The New Boss

The Tohono O'odham Nation's first chairwoman wants to make life better for her people. Now if only the government had the same goal.

The Arizona gambling industry brings in an estimated $1.6 billion annually. That's the good news. But for Tohono O'odham Nation Chairwoman Vivian Juan-Saunders, the first woman to ever hold her position, there's a lot of bad news, too.

Despite the perception that the O'odham are fabulously wealthy from their successful casinos, outside businesses aren't exactly flocking to the reservation, mainly because there's a lack of basic infrastructure. More than 50 villages on the reservation have no electricity or telephones, and to drop in a utility line would cost millions of dollars.

In an effort to diversify the Indian nation's economy beyond the casinos, Juan-Saunders and her administration are doing everything they can to forge better ties with political and business leaders off the reservation.

"The vast nature of the land base out here, and the lack of infrastructure for economic development and housing, is an issue we need to address, because it's very expensive," says Juan-Saunders.

With Arizona containing the third-largest Indian population in the country--Tucson has the eighth-largest metro Indian population--there's a huge economic impact from the local tribal population that impacts the entire area. The 27,000-member Tohono O'odham Nation ("desert people" in English) has an economic impact of more than $12 million on the Tucson community each year--so what happens to the economy and business development of the O'odham nation impacts Tucsonans directly. Still, the O'odham people have repeatedly complained that not enough money has been spent to improve housing, road conditions, health care, education and law enforcement.

With these issues in mind during the May election, the nation gave Juan-Saunders 59 percent of the overall vote against former Tribal Chairman Edward D. Manuel. He had led the nation since 1995.

Juan-Saunders, 43, and her running mate, vice chairman Ned Norris Jr., 47, were inaugurated to head the Tohono O'odham Nation on June 27 after carrying eight of the 11 districts. Juan-Saunders, former vice president for education at Tohono O'odham Community College in Sells, and Norris, former director of marketing and public relations for the O'odham Gaming Authority, lost to Manuel in the 1999 election, but after they prevailed in May they promised to give tribal members an accounting of casino revenues and to pay more attention to basic infrastructure needs.

"When I first ran for office, there were many who felt that a woman doesn't belong in the position I hold now," says Juan-Saunders. "But I believe over time, with the changing world and changing environment and all the issues we're facing now, it's no longer a matter of gender, but a matter of who has the qualifications to move our nation forward."

In the past eight months, three of Arizona's 22 Native American communities have taken the historic step of electing women to their top leadership positions. Women now hold the top spot in eight of the 22 communities.

For Juan-Saunders, who grew up on the reservation, the victory was the culmination of her upbringing with an alternative vision of reservation life.

"It was really my grandparents who laid the foundation for me ... to pursue all that I was able to, and to always keep in mind the people in general and always keep focused on making a difference in the lives of our own people," says Juan-Saunders.

Juan-Saunders' grandfather had enough foresight to bring the family from a village in Mexico, although the family lived in poverty on the Arizona side of the reservation.

"I grew up in poverty, but that was replaced with what I needed in my life to get where I am now," says Juan-Saunders. "In terms of my grandparents, I feel they would be proud of where I am now, because they always had a vision."

ONE OF JUAN-SAUNDERS' biggest obstacles as chairwoman is undoing a history of under-funding. A July 2003 conducted by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights found the United States is not meeting its obligation to reservations in health care, housing, law enforcement and education--due to the failure to honor promised funding.

On the state level, 43 bills of interest to tribes went through the state Legislature this past session--and 26 failed.

The border is a good example of state and federal neglect.

When the federal government recently gave Pima County $3 million of Homeland Security money to better secure the border with Mexico, the O'odham didn't get a dime, because their joint 76-mile border with Mexico is not considered a threat by the feds.

The Homeland Security Act of 2002 was designed to, among other things, financially beef up the U.S. borders. But it makes no mention of borderlands in Indian territory.

"That tends to be the case in all legislation that is enacted in Congress," notes Juan-Saunders. "We feel strongly that, as a tribal government, funds should come directly to the O'odham nation instead of (being) funneled through the state and finally the county, because the nation is located in three counties."

Meanwhile, an estimated 1,500 illegal immigrants pour through the O'odham nation every day, overtaxing tribal law enforcement and health services. At least 148 migrants have died over the past two years--eight in May alone. Tribal police officers, who number less than 75, towed 2,300 vehicles used in the smuggling illegals and narcotics, and seized more than 32,000 pounds of narcotics between January and May--and that doesn't include the Border Patrol take. Recently, an estimated five tons of marijuana was found on the reservation in one day.

Last year, O'odham police spent half of the department's budget--$3 million--on border issues. The Indian Health Service hospital in Sells spent $500,000 on health care for immigrants, with no reimbursement from Washington. To make it worse, the last state legislative session failed to pass a federal Homeland Security tribal money bill, as well as a bill providing National Guard mobilization for border control.

In March, the vice-chairman of the U.S. Senate Indian Affairs Committee introduced a bill to amend the Homeland Security Act of 2002 by removing tribes from the current definition of "local governments" and treating them as separate sovereign entities. A companion bill has been filed in the House. But until a change occurs, securing the tribal-Mexican border continues to drain gaming money earmarked for reservation economic development and social programs.

INDIAN GAMING WAS established in 1988 to jump-start the economy, says Juan-Saunders. It was never meant to be a long-term revenue source for any Indian tribes.

Last year's Proposition 202 expanded gaming on the reservations in exchange for the tribes sharing up to 8 percent of their gaming revenues with the state, potentially generating $102 million for state and local governments, according to an analysis by the state Joint Legislative Budget Committee. As of July, the state had received $4.1 million from the state's tribes, according to the Department of Gaming.

Before Prop 202 passed, O'odham officials were staring down a $20 million budget shortfall, because the nation's casino profits were lower than forecast. To spare the many economic and social service programs in the works, then-Chairman Manuel and Tribal Council members came up with an austerity plan to prevent layoffs by having each department cut its budget by 10 percent, and by deferring salary increases while leaving job vacancies unfilled. Also, the 27,000 tribal members of the nation did not receive the $2,000-per-person casino profit payment that is supposed to be disbursed every two years.

Some projects that gaming has bankrolled have moved ahead (see the graphic), while others are still in the planning stages. About $2 million was set aside to build a dialysis center; another $30 million was to build 11 youth recreation centers. A nursing home was built, but remains non-operational. Nothing has been spent on housing, one of the most pressing needs of the 2.6-million-acre Tohono O'odham Nation reservation--the second-largest in the country.

Then there's the $15.2 million museum to house ancestral Hohokam artifacts and hopefully draw "cultural tourism" to the reservation--something that's given an economic windfall to a few other tribal nations.

"There was an appropriation set aside for construction, but in terms of a budget for staff, that was approved for fiscal year 2004, so they're moving forward with design and construction," says Juan-Saunders.

Other recently completed projects include the purchase a fleet of cars for health workers to visit medically needy members, and the maintenance of a 50-bed nursing home--both critical needs regarding the health issues the nation has to deal with. For the O'odham, and all tribes, diabetes is a major problem, and the UA is working with the tribe to study the issue. American Indians and Alaska natives suffer from diabetes, accidental injuries and violence at rates higher than the rest of the nation, and according a study this summer by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the federal Indian Health Service, many of these problems could be solved by basic prevention. The study found that the adult diabetes rate is twice the national rate (15.3 percent for American Indians and Alaska natives; the national average is 7.3 percent).

Citing a limited budget, the head of the IHS, in February 2003, urged tribes to bolster their health care systems by looking to other funding programs.

The state hasn't been much help. The last Legislature failed to pass a rural hospitals bill, a healthy families program bill, a rural primary care clinics bill, a tribal services project bill and a bill regarding the Behavioral Health Practitioners Repayment Program.

In the meantime, the nation is building a second, $10 million health clinic to serve the western end of the reservation.

As governments cut funding, the nation is making an effort to financially contribute to the community. Local charities quietly benefit from the tribe, including a $10,000 donation to Mount Lemmon fire truck fund. During the tribe's 10 years of casino operations, they've donated some $5 million to local and state groups.

A decade-long research project at the UA and the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development revolves around why some Indian tribes--gaming or not--seem to have better luck at economic development as sovereign nations than other tribes. The surprising answer seems to lean toward the makeup of the individual tribes' government.

"Nation-owned enterprises that are insulated from tribal politics are about four times as likely to be profitable," says Stephen Cornell, director of the Udall Center for Public Policy. "If you want sovereignty to pay off, you've got to back it up with good government. That means things like keeping politics out of day-to-day business management."

Set-up in 1986, the Tohono O'odham Nation's government has a federal structure, with the chairwoman being "president," the 11 districts being "states" and the 22-member legislative council being the "congress."

"When the Bureau of Indian Affairs is making decisions for Indian Country, bureaucratic interests control Indian country," says Cornell. "As decision-making power moves into tribal hands, the interests change, the agenda changes and the decisions change."

Chairwoman Juan-Saunders and the nation's Legislative Council are making their own decisions in moving ahead with goal of diversity.

"One of the traits of our people is that we sit down and have a discussion and try to reach a consensus, rather than the democratic process, where the majority rules," says Juan-Saunders.

ONE ECONOMIC DIVERSITY project for the tribe is the 13,000-square-foot Technology Development and Research Institute, taking shape at 7800 S. Nogales Highway, where scientists from UC-Berkeley and UCLA will be housed, and the Office of Naval Research will conduct unmanned aerial vehicle research.

The institute is the O'odham's effort to cash in on the high-tech clusters, working with the Southern Arizona Tech Council, the University of Arizona, Sandia National Laboratories, the Arizona Manufacturing Extension Partnership and the Tohono Tribal College. To date, the tribe has raised more than $1 million for the institute, including $100,000 from the Office of Naval Research and a federal commitment of $5 million over five years.

In order to bring more business and keep jobs on the reservation, Juan-Saunders is placing an emphasis on the education of the reservation's workforce. She has a master's in history from the UA and is working on her doctorate at Northern Arizona University.

Today, it's so important to promote education for our own people and take control of education on the nation," says Juan-Saunders. "There's so much we, as a people, can contribute and I feel that education overlaps into economic development."

The lack of education means that the nation can't even employ many of its own. Of the 3,300 jobs at the Tohono O'odham Nation's three casinos--the 10th-largest employer in Southern Arizona--only a small fraction are held by tribal members.

"We've become a multi-million dollar business, and we need people in place to manage programs, especially in accounting and financing," says Juan-Saunders. "The overall goal is to try to prepare our own people to assume positions with the proper skills."

Before the Tohono O'odham Community College in Sells opened in 2000, tribal members had to leave the reservation for an education, risking losing their cultural identity and traditional language skills. Once the college receives official accreditation, students will be able to transfer course credits to other institutions.

"They are eligible for federal funds, but that won't come until fiscal year 2005," says Juan-Saunders.

For now, it's gaming money keeping the classes going and eventually building a new campus.

Another aspect of the nation's education strategy includes the recently finished 100,000-watt community radio station: KOHN 91.9-FM. When it kicks off with an open house soon, the focus will be on talk shows of interest to tribal members, done mostly in their native language to keep the culture alive.

HOUSING IS YET another critical problem Juan-Saunders is striving to solve. The tribe has some 700 people on the waiting list for new homes--a potential boom for outside contractors. But with the average reservation income of $12,000 a year, many do not qualify for federal aid, which requires a minimum income of $14,000 per year. And even if they had the money, the supporting electricity, gas and water lines are not in place.

"We do not have commercial codes in place. We do not have building codes, and we do not have the proper regulations in the event we invite development onto the reservation," says Juan-Saunders.

Even though the O'odham nation takes in millions from its casinos, after the state takes a cut and the tribe pays for other programs, there is only $1 million left to share among the reservation's 11 districts for housing. The tribe receives $6 million in federal funding, of which $4 million is used for housing repairs. Gov. Janet Napolitano met with Juan-Saunders and other tribal leaders in September but said the state cannot provide any financial housing assistance.

In fact, with Arizona's budget in the tank to the tune of a $1 billion deficit, officials have all but slammed the door shut on the state office designed to broker projects and contacts for the state's Indian reservations.

The Arizona Commission of Indian Affairs is the only agency devoted exclusively to enhancing tribal-state relations and assist relationships between Indian and non-Indian businesses. While the 2001 Arizona Legislature granted ACIA a 10-year extension, funding was cut by 20 percent. In fact, the Arizona House eliminated the entire $240,000 budget for the commission at one point, only to be overruled after critics screamed that Indians are a low priority in the eyes of the state and funding Indian-specific programs is a luxury reserved only for times of plenty.

"There's no money for anything at this point," says ACIA director Ron Lee of the Navajo Nation.

The Arizona Commission was founded in 1953, and with the exception of Mississippi, all of the 42 states with officially recognized Indian tribes have such a state agency, including New Mexico--considered the best-funded and staffed Indian affairs commission in the United States.

In 1999, there was an increase in funding for ACIA to hire a full-time business development person who would travel to the various Indian communities to inform the tribes about state services.

"That was working well until the state had its budget issues, so I had to let that person go, and it's been difficult for us at this point, with the limited staff, to really be able to do what we wanted," says Lee.

Without ACIA, the O'odham's dream of economic diversity and attracting non-Indian business is sure to be slowed by red tape and miscommunications.

ARIZONA'S INDIAN COUNTRY is trying to change all these cooperation issues by coming together.

In June, the 23rd Arizona Indian Town Hall, titled "Laying the Foundation for Stronger Tribal-State Relations," brought together tribal, state, federal, local and private sector representatives to discuss the creation of policy for formalizing and institutionalizing tribal-state relations and make recommendations on how best to utilize a new tribal-state relations study committee. Topics included economic development, education and jurisdiction issues.

And September of last year, more than a thousand Indian leaders met in Phoenix for a national summit aimed at combating unemployment on tribal land and stimulating their economies. The National Summit on Emerging Tribal Economies allowed tribal leaders to exchange ideas and business plans for creating sustainable and diverse economies at a time when reservations face a 50 percent unemployment rate. The hope is to create 100,000 jobs by 2008 and to create sustainable, market-driven economies by 2020 nationwide.

In the meantime, the O'odham's economic resources are forced to cover things like homeland security issues and under-funded health, housing and educational programs. With that drain, the economic benefits to the surrounding Tucson community's nonprofit groups and vendors could dwindle.

"Most of all our needs or products that we purchase are purchased off the reservation," says Juan-Saunders. "That's one way we contribute and many of the vendors off the reservation benefit greatly."