Holy Waters, Slot Machines and a Legal Gamble in Taos

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Religion in the Taos Pueblo flows from a spring-fed lake high in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Here is the center of the universe, say the Taos Indians. It was at Blue Lake, they say, that the Great Spirit created humans, as well as the final resting place of souls.

Today the sacred watershed is protected by slot machines.

In 1970, the cash-poor Taos Pueblo won a 64-year legal battle to restore tribal title to the lake. But when vacation homes began sprouting nearby, the tribe won approval last year from Gov. Gary Johnson and the Interior Department to build a casino to raise enough funds to purchase the land and buffer the lake from development.

A year after hocking their lives for their religion, U.S. Atty. John Kelly has ordered that the Taos Pueblo and nine other New Mexico tribes with casinos shut down the operations by Jan. 22 or face seizure of their gambling devices.

The Taos Pueblo fears that if the casino is forced to close, the tribe will default on the first $1-million payment on the ranchland it bought for more than $10 million. If they default, the seller may repossess the property and parcel it out for roads, power lines and homes on the flanks of Blue Lake, which remains as pristine as their culture.

"Losing that land would be like cutting our hearts out," said Vince Lujan, real property manager for the tribe. "Each summer for centuries, every able-bodied person in the tribe has made a pilgrimage to the lake to give thanks and pray for the universe. Without it we lose everything."

Kelly says he has no choice. Recent state Supreme Court rulings voided the governor's compacts with the tribes because they lacked legislative approval, and banned charities from operating "casino nights." According to Kelly, reservations can only operate casinos if they are permitted by state law.

Regardless of Kelly's position, the tribes insist that they will not close the casinos they see as the means toward a higher good, such as buying back sacred lands. Altruism aside, casino gambling is a big business, one that critics say contributes to a dangerous addiction that can suck up life savings and one that has already polarized the state.

The financial stakes are enormous. Casino gambling in New Mexico employs 3,000 people and generates $200 million annually for the tribes.

No wonder then that as Kelly's deadline draws near, lawsuits are piling up, and tensions between the tribes and government authorities are so strained that some fear a clash on tribal lands.

Earlier this month, the tribes filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court seeking to block Kelly from taking any action against them. It also wants a finding that the compacts signed by Johnson were legal under federal law.

The lawsuit was announced at a news conference in Albuquerque that was packed with 400 casino workers who cheered and waved placards that read: "No More Broken Treaties!" and "Save Our Jobs!"

They gave a standing ovation when Ken Paquin, co-chairman of the New Mexico Indian Gaming Assn., vowed: "We will stand together for justice."

A day later, hundreds of casino workers and their supporters gathered at the Pojoaque Pueblo's Cities of Gold bingo hall, where tribal leaders threatened to blockade major state highways and nullify utility easements running through their reservations if the dispute is not resolved to their satisfaction.

"I've decided I will not close the roads tomorrow," said Pojoaque Gov. Jacob Viarrial, whose reservation is crossed by 30,000 vehicles a day, many of them going to and from Los Alamos National Laboratories. "However, it's just a postponement."

The Isleta Pueblo has already started hauling 4,000-pound concrete barriers to the boundaries of their reservation in preparation for blockading vital roadways, possibly including Interstate 25 just south of Albuquerque.

"We will not close, and we will fight," said Michael Sandoval, 40, of the San Felipe Pueblo's Casino Hollywood, which opened after Johnson signed a compact with the tribe late last year.

"My children ask: 'Daddy, what will happen if the federal authorities come?' " he said. "I tell them: 'Don't be surprised if Daddy is behind bars. But it will be for a good cause.' "

In the meantime, the tribes have launched a massive public relations campaign aimed at persuading the state Legislature to ratify the compacts when it convenes for a 30-day session Tuesday.

"The legislative intent is to diligently work to resolve this issue and get it behind us," said state House Speaker Raymond Sanchez.

That won't be easy. The 112-member Legislature is deeply divided over whether Las Vegas-style gambling should be permitted in the state.

Whether or not the Legislature decides to allow casino gambling, its action is sure to be bitterly attacked. A move to placate the tribes will inflame business owners in Santa Fe and Albuquerque who complain that the casinos are siphoning off tourist dollars. Refusal to act risks retaliatory road closures on reservation lands, which could spark violence.

Trying to gain political ground, traditionally private tribal leaders are now publicizing details of how they are spending the $175 million gamblers lose each year at the card and craps tables, roulette wheels and slot machines.

They say casino revenues are supporting police and fire services, health care, day care, programs for young people and the elderly, scholarships, housing construction, economic development, wetland restoration, donations to charities, farming, land acquisitions, even buffalo herds--all this while federal financial assistance to the tribes is declining.

"When I was young, I remember running toward busloads of tourists who came to take our picture and hand out quarters," recalled Jackie Thomas, a 33-year-old Sandia Pueblo Indian who started working at her tribe's casino as a waitress and is now assistant general manager of operations. "I don't want to go back to those days of picturesque poverty.

"We are proud of ourselves, proud of our casino, proud of the 780 people we employ and proud of the homes we can afford to buy. Yet, boom--they want to slap us down again."

The Taos Pueblo tribal office sits only a few yards from the river that runs from the sacred lake and is the tribe's sole source of water. There, Lujan looked out and conceded that "we're not crazy about gambling; if there was another way, another cash cow somewhere, we would have taken that approach.

"Now it seems that the world out there is not through taking food from our mouths. But if you kick a gentle dog into a corner, he'll bite back. It is our duty to protect our land with our lives."

Tony Reyna, a 79-year-old former tribal governor, said the battle over Native American gambling cannot dim the power of Blue Lake.

"It is the base of our life and the source of our water," Reyna said. "The people who are against gambling do not seem to understand that."

"And I can tell you this," he added with a laugh. "I've been drinking that water for 79 years and haven't gotten sick once."

"When Grandpa says the water is clean, I know it's true because I tested it," said Reyna's 19-year-old granddaughter, Marlene Platero, a sophomore at MIT who is majoring in material science and engineering. "Biologically and chemically, it is almost as clean as tap water."

She was less certain, however, about the impact of the tribe's newly opened Slot Room, the smallest casino in the state, with 45 slot machines in a tiny adobe building.

"I recently visited the Slot Room for the first time and noticed that half of the customers were women from our village, which I find troubling. On the other hand, the scholarships it funds will prevent an exodus of our best and brightest."

Beyond that, she added, "if you really want to hurt a people, take away their church, their language and land. Take away Blue Lake and you do all that to us."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
65°