America became an economic superpower in the wake of World War II and the 1950s witnessed a time of unprecedented growth and prosperity. Unfortunately, that economic growth was not felt everywhere in the country, as many Tribal communities were left out and/or struggled to find their place in the new, larger national economy. In Arizona, one of those tribes was the Ak-Chin Indian Community, which lacked paved roads, cars, modern services, and even electricity for most Tribal members. For those few that did have electricity, “It was just one wire up on top [of the ceiling], and one lightbulb that you pulled a string. That was our electricity,” according to community member, Leona Kakar. Located 58 miles south of Phoenix, Arizona, the community was undeveloped in every modern way.
Farming emerged as the community’s life blood in the 1960’s and proved a profitable industry for three decades. But by the 1990’s agriculture could not keep up with the growing Tribal community’s needs. It was at that time that Tribal leadership decided to invest in the gaming industry and forty acres of land used to grow alfalfa was allotted for a casino. The new entertainment destination provided an immediate boost to the community, creating jobs and new revenue that helped the Tribe make much-needed infrastructure updates, build government and community service buildings, and diversify its economic base. Not only did the casino bring in more money than alfalfa farming, it spurred economic growth in many other areas of the community and nearby town of Maricopa.
In 2004, the Ak-Chin Indian Community purchased the former Phoenix Regional Airport, renaming it the Ak-Chin Regional Airport and, in close proximity, the Tribe also acquired the Santa Cruz Commerce Center industrial park. In 2010, the Tribe added the Southern Dunes Golf Club, diversifying its economy even further. Since the first shovel broke ground in the middle of that former alfalfa field, Tribal Gaming has given the Ak-Chin Indian Community the resources to expand its economy beyond just the casino, and help instill a sense of self-sufficiency and enterprise.
Similar success stories to this one in the Ak-Chin Indian Community can be found all over Arizona. Twenty-one Arizona Tribes have signed gaming compacts and use those revenues in ways unique to every community’s needs. And while all Tribes address these needs differently, gaming revenues have proven an effective way to help bolster their economies and improve the infrastructure within their communities. The San Carlos Apache Tribe, uses gaming revenues to invest in a variety of local projects that include elementary and high school education, local justice services, health and wellness centers, trauma care, local scholarships, and employment opportunities. This investment back into the community has made it possible for talented Tribal members to stay on the reservation, stay connected to their community, and support their families financially.
Even the remote tribes such as the Kaibab Paiute, Havasupai, Hualapai, and Zuni Tribes have used their gaming revenues from transfer agreements to develop, modernize, and diversify their communities. These funds have been used to improve education services, offer scholarships, build Boys and Girls Clubs, build day care centers, and fund senior care. As the saying goes, a rising tide lifts all boats, and this is especially true with the gaming dollars spent to improve the lives of each and every Tribal member.
If you drive around the Ak-Chin Indian Community today, you won’t see the struggling community of the 1950s, but a blossoming community with modernized neighborhoods, bustling businesses, and a thriving economy. Overcoming centuries of disadvantage is not an easy task, but with the help of Tribal Gaming revenues, Tribes all throughout Arizona have been able to build a foundation for long-term success for their communities and create hope for a self-reliant future.