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Navajo Leader OKs Pact for Casino

By Jeff Jones
Journal Staff Writer
    The president of the Navajo Nation on Friday signed a New Mexico gaming compact that could clear the way for a fourth Indian mega-casino on the outskirts of Albuquerque.
    President Joe Shirley Jr., at his headquarters in Window Rock, Ariz., signed the compact needed to bring the first legalized gambling to the nation, although only to To'hajiilee, formerly known as the Cañoncito Chapter.
    Under Navajo law, To'hajiilee, a satellite reservation off Interstate 40 just west of Albuquerque, about 100 miles east of the Navajo reservation proper, can be the only site of any casino project on Navajo lands. Gambling remains illegal on the big eastern and western portions of the nation.
    Shirley's signature comes three weeks after the Navajo Nation Council voted 59-13 to approve the gambling compact, said council spokeswoman Karen Francis.
    The compact, which is identical to the agreements 11 other tribes currently have with this state, needs go to Gov. Bill Richardson for his approval.
    Richardson spokesman Billy Sparks said Friday evening the governor didn't yet have the Navajo compact, but he said preliminary talks on the issue have been positive.
    "The governor looks forward to hearing from the Navajo Nation and will review the proposal in a timely manner," Sparks said.
    Richardson has said he would sign if the tribe accepted the state's existing gambling agreements with tribes.
    To'hajiilee residents have been anticipating a casino for years and had a symbolic groundbreaking ceremony in January 2002.
    Lawrence Platero, council delegate for To'hajiilee, said after Friday's signing that a Navajo casino could be running by the end of next year or in early 2005.
    "We're getting ready to move forward with this," Platero said. "It's been a long time coming."
    Laguna Pueblo earlier this month opened its $60 million Route 66 Casino at the I-40 Rio Puerco exit, and Platero said he believes the Navajo casino would be about a mile away.
    New Mexico's other largest Indian casinos— Isleta and Sandia— are at the south and north edges of Albuquerque. Acoma Pueblo's Sky City's Casino sits west of Laguna's Route 66 and Dancing Eagle casinos.
    "I imagine (the To'hajiilee project is) going to be pretty comparable to that casino they've developed out there," he said, referring to the 1,200-slot-machine Route 66.
    Navajo voters rejected gambling in both 1994 and 1997, but To'hajiilee voters on both occasions supported it.
    The Navajo Nation Council in 2000 voted to decriminalize casino gaming at To'hajiilee. However, the council voted last year to reject a gaming compact with the state over concerns about losing sovereign rights.
    The council voted again on Aug. 29 and approved a compact, Francis said.
    Shirley, who took office in January, has been opposed to legalized gambling on the reservation, citing the two previous times nation residents have rejected it.
    His spokeswoman, Deana Jackson, said the tribal council could have argued that the compact did not require Shirley's signature and moved forward with the compact anyway.
    "He's not the one who decriminalized gaming here. He's not the one who did not veto it," Jackson said of Shirley. She added that signing the compact is "by no means a change of heart. President Shirley is committed to the nonexpansion of gaming on the reservation until the Navajo people have spoken."
    There is an ancient Navajo cultural taboo against gambling.
    To'hajiilee and the Navajo Nation will share in the proceeds of any casino development, Francis said. The nation also will have to give up to 8 percent of its slot revenues to the state— a requirement of the current Indian gaming compacts.
   
    The Associated Press contributed to this report.