Opening Night At Fire Rock Casino - Six Natives On Obama's Transition Team
By Kathy Helms
WINDOW ROCK - Navajo Nation Vice President Ben Shelly stood in the middle of the floor near the fireplace, looking around in amazement. He smacked himself on the cheeks a couple times just to make sure it was real.
“This is Navajo-owned. I haven’t woke up yet,” he said during Wednesday’s grand opening of Fire Rock Casino. “It’s a dream come true.”
Hearing President Joe Shirley Jr.’s voice filled with excitement when he told the Navajo people, “We did it!” and then watching him cut the ribbon to open the doors to the casino was reminiscent of watching a young boy who had just been handed the biggest present under the Christmas tree.
“The feeling is very exhilarating! This is one of the steps to getting back our independence. I’m glad we did it with our own money. That feels good.”
Fire Rock Casino is projected to bring in $32 million to $35 million a year. “We have 272 people working here and 92 percent of the staff is Navajo. It really makes my heart glad to see more of our people working and bringing food to the table and putting shoes on little feet,” he said.
Quincy Natay, vice chairman of the Navajo Gaming Enterprise Board of Directors, said, “People were here at 8 this morning waiting to get in, and the line really started forming at 11 o’clock.”
Shortly before the 4 p.m. grand opening, a crowd of thousands was lined up, three and four deep, all the way around one side of the 65,000-square-foot building.
Vehicles were backed up all the way to the New Mexico State Police post on Route 66, and the nearly 900-space casino parking lot was full to overflowing. It was a turnout beyond everyone’s expectations.
Martha Chavez of Gallup said she knew there would be a crowd for the opening, “but I didn’t realize there would be that many people! For a Wednesday afternoon, I’m surprised.”
While standing in line she met Alice Collins of the Fort Wingate area and they became fast friends. “I’m glad we don’t have to travel way far away for a casino to play,”
Collins said. “We get our stress out sometimes playing. We have fun, we don’t overdo it. Now you can go out to eat in there, and then play a little bit, and just enjoy yourself and enjoy meeting people.”
She said Navajo has been enjoying the casinos owned by Acoma and Laguna pueblos. “We’ve been out there with them helping raise money in their area, so now they can come over and bring some of that money back over here.”
Ned Yazzie of Churchrock wanted to see the building and how the facility would be run. “It’s nice for the people doing the gamble, instead of going a long way, like Sky City, Dancing Eagle, Route 66. Now we have it here on our land and we like it. We don’t have to go far to go to casino.”
Surveying the crowd, Navajo Nation Council Delegate Johnny Naize said, “We have been waiting for this for so long. I think everybody is looking forward to coming to this casino. I think we need to bring those slot machines that we’ve been renting out and return them to be used here. The turnout is magnificent.”
Omer Bradley, director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs Regional Office in Gallup, handed out a few quarters to some of his employees Wednesday morning, telling them, “Here’s a lucky quarter on me.”
Bradley said Fire Rock’s opening is “an exciting event in the history of the Nation. I think it’s going to be a tremendous success and bring a lot of well-founded good for the Navajo people.”
Marilyn of Laguna, who didn’t want to give her last name, said she and her aunt and uncle had been standing in line since around 2:30 p.m. “We came to congratulate the Navajo people, and we also invite them down to our casino. I’m excited to see a new business for the people here.”
Adrianna Yazzie of Gallup and fellow employees at Cheii Pub and Grill, all sporting new uniforms, were lined up outside the restaurant to welcome customers. “I’m so excited to serve the Navajo people here, and so far as I’ve heard, there are so many people that are so happy to have this casino here - our own. I’m just happy to work here and work with my fellow employees,” she said.
Navajo Gaming Enterprise CEO Bob Winter said he had been expecting a lot of people for the opening, “but not this many. I think the people are proud of it. We’ve had very good reaction the last two trial nights. We have some special effects that will be put into this facility just before Christmas that I think is going to make it even more special for everyone to enjoy.”
Navajo Nation Controller Mark Grant stood watching the endless line of customers pouring in the doors. “I want every one of them to play, play, play!” he said.
Tony Benally Sr. of Rough Rock was ecstatic as he headed toward the slots. “I’m ready to spend my money and then I’ll be here all time instead of traveling different places. This is Vegas right here for us!”
By dusk, Edna Nunes of Gallup was almost to the casino door. “ It’s about time the tribe made a move to get some money to help with the scholarships and help the needy people. This will bring the income, which is the greatest move the Navajo Tribe has ever made. I’m very excited,” she said.
Chief of Staff Patrick Sandoval was walking around with a video camera, filming the historic moment. “It is an absolutely phenomenal sight. When you’ve actually had the opportunity to work on it, you see the vision, you see the blueprint, and you see the doors open - it’s finally come.
“I think my biggest pride is all the employed Navajos. It’s so unique to see Navajo police out in front of a casino helping to control the traffic - and it’s not just somebody we lend the police to. It’s ours!”
SIX NATIVE AMERICANS ON OBAMA TRANSITION TEAM
With less than two months to go before his inauguration and a heap of issues to tackle once he takes his place in the Oval Office, President-elect Barack Obama has wasted no time putting together his transition team. As reported last week by the Missoulian, the team currently includes six Native Americans.
John Echohawk, Keith Harper and Robert Anderson were appointed to the Interior Department Review Team.
Echohawk is executive director of the Native American Rights Fund (NARF), a non-profit organization that provides legal representation to tribes and Native American organizations and individuals.
Harper is a former NARF attorney, as is Anderson.The other three are Mary Smith, Mary McNeil and Yvette Robideaux, who were appointed to work on justice, agriculture and health issues.
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