Navajo Nation opens flagship casino in Arizona

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by Felicia Fonseca, Associated Press

azfamily.com

Posted on May 20, 2013 at 7:08 PM

Updated Wednesday, Dec 4 at 12:31 PM

TWIN ARROWS, Ariz. (AP) -- New sets of twin arrows are beckoning travelers on Interstate 40 in northern Arizona.

The Navajo Nation has opened its first casino in the state, the Twin Arrows Navajo Casino Resort, named after an old trading post, diner and gas station where red and gold twin arrows aimed at the ground remind motorists of what once was the "best little" stop on the interstate.

The tribe is looking to the casino to boost its economy and spur development in the area, and has infused the new business with bits of Navajo culture and tradition. Turquoise twin arrows in the logo, for instance, symbolize initiative and the journey of the Navajos through time.

"It brings jobs that we don't have in the past, it brings revenue, it brings recognition to the Navajo Nation and Navajo people," tribal President Ben Shelly said Monday.

A glittering chandelier greets visitors in the casino's entryway, a depiction of the Navajos' rise into the fourth world where humans came into existence. Stone walls and birch branches in the steakhouse represent the nesting sites of eagles - among the most revered birds of American Indian tribes, while the design on the hotel's exterior hints at a culture of weaving.

The main entrance faces east in the same way as traditional homes on the reservation, to capture the rising sun. Navajo artists were commissioned to create artwork that hangs throughout the casino, and some of the rooms have views of the San Francisco Peaks, one of four mountains held sacred by Navajos.

Employees will be trained to let casino patrons know what it all means, said Derrick Watchman, chief executive of the Navajo Nation Gaming Enterprise.

"We tried to make it subtle but stand out so it prompts questions," he said.

The Navajo Nation signed gaming compacts with Arizona and New Mexico a decade ago, clearing the way for the gaming industry on the nation's largest American Indian reservation. Tribal members later approved gaming in a referendum vote after twice rejecting it. The tribe's first casino opened east of Gallup, N.M., in 2008 and two others followed in New Mexico.

Twin Arrows employs about 500 people right now, the majority of whom are Navajo, but the workforce will grow to 800, Watchman said. Each of the tribal casinos follows Navajo law in that they give preference to Navajos in employment and are expected to become one of the largest employers of tribal members.

Twin Arrows, about 20 miles east of Flagstaff, is one of nearly two dozen tribal casinos across the state. Tribes that don't operate casinos or haven't maxed out on the number of slot machines they're allowed under gaming compacts can lease those rights to other tribes.

The Navajo casinos are expected to generate tens of millions of dollars for the tribe that relies heavily on natural resources for revenue. Last year, the Navajo Nation Gaming Enterprise made its first distribution of revenue to the tribe at $5 million. That number is expected to increase to $30 million annually, Watchman said.

Shelly said Monday that he would issue an executive order telling tribal offices to first consider holding conferences and staff retreats at Twin Arrows before spending money in border towns to keep the money circulating on the reservation. Other plans for the site could include housing, an airport, shuttle service from Flagstaff and Tuba City, and an amusement park, he said.

As for distributing per-capita payments to Navajos, Shelly said "there's too many of us." But he said the tribe is looking at creating a fund in which the roughly 300,000 tribal members can invest and receive a portion of dividends each year from tribal enterprises, including casinos.

Twin Arrows opened earlier this month, with limited casino hours that gave employees an opportunity to train further.

The 267,000-square-foot facility has 90 hotel rooms and suites, a conference center, more than 1,000 slot machines and table games. The restaurants will feature Navajo favorites like fry bread and mutton stew. A spa, golf course, more hotel rooms, a gas station and RV park also are planned.

Once the casino opens round-the-clock Friday, Felix and Michelle Thompson said they'd consider having a date night there. The Flagstaff couple usually gambles at a tribal casino in Camp Verde but would favor Twin Arrows because it's closer.

"It's really nice," Felix Thompson said Friday. "It's a whole lot more than we expected - its size, its style, the service is immaculate."

Remi Armijo of Flagstaff was looking for a wider selection of poker games and possibly a tournament.

"I guess they have to get established," he said.

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