinel.
This stunning setting and benign climate have attracted artists and sculptors from across the country and abroad. A woman sitting next to us at breakfast said she and her husband were visiting for a day from New York, bought a house on the spot, folded up their New York business and have lived here ever since.
But before you reach this hidden and prospering modern Shangri-La, you must traverse long miles of bleak and desolate desert constituting the tribal lands of the Navajo nation, swept at this time of year by gusty winds that overlay with a thick sediment of dust its little settlements of trailer homes and battered cars and lean-to roadside stalls selling Navajo rugs and baskets and pottery.
You cannot avoid comparing the reservations allocated to native Americans with the "Bantustans" awarded South African blacks by the white government in the era of apartheid. In an attempt to dampen international criticism of its racist policies, the Afrikaner regime set up tribal Bantustans to be "self-governed" by the vastly outnumbering black population. The catch, of course, was that the lands so allocated were only a slender portion of the country, were barren for agriculture, contained no minerals or other natural resources, and had virtually no infrastructure.
The Navajo reservation encompasses 27,000 square miles across parts of Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah. There are 275,000 Navajos in the United States, and the hardship of many of those who live on the reservation underlines the plight of many native Americans today. There is little future in raising sheep and goats on this barren terrain. Unemployment on the reservation runs more than 40 percent. Per capita income is running little more than $6,000 a year.
Harsh though life on the reservation may be, Navajos have a spiritual feeling about their land and a pride in their culture and unique language. During World War II, Navajo "code talkers" were used by the US military on the front lines in the Pacific to baffle and deceive the listening Japanese.
Although many native Americans seek to remain on their reservations, they have been largely unsuccessful in attracting outside investment to their territories. There is some coal and oil under their land, and modest income from tourism, but though the Navajos set up an ambitious pavilion in Salt Lake City in 2002 to attract the attention of visitors to the winter Olympics, it has not brought the stream of foreign tourists, or the rush of investment, they had hoped for.
Sadly, many native American tribes have turned to casinos and organized gambling on their reservations for economic salvation.
Even sadder is a trend, reported recently on the front page of The New York Times, toward off-reservation gambling. Some native tribes are seeking to build casinos far from their present-day reservations. The Cheyenne and Arapaho, for example, live in poor rural areas of Oklahoma. But according to the Times they are now offering the state of Colorado a gift of $1 billion, and would give up ancestral claims to nearly half of that state, in exchange for a 500-acre piece of land near Denver on which they would build one of the world's largest casinos.
Similarly, tribes without land in California want to build casinos on San Francisco Bay, tribes in Oklahoma want to build casinos in Ohio, and tribes in Wisconsin and Oklahoma want to exchange their land claims to build casinos in the Catskills.
The searing poverty of native Americans that afflicts the eye of the traveler through their reservations is a compelling jolt to the conscience. But it is difficult to believe that their quest for a better material life while preserving their tribal culture and spiritual values can be met by staking all on something as pernicious and lacking in redeeming moral foundation as organized gambling.
• John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret Morning News.