THE FLAG OF the Tohono O'odham Nation flaps outside the gleaming Desert Diamond Casino, its string of black feathers undulating wildly in the crisp breeze. Each of those 11 feathers symbolizes a district on the tribe's vast reservation, thrusting west nearly to Ajo and south to the Mexican border. Many of those districts are as remote and isolated as any found in this hemisphere, the lives of their inhabitants as rooted in past as in the present.
It's not rare to find rural O'odham villages completely bereft of indoor plumbing, or architecture that relies mostly on mud and ocotillo.
Arguments, coming primarily from whites who own flushing toilets, hold that modernization is no panacea for these traditional people. Meanwhile, the majority of villagers survive on bare subsistence. Sixty-five percent fall below federal poverty levels.
South Nogales Highway acts as a concrete funnel into the Desert Diamond. Today it carries a city bus, which rumbles to the casino's edge and empties a cargo of Anglo faces. The small band, mostly older folks in light coats, some toting big shoulder bags stuffed with sweaters or lunches, chat cheerfully as they stroll through a turquoise-colored gate and past stern-faced security guards wearing bulky nylon jackets.
In many ways Desert Diamond and its clientele represent the future of the Tohono O'odham people. Bearing the architectural sensibilities of a huge strip mall, the casino nearly covers a complete city block. An enormous neon sign, domed porticos, mauve trim and water trickling from an iron cactus attempt to soften its utilitarian edge.
Annually, visitors here dump a $60- million windfall into the casino's slot machines, bingo contests and card games. That money promises full coffers for a tribe far more accustomed to financial scarcity.
But after surviving rigorous outside assaults by powerful Nevada gaming interests and this state's dog and horse tracks, all led by convicted felon and former Arizona Governor J. Fife Symington III, the casino now faces a fight entirely of its own making.
Competing reservation factions, led by a disgruntled former tribal employee and his non-O'odham protege, have tried to use the casino's remarkable profits as a lever to pry support from the nation's current administration and its chairman, Edward Manuel.
Ironically, even as Manuel's critics question his handling of the funds, they've laid bare their own mottled legacy of bureaucratic ineptitude and inaction, and revealed why so much of the O'odham existence is still mired in projects that never happen, progress that never sticks, solutions that never see the light of day.
Of course, in many ways political fights among tribal members are no different than those erupting on any given day in Tucson City Hall or between county supervisors. Still, city and county leaders represent only broad constituencies, not a unique, ancient and increasingly fragile culture. And that is a profound difference.
Ultimately, at the heart of the O'odham Nation's internal struggles are not only gambling proceeds and how they're spent, but also the way its people tailor their own identity on the brink of the 21st century.
IN A JUNE vote of 1,575 to 1,254, tribal members awarded themselves a biennial, individual $2,000 cash disbursement from casino earnings. After taxes, that leaves every registered man, woman and child about $1,300. Minors would have the money placed in escrow accounts, and distribution was to happen within 90 days. It would be the biggest disbursement of its kind by any tribe in the United States; just before the balloting, an additional 900 unregistered O'odham rushed to get on the rolls.
And it would cost the tribe dearly. According to one O'odham government insider, "We blew $80 million just to pay for the initiative. At the least, it certainly made us more cost-conscious."
Nor it is a secret that the vote was in large part a backhanded referendum on Chairman Manuel.
Former tribal Planning Director Larry Garcia spearheaded the initiative, which also required the tribe to fund a $30 million youth center project, award $15 million in business grants, give $1 million to charity, and earmark another $1 million for helping poor O'odham pay their utility bills.
Chairman Manuel had fought the measure, saying it would threaten the nation's financial future, and force his government to scale back many of its own projects, including a planned $14 million senior care center. It could also breach the tribe's gaming compact with the state, he said. Under federal guidelines, that pact required a fixed percentage of casino funds to be set aside for economic development and other programs. And any distribution plan would need approval by the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, which oversees many tribal functions.
One source close to the Chairman says the initiative was just a blatant attempt to undermine Manuel. Administrative costs alone for disbursing the money topped $1.8 million, the source says. "It blows a hole in our budget and our savings. But that was (Garcia's) strategy. His second was to push for a recall with a whole mess of allegations, none of which were true. If you think about it, this whole thing was more about buying votes against the Chairman than about giving people money. But I guess Mr. Garcia didn't care about the economic impact."
The rancor dates back to 1995, when Manuel crushed Garcia in the chairman's race. After he was installed, Manuel wasted little time in sacking Garcia as head of planning.
According to the administration source, Garcia was fired for failing to implement five year's-worth of federal grants. "Now this is Larry's way of getting even with the chairman. Really, it's just a naked grab for political power."
Tensions grew thicker when the Chairman waffled on the 90-day distribution deadline, saying the initiative allowed for a six-month review by the tribe's attorney general. Garcia immediately seized on the delay to spark a recall effort against his foe.
Characterizing Manuel as guilty of "malfeasance and gross neglect of the fiduciary responsibility" for failing to carry out tribal programs, the recall petition also claimed the administration raised hell within its police department by installing a controversial Pennsylvania transplant as chief.
In a thick, open letter dated August 29, Manuel bitterly denied the charges. "I am outraged at this attempt at spreading baseless and inaccurate allegations," he said. "These diverse tactics will only hurt the people of the nation."
The recall crashed badly, garnering support from less than three percent of qualified voters amidst reports of questionable name-gathering tactics. One woman claims she was approached on her hospital bed. She thought she was signing medical papers, only to have her name appear on the petition.
Still, Garcia stridently defends his effort. "Hey, it wasn't just me," he says. "I'm just one person. It's just that the people brought their concerns to me."
He says the initiative responded directly to Manuel's misuse of casino funds. "He hasn't done anything with that money," Garcia says. "What was it doing? Sitting in a bank. Meanwhile, he gave himself a raise, from $50,000 to $57,000, and told the council they could have raises if they wanted them."
He also points to what he calls dismal morale in the police department. "The new chief wanted to run the department the way he had run things back east. He was telling (O'odham officers) they're stupid, and if they don't know anything, to get out. Now there are hardly any Indian officers, and that's a problem.
"For example, we had a situation where a non-Indian officer was called out, and the resident didn't want to talk to him. Those are the kinds of things that are happening."
Police Chief Clanagan labels such claims mere political smoke, sparked by his upsetting the good-old-boy apple cart. After coming onboard, he says he immediately booted a handful of highly unqualified O'odham officers, many of whom themselves stood accused of criminal acts. He also cites a backlog of 350 uninvestigated cases that were still on the books.
"Honestly, I told the Chairman that if I'd known the mess I was coming into, I wouldn't have come here, he says. "There was so much turmoil."
A year after his hiring, Clanagan says the nationally-known, Tucson-based police consulting firm Gilmartin, Harris and Associates was brought out to plumb his department's performance. "They came to the conclusion that we needed to change the culture, not only within the police department, but also how the department was viewed by the community."
The appraisal led to several changes, including new committees where rank-and-file cops could air their gripes, and to the policy-tightening measures that caused a stir. "That left many officers who were critical of past management saying, 'Hey, we didn't know how well we had it in the old days,' " Clanagan says.
Those same officers then aimed their wrath towards him, he says, and took their complaints directly to Larry Garcia.
This year, Clanagan's department has enjoyed a budget boost from $3.6 to $10.6 million, and his staff has mushroomed to 57 officers, more than half of them O'odham.
He says his clean-up efforts have won unwavering support, both from the Manuel administration and from most reservation residents. "There is something of a cultural barrier. Sometimes we have to use interpreters. But I don't think when there's a rape call the victim cares whether or not the officer is O'odham."
While he says tribal members get job preference when possible, "We've hired O'odham, Latinos, Navajos. The bottom line is whether they are qualified to be good police officers."
That attitude appears to be at the root of Manuel's support. Indeed, his election was fueled by his image as a reformer. He answered those perceptions by bringing in a new team of managers, beefing up the anemic accounting department, and hiring staffers with plenty of fresh opinions on how the tribe should be run.
Manuel says he's not surprised those moves angered his detractors. He calls it a lingering case of sour grapes, particularly on the part of one man.
"Obviously (Garcia) wants to remove me from office because I fired him," Manuel says. "And he set a very short time frame on the (funds distribution). Right after that, he files a recall. So he's going right out there and saying, 'Well, this is malfeasance of office, and all these things.' He was using this and saying, 'See, I told you, he won't even meet the initiative time frame.' "
He says Garcia's firing was the director's own doing. Or rather, his lack of doing much. Manuel cites a string of federally generated Community Development Block grants--to the tune of $6 million--that the tribe was on the verge of losing because Garcia failed to implement projects the money was tied to.
For example, there were $600,000 in funds from the Federal Emergency Management Administration that nearly slipped away, Manuel says. The money was headed for San Louis, a small village north of Sells. Built on hard rock, the town had endured ongoing floods, and was going to use the FEMA money to build a lagoon.
"Larry Garcia was put in charge of that," Manuel says, "and nothing ever happened with it. So we had to make a change."
Described as a decent, God-fearing sort, but as an ineffective manager, Garcia left behind one of his lackeys named Jay Cohn. By some accounts not a popular administrator, Cohn resigned not long after Garcia's departure. Apparently, it was hardly a surprise. Nor was his abdication the end of his meddling in O'odham politics: One source calls him the prime agitator behind Garcia's recall drive, noting that the petition's language echoed a style Cohn regularly used on government documents while working with the tribe.
An architect by training, Cohn was hired as a planning department administrator in 1994, following stints with the Resolution Trust Corporation, and running his own Pennsylvania business consulting firm. Some former co-workers consider him a troublemaker who regularly tried to sidestep federal grant requirements. Eventually, they say, he even gained the upper hand on his boss.
"After awhile, it seemed like Larry was just letting Jay take over," one says. "But that was a mistake. There were a lot of people with federal and state agencies who wouldn't even work with Jay. He was extremely difficult, and thought he could just skirt the rules. At one point he even wanted to take some of the grant money and start a construction business with it, even though there was no way the money was ever intended for such things."
Others say they're still trying to squelch the firestorm Cohn created. "Many of his actions created tremendous difficulties for those who remained here," says Terry Flores, grants writer for the tribe. "At best, I would say his work was very inadequate and incomplete."
Larry Garcia denies Cohn's involvement in the recall effort, or that he caused disruptions in the planning department. Cohn didn't return several phone calls seeking comment.
But what was left in the wake of this contentious duo is public record.
RENEE RED DOG'S cluttered office lies within a modular building at Sells, the grubby seat of tribal government located off a two-lane blacktop one hour west of Tucson. , Half-O'odham, middle-aged with long dark hair, Red Dog is Garcia's successor, and she talks in a smooth, sophisticated patter that belies years spent in government work, and nothing of the clipped tribal accent.
She says she inherited a big mess in the aftermath of the Garcia/Cohn regime. "I started here in November of 1996, and things were in disarray. We weren't project-specific, and I had $8 million in HUD monies that were in jeopardy of being lost because there was no movement and no accountability in terms of performance."
HUD-funded projects come up for annual review, she says, "and I'm still under pressure, but what I've done is hire more staff. I'm planning to close out three projects this year."
An example of the backlog is just-completed HUD work that involved renovating a tiny home. The project dated back to 1989. "It was like, 'Why was it taking so long to do this one little house?' " she says. "It was a management issue, to put needed procedures, oversight and management procedures in place. All those things had to be sorted out."
Soon she hopes to have grants from 1994 to 1997 running concurrently, bringing her department up to speed. And she says she's been able to land $9 million in new funding since last year, ranging from a $6 million EPA grant for wastewater treatment in villages along the Mexican border, to $1.9 million more in HUD money.
For most poor reservation dwellers, such numbers probably mean nothing. But on the human level they matter a lot, Red Dog says. "There's a real push to utilize those grants, because we applied for them and we were awarded them. They just weren't implemented.
"Unfortunately, when I go out to the districts and I introduce myself and explain what I'm planning to do, I hear a lot of the stories like 'My mom was supposed to get this bathroom, and she was handicapped, and unfortunately she has passed on.' That's the sad truth of some the recipients of these grants--they're no longer even around because of the timeline.
"There are a lot of upset people out there because they're still waiting for their kitchens and bathrooms, or for their roofs to be fixed," she says. "And I just have to stand there in front of them, letting them air their anger and disappointments. All I can do is try to move those grants along and get these projects going."
THE STARK, FLAT desert rolls silently past as we cruise towards Big Field, a tiny village only a few minutes beyond Sells. Here, a 1994, $400,000 HUD grant is finally being used for adding bathrooms and showers to a scattering of very old homes. Once these are complete, construction crews will move on to the village of Menager Dam, near the Mexican border. In total, the project will include 42 modern privies for people who previously knew only outhouses.
We come upon an aging gray house piggy-backed by a new tan washroom. Visually, it's a very odd congress, the fresh frame addition to a low-slung, concrete-plastered home, in a place where both the land and its dwellings have a timeless, clean-swept look.
Nearly all the homes we see are adobe, bisected by ocotillo acting as rebar. According to the tour guide, who asks not to be named, securing outhouses to the traditional material has been a major chore. "We use a lot of masonry to fill in the gaps," he says. "Sometimes the addition's doorway is higher than the house's roof. Then we have to run a bulwark into the home."
Many recipients of this largesse, accustomed to outside facilities, don't favor bathroom doors extending into their homes. Occasionally, they decline the improvements altogether.
Others are enthusiastic, like the frail elderly lady who beat a narrow, foot-dragging trail to her outhouse door. "Obviously, she's been traipsing out here for years," the guide says. "Finally, we were able to help her."
These are encouraging signs of tribal government hard at work. Still, the casino-fund distribution plan could put a wrench in the works, says Renee Red Dog.
It could happen by raising many reservation residents above the income eligibility standards for receiving state and federal help, she says. "That would include things like general assistance from the Arizona Department of Economic Security, state agencies for nursing homes, state payments for home healthcare for people who are bedridden. So there might be a lot of impacts."
And it didn't help that the casino money was finally distributed the day after Christmas, she says. "People weren't really thinking about food stamps being cut. They were thinking about presents. Comes around January, they don't get their food stamps, but then again they don't have that much money either."
Regardless of the impact, it may be limited to a one-time deal, according to a recent BIA decision.
"There wasn't sufficient information that significant money was set aside for economic development and grant programs as required by federal gaming laws," says Charlot Johnson, BIA tribal operations officer for the Phoenix Area.
Under those agreements, per capita payments are at the bottom of the priority list, following economic development, tribal operations and education. While Johnson isn't specific about how much money needs to be set aside, she says it "falls in the range of 36 to 38 percent of casino revenues. Any per capita payments are subject to one-time approvals. Of course, the tribe can come in with an amended version of their plans, and we would go from there."
Sure, the tribe could do that. But it doesn't seem likely, considering that distribution opponent Manuel is hardly crying over the agency's stance. And Larry Garcia says he hasn't seen the bureau's report. "I'm waiting until I know more about it," he says. "Then I'll be able to make a more intelligent choice about what to do next."
But either way--and despite their economic straits--it would be a mistake to assume that most O'odham supported the distribution just for its promise of quick cash.
Back at Desert Diamond, a crew plucks weeds from a median running alongside the casino. One guy stands to stretch, and pulls down his pointy blue stocking cap. A thin, wiry goatee covers his round chin.
"The Chairman warned that people were just going to drink that money up, or use it to kill themselves with drugs," he says. "But I still just have mine in my savings account."
That starts his buddies chuckling. "Yeah, lunch is on you," one of them hollers.
Another steps slowly along the curb, dousing the ground with herbicide spurting from a narrow wand. "I don't know what everyone else is doing with the money," he says. "I don't drink or smoke. I've been using mine to repair my truck, and for my two kids. It all went to good use, and believe me it didn't last long."
He pauses, raising the wand to clear its clogged tip. "Still, I don't support it," he says. "I had to pay taxes on it. And the government should be using that money for things that would help the people long term, like development and getting businesses going on the reservation. This isn't going to help that a whole lot."
Sentiments aren't much different 65 miles away in Sells, where Annette Frank's weathered adobe home stands at the end of a short, rutted dirt drive. She perches on the doorstep while one of her five sons bounces a basketball off the house. The wind whips her black hair, and her words are angry.
She says she voted for the funds initiative because it meant a recreation center for her boys. "There's nothing for these kids to do around here, no place for them to go. And nothing has been done about it."
As priorities go, she says the $2,000 came in a distant second, or maybe even third. "I really didn't look at it as just getting money. I wanted to send a message. All the residents here, they don't see where the casino money is going, especially elderly people that have leaking roofs, things like that."
While not picking political sides, Frank says the initiative has stirred the pot a little. "I think it has opened the eyes of Chairman Manuel and the rest of them. Maybe it will wake them up."
With that, she turns and steps inside. The door clanks shut behind her. Sounds of the bouncing ball slowly fade in the wind, as a bank of storm clouds gather like a fist over Sells. It looks like a night of nasty weather may be in the works.
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