By Sunnie Clahchischiligi
Every other day or so I’ll make a 20-plus minute drive to Farmington, N.M. the closest border town to the Navajo reservation in my neck of the woods.
The approximate 15-mile stretch has rolling hills with small businesses along side the road and just as you make the final stretch into the edge of the city there it is. On the right hand side, alone, big, beautifully lit at night, though surrounded by dirt and plenty of mobile homes.
It’s the Navajo Nation’s third and newest casino, Northern Edge Navajo Casino.
Its architecture is an immense upgrade from the Navajo Nation’s other two casinos; Fire Rock Navajo in Red Rock, N.M. and Flowing Water Casino in Shiprock, N.M.
During the day the casino stands out but at night it outshines many of the homes and businesses nearby.
And the interior is just or possibly even more beautiful that the outside.
While I’d rather watch the desert sky lit by a beautiful full moon and a plethora of stars I have to admit the casino is a sight.
I’ve visited Northern Edge a couple of times now. Being the non-gambler that I am, I’ve mostly gone to marvel at the establishment.
When I first went to visit it was a Friday night. I walked around the place a couple of times, checked out the machines, the tables, the restaurants and the people.
I picked up a brochure after registering in the Player’s Club during my first visit.
About a week later I visited again, this time I was accompanied by my 17-year-old niece and my mother, who were also curious about both places.
This time I knew more about the casino.
The brochure is an in-depth description of what just about every aspect of the casino stands for.
The outside architecture represents the story of the Hero Twins, sons of White Shell Woman, according to Navajo mythology. The entrance/lobby before entering the casino is decorated in honor of the twins’ mother and father and houses the arts and crafts of local Navajo artists.
The Cedar Bow restaurant was made with the casino’s regional agricultural heritage in mind, according to the brochure, is something that is dear to the Navajo people.
And then there are some more obvious Navajo cultured décor.
On one or two of the slot islands there is a Navajo Hogan that lights up from time to time.
Each night I left the casino more impressed than the last time I visited.
But once the casino lights disappeared from my rearview mirror I was reminded of everything else outside of the casino.
As I passed single and doublewide trailers and rundown homes I was reminded of how many of our Navajo people live in such impoverished situations.
As the casino lights wither I was reminded of how many families, elders and rural homes are still looking for their turn to get electricity.
I was reminded of how my grandmother waited years and how other grandmothers are still waiting to be able to take a shower or flip the light switch in the kitchen.
I was reminded of how far we, as Navajo people, still have to go.
Once the casino lights disappeared behind the rolling hills I felt…dirty.
I felt bad for my family friends who lived near my hometown of Teec Nos Pos, Ariz. who have yet to see electric poles put up in their neighborhoods. I felt guilty for every light that I’ve ever left on in my 26 years of existence.
When I think about the casino and how many people were as impressed with it as I was, I can’t help but think about how many more of my people were disappointed to see a casino established with immediate electricity, when many of them are still waiting their entire lives for the same courtesy.
When I think about the casino and all the other casinos I think about how my grandmother and I used to have walk to the outhouse about 600 feet from the house in the middle of the night with a flashlight before she got electricity.
The casino is a sight for sore eyes, but so are the conditions in which many of my people live in.
There are a lot of good intentions behind the three casinos the Navajo people now have but I’m having a hard time seeing them.
I’ve read that they were supposed to employee hundreds of our people yet I see many job openings at all casinos still open week after week. And some of those who currently work at the casinos aren’t Navajo or Native American. Some moved over from local casinos because the Navajo casinos reportedly pay better.
I was also very surprised to see that this casino has a bar. I’m not opposed to drinking, if it’s done responsibly, but I am concerned about what this message might send.
I spent an evening at the casino enjoying a nice steak dinner one Friday night. The casino was pretty lively but so was the bar. I sat at a table next to two young men, both were heavily intoxicated, and spent an hour trying to wait for the influence to wear off. It was about 9 p.m. and they grew impatient so they finally decided to leave. It left me wondering how they were going to leave, did they have drivers and were they OK to drive?
In all my time growing up on the reservation and living nearby, I’ve constantly heard organizations pleading to end drunken driving and drinking all together on the reservation. So, to find that this new Navajo casino, on the reservation, had a bar was a shock to me. Alcohol is banned on the Navajo reservation yet there’s a Navajo establishment promoting it.
When I make that 20-minute drive to Farmington and see the new casino I can’t help but think of all good and bad that comes with it. While I am glad to see our nation take a step forward and catch up with the rest of the world, I am also sad to see that there are some things that we have to give up in the process.
So the next time I grab my keys and jump in my truck I’ll just have to take in both the good and the bad when I pass the double-wide trailers that can’t be missed sitting next to the beautifully lit casino.