Casino of the Sun

WRITING - The Vegas Guy

All the Hawaiian-shirted slot jockeys showed up outside Casino of the Sun last week and found the doors locked— and there is nothing that makes a snowbird grumpier than being deprived of his progressive jackpot bingo in the morning. He's liable to get so mad he'll kick his little sweater-wearing chihuahua over the roof of his Winnebago.

But then the next day the doors were closed again.

And the next.

For five days the casino that never closes was . . . closed. And those "winter visitors" had to go crosstown to Desert Diamond for the low-cal "Cottage Cheese Surprise" plate, or-- God forbid--play bingo at the VFW Hall.

There was nothing really wrong at Casino of the Sun. It was just time for the annual "Waehma" rituals. You know, the ones that are sort of half Catholic Easter and half Indian Mardi Gras with guys dressed up like deer, dancing like crazy through the churchyard. All the old men of the Pascua Yaqui tribe wear black masks adorned with goat hair beards and act like clowns, mimes and jokesters while other tribesmen, dressed as "Pharisees," storm the church and try to capture the image of Jesus. Alas, they can't steal Jesus, because small children drive them away by hurling flowers at them. Singers dressed as deer chant the "Looria Bwikam," or Gloria Songs, in both Spanish and the ancient language of Cahitan.

In other words, they become literal party animals. No wonder the casino has to close down. Everybody is goldang busy this time of year.

The resident white-guy general manager--every Indian casino has one--explains it all later. "When I first came here," says the clean-cut Doug Lentz, "I'd never heard of a casino closing even on Christmas, much less five days at Easter. But these are Mexican Catholic Indians, and my wife and I are grateful for the vacation."

The remote psychic zones of Indian casino management are no longer strange to Doug Lentz. Doug has a neatly trimmed goatee, not a goat-hair beard mask. He's a soft-spoken, studious accounting expert in his early thirties— and about as Vegas as they come. New Vegas, that is. He was a UNLV hotel administration major, then worked at The Mirage in its glory days, then hauled his wife out to Mississippi, where he worked for some Gulf Coast casinos until she couldn't take it anymore, begging him to move closer to her native California. Six years ago he jumped at the chance to go to work for the Yavapai tribe in Camp Verde, Ariz., at a time when those guys were operating out of a renovated Best Western motel bulging with 400 slot machines. That's now the very lucrative Cliff Castle Casino, and Doug is obviously proud when he talks about the 114,000-square-foot facility he built there. But none of his experience--at the Mirage, the Grand Casinos chain in Mississippi, and Treasure Bay Casino in Biloxi--prepared him for what he found when he got to Tucson.

Arizona Indian casinos like Casino of the Sun near Tucson have been little more than slot parlors— until now. "There are only two tribes that have gaming in southern Arizona," he says, "and, well, let's just say I'm surprised that the customers haven't demanded more from their facilities. They still have here what we call a bingo perspective."

A bingo perspective, to a gaming guy, means a square building with metal folding tables and dime-store Kokopellis on the wall. Even though bingo is what kicked off the Indian gaming boom in the seventies, it's ancient history on most reservations. It hangs on in Tucson because of the elderly population, especially in the winter high season, when bingo is offered not only at the casinos but at American Legion posts, Elks Clubs, Shriner's temples, chiropractic centers, and the Tucson Alcoholic Recovery Home. Casino of the Sun was called Club Arizona when it opened in 1989, and high-stakes bingo was the beginning and the end of what you could do there. But as soon as casino gambling became legal in 1994, the bingo tables came out and the slots went in. As a result, Tucson is fairly notorious for its crowded low-ceilinged slot parlors in square buildings that weren't designed to be casinos at all. On busy weekends people sometimes wait in line to get in, due to fire-code restrictions in the tiny pre-fab-crete structures. There's not a lot to look at in a Tucson casino, not a lot to eat, and not a lot to do unless you've got a fat roll of quarters or a yellow highlighter pen.

"I think some of the tribes don't realize what they could have," says Doug. "But then they go to an inter-tribal conference in the middle of Kansas, and they find out that some group smaller than their own has a palace. And when they see it, they want it."

And the Pascua Yaqui obviously want it. Last month they broke ground on a new casino which, at $65 million, will be the most elaborate in the state. It would have been even bigger were it not for the strange compacts the Indians negotiated with the governor in 1993. No casino can have more than 500 slot machines, but each tribe can build as many casinos as it wants! That means the old Casino of the Sun will remain open even after the new one is built, just to provide income from 500 more slots. (Do this math: There are only 1,000 slot machines available in a market of 850,000 people. They don't have to be that luxurious.) The same state compacts make table games illegal, so Arizona is yet another state that fears blackjack and craps but embraces the cash-cow one-armed bandit. Poker is legal, too, but Casino of the Sun phased it out in 1997— no room! Now they plan to bring it back when the new casino opens in October.

"I definitely see us evolving into more of a Mirage-style project," says Doug, "an entertainment destination with a hotel and golf course. There are a lot of no-growth advocates in Arizona, especially in Tucson, and so Indian reservations are in a unique position. We can build things that other people can't."

After a while I go outside and wander around the reservation, which is a mere thousand acres of scrub desert, trailer homes, and horse stables. They've got a smoke shop and an Indian crafts store--is it my imagination or did Indian crafts go way downhill in the nineties?--and the most beautiful thing on the property is the casino itself. It has a fake stucco facade with a lot of beige, purple and deep red, like a Spanish mission painted by Georgia O'Keeffe. Green symbols of the sun dangle in portals along the facade.

And that's actually the strangest thing about the place--the name Casino of the Sun. For the Yaquis, like all desert dwellers, worshipped water, not light. "Casino of the Rain" would make more sense for these Mexican Indians who historically lived along the rivers of the Yaqui Valley in Sonora, near Ciudad Obregon.

The Pascua Yaquis of Arizona are actually refugees, driven out of Mexico in the first decade of the 20th century when the Mexican government tried to relocate them all to Yucatan to work the henequen plantations. Faced with the prospect of dying in the henequen slave-labor camps, thousands fled north into Arizona, where they became miners, railroad workers and field laborers on the haciendas. Their legal status was more or less iffy until 1964, when they were finally deeded 200 acres 15 miles southwest of Tucson. They weren't recognized by the federal government until 1978, and there are only about 13,000 of them, compared to the 40,000 who still live in the eight "sacred pueblos" of Sonora.

Very few of the Pascua Yaquis live on the reservation--no room!--but they're fortunate to have a strong tribal chairman, Robert Valencia, who's a history teacher at Pima Community College. He's given Doug a fairly aggressive mandate to make as much money as possible to lead the Pascua Yaquis out of the terrible poverty that's seen their unemployment rate go as high as 50 per cent in recent years.

And the result, according to the tribe's glossy public relations materials, will be "the largest gaming and entertainment destination in the State," with an amphitheater that seats 4200, seven restaurants, a bowling alley, child care center (obviously a sign they expect to move beyond the snowbird market), poker room, off-track-betting counter and, of course, bingo hall. A hotel and golf course would be built later, assuming that the state renews its 10-year compact and perhaps gives them a few more perks, like the right to deal blackjack.

It's already a better life than any decade within the last 300 years, most of which involved bloody wars between the Yaqui and the Mexican government. In 1909, according to anthropologist Thomas E. Sheridan, "Being Yaqui meant peonage or death."

Today being Yaqui, in Tucson, is not a bad gig at all. I'd close the doors and put on the ancient goat mask, too.


CASINO OF THE SUN   7406 S. Camino de Oeste, Tucson, Ariz.   Theme: Franklin-Mint Spanish-Mission Food Court
Opened: 1989 (as the Arizona Club)
Known For: The more laidback of the two Tucson Indian casinos, catering mainly to locals.
Marketing niche: Snowbirds, seniors, weekend players, everybody in Tucson, and Mexicans. (It's the closest casino to Nogales, on the Mexican border.)
Gambler's Intensity: Low
Cocktail speed: No alcohol
Dealers: Busy but civil
Bosses: Friendly to a fault
Tables: 0
Slots: 483
Rooms: 0
Surrounding area: The Sonora Desert. The San Xavier Mission, perhaps the second most famous Spanish mission after the Alamo, is about a mile away.
Overall rating: 65
Joe Bob's bankroll: Even after 30 minutes of "Double Pay Lucky 7" slots: total to date: -$446


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