Arizona casinos fall short of reducing poverty in tribes

Tucson, Arizona (AP) 10-07

Fourteen years and hundreds of millions of dollars later, tribal casinos in Tucson have not met federal and state requirements to lift American Indians out of poverty and reduce their dependence on taxpayer money.

Although the federal law and state compacts legalizing Indian casinos say the operations should promote tribal self-sufficiency, develop tribal economies and strengthen tribal governments, progress has been slow.

The Pascua Yaqui government has more than doubled its per-person spending of federal dollars since 1997, and aid to the Tohono O’odham Nation is up nearly 10 percent in that time. Among Yaquis, usage of food stamps hasn’t changed at 18 percent. It has fallen among O’odham, but is still at a 23 percent average.

The portion of members using an indigent health-care plan is up 27 percent among Yaquis and 13 percent among O’odham over six years. Both tribes’ unemployment rates are three to five times as high as Tucson’s.

“When you look at the needs of the nation, 14 years later, have we accomplished the things we wanted to accomplish? I don’t think we’ve really made a dent,” O’odham Chairman Ned Norris Jr. said. “I think we’ve made some headway, and I think we’ve got a long way to go yet.”

Casino money has not been used by tribes to replace outside aid. Rather, tribes have combined profits with taxpayer dollars to maximize their spending, adding services they couldn’t afford on casino money alone.

Norris said the tribe won’t ask for less federal dollars because the federal government is obligated to care for indigenous people in payment “for taking our land.”

Audit reports show the O’odham spent $32.1 million last year on the Tohono O’odham Community College, public safety and diabetes prevention, among other programs.

Pascua Yaqui Councilman and former Chairman David Ramirez said his tribe seeks as much federal grant money as possible to finance new buildings and programs in combination with casino money.

Two $4 million recreation centers are under construction on the Yaqui Reservation. Taxpayers paid half of the bill and gaming profits covered the rest.

Tribal leaders say while they are making progress, they need more time to reverse decades of poverty and neglect.

Norris has a list of areas where he would like to focus the tribe’s attention, including a growing youth gang problem.

The tribe has five new youth centers, and Norris said the school system is the next step, even if that means bringing in the state’s top school officials and risking state intervention.

He said it’s also time to start investing gaming revenues in a housing program and road improvements. “We have to accept some of that responsibility now that we have the revenue source to begin to address those kinds of issues,” he said.

Pascua Yaqui tribal Chairman Peter Yucupicio said he would like to see the Yaquis finish what they’ve started, from a library project and a wellness center, both of which are under way.

He said the tribe also needs to provide better accommodations for the nation’s growing language and culture program.

But because the 2-square-mile nation is landlocked, he said economic-development opportunities are limited, ensuring the tribe has to keep relying on taxpayer money to survive.

“We need a lot more years. And even then, we don’t have enough land, resources or anything to take care of all the needs,” he said. “It’s not there. Someday, maybe. Someday.”

Information from: Arizona Daily Star,