Cautionary Tale of The Gambler Ups Ante in Navajo Debate on Casinos


Some Navajo medicine men say next month’s vote on whether to bring casinos to America’s largest Indian reservation is a referendum on whether The Gambler will return.

In the Navajo oral history, The Gambler was the son of the spirit of the sun who learned gambling from his father and went on to win--and then lose--everything. In Navajo, The Gambler’s name is ni’hwiil biihi, “the one that wins the people.”

“People in our tradition are usually told you have to be very cautious to be a gambler,” explains Johnson Dennison, a traditional healer who is dean of instruction at Dine College in Tsalie.


“You have to understand it involves losing, power, desire, winning. And you have to understand that at the end you’ll be a loser and you’ll develop a habit from gambling . . . you gamble for every bit of property you have, and in the end you lose everything.”

The story helps explain Navajos’ ambivalence about joining the surge of Indian casinos prompted by a 1987 U.S. Supreme Court ruling upholding tribes’ rights to offer gambling. Navajo voters rejected casinos by a wide margin in 1994, and tribal officials including President Albert Hale are urging tribal members to do the same Nov. 4.

“Gambling is like alcohol. Everyone who drinks doesn’t go to jail, or get drunk and beat their family,” Hale wrote in a commentary for the Navajo Times. “But, alcohol is a major contributor to crime on the Navajo Nation.”

As Dennison tells it, the story of The Gambler begins when the spirit of the sun, a gambler himself, wanted a large piece of turquoise held by a Pueblo tribe in what are now the Chaco Canyon ruins in northern New Mexico. The sun sent his son to Earth to gamble for the valuable icon, and The Gambler was impossible to beat.

“He had complete control of everything. He soon won the rain and the snow and the plants and the flowers, so the people were starving. They didn’t have anything left,” Dennison said.

The Gambler soon won the turquoise, but then offered to gamble with his father for it. So the sun had another son and taught him to gamble to get the turquoise from his brother.


The second son began winning everything from The Gambler, who became weak from hunger. The Gambler lost a footrace for the turquoise, and had nothing left to gamble with except his life. Rather than kill his brother, the second son shot The Gambler into the sky with a large bow.

“Some medicine men say The Gambler will return, not as a person, but that the gambling will return someday,” Dennison said. “That might be what the casino [proposal] is all about. I don’t know.”

The plan calls for up to five casinos on reservation land in Arizona and New Mexico, located near Interstate 40 or attractions like the Grand Canyon to lure non-Indian tourists, said Ferdinand Notah, head of the tribe’s Division of Economic Development.

“The Navajo Nation has millions of visitors, but very little is spent in the Navajo Nation economy,” Notah says. “Gaming will help to capture much of this tourist entertainment dollar.”

Notah, whose agency has advertised heavily in favor of the referendum, said the tribe could get $25 million per year initially if all five casinos were opened. The casinos would employ thousands of Navajos, while the tribe now has about 50,000 adults without jobs, he said.

Casino supporters say Navajos are already flocking to nearby casinos run by Pueblos in New Mexico, Utes in Colorado and Apaches in Arizona.

“Everywhere I go, Navajos are putting some money in them [casinos],” said tribal council member Albert Lee of Two Grey Hills, N.M. “If I lose money, I want to know it’s going back to the tribe to help some people.”

But opponents say the casinos would cause more social problems than they would solve.

“Much of the money we spend is to help people who fail to act in moderation. . . . Gaming will simply lure people into excesses they cannot afford,” Hale wrote.

The stakes are high, not only for Navajos but for Indian gambling in general. The Navajo Nation is America’s largest Indian tribe, with 173,000 members living on a reservation the size of West Virginia, which encompasses parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.

The Navajos, therefore, have been perhaps the most prominent and politically influential tribe in America. But the money flowing from a few successful tribal casinos has made other tribes major players in Washington, most notably the Mashantucket Pequots of Connecticut.

Adding casinos, Notah says, will give the Navajo Nation more of a voice on Indian issues, as well of a piece of what has become a $6-billion per year economic development pie.

“Navajos entering the picture hopefully will bring Navajo clout into the Indian gaming picture,” Notah said.

“We’re sitting idle while other tribes are making a killing,” he added.

The Navajo Nation joined the National Indian Gaming Assn. three years ago and helped kill a plan to tax tribal casinos earlier this year, said NIGA director Tim Wapato.

“But the Navajo are involved in these legislative battles anyhow, because it’s not a gaming battle, it’s a sovereignty battle,” said Wapato, a member of Washington state’s Colville tribe.

Sovereignty--tribes’ status as independent governments on a par with states--is the main reason Hale cites for opposing gambling. Federal law requires tribes to negotiate gambling compacts with states, which Hale and other opponents say erodes tribal sovereignty by putting tribes at the mercy of states.

“If we are sovereigns, we should make that decision to go into gaming and that should be that,” Hale said in August during a visit to the Southern Ute Tribe’s casino in Ignacio, Colo.

Particularly galling to Hale and other tribal officials is a New Mexico requirement that tribes share 16% of their casino revenues with the state. If the Navajo Nation approves gambling, it may lobby to change that and other Indian gambling laws that officials disagree with, Notah said.

“We feel that the federal laws that regulate Indian gaming could be amended to allow further expansion of what we hold so dearly--sovereignty,” Notah said. “The Navajo Nation having to submit to state laws, as well as a 16% tithing, we feel that is very objectionable. We feel it should be done by negotiation, not set by statute.”