Desert Diamond Casino

WRITING - The Vegas Guy

Desert Diamond Casino has all the charm of a Greyhound bus station full of bikers and bag ladies, but when you're jonesing for a slot machine at 3 a.m., that neon "Open All Night" sign beckons like a beautiful hooker in a Turkish port.

For years this was the only place to gamble in Tucson, but even with competition from the crosstown Casino of the Sun, Desert Diamond remains the most profitable slots joint in Arizona, packing the players so tight that on weekends they have actual waiting lines outside.

Owned by the Tohono O'odham tribe of desert dwellers, who have a reservation the size of Connecticut, Desert Diamond was the state's first Indian casino to open in 1993 after Governor J. Fyfe Symington III was more or less forced to sign gaming compacts with the state's Indian tribes. And ever since then the state and the Tohono O'odhams have been in a constant state of war.

Symington was one of those governors--there were quite a few in the early nineties--who simply refused to abide by the 1988 Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. That statute says that, if your state has any form of state-sanctioned gambling, then the governor has to negotiate with the Indians who want gambling, too. (Arizona had a lottery, horse racing, dog racing and bingo.) Once a "compact" between the governor and the tribe has been signed, the Indians can open for business. But many governors simply refused to negotiate compacts, resulting in federal lawsuits, the intervention of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and states being forced to either settle with the Indians or have a compact ordered by the federal courts.

When Symington finally agreed to compacts with 16 of the 21 tribes, he allowed to 500 slot machines per casino, live keno and poker, but no blackjack, craps, roulette, or other Vegas-style table games. This has been the position of several states--that slot machines are benign but somehow table games are evil--when in fact the only way to limit gaming is to ban slot machines and allow table games. Slot machines drive 90 per cent of the income from gambling, so anyone attempting to limit its spread would reasonably approve everything except slots and blackjack (the most popular table game). In fact most governors did the same thing Symington did, enriching the tribes, entrenching the casinos, building up their political war chests, and ultimately giving them more political clout.

At the Desert Diamond in Tucson, nobody goes for the decor. Which was fine with the Tohono O'odhams (pronounced "Ta-HO- no O-dums"), who are now almost eight years into their ten-year pact and already starting to negotiate with the new governor, Jane Hull. She's no fan of gambling either, but a deal is afoot for the Indians to be allowed blackjack and an increase in the number of slots per casino, but only if they give up some of their income to the state.

"At this point the state has no regulatory power," says Ned Norris, Director of Marketing and Public Relations for the tribe. "They would like to tax us in return for our getting more slots and blackjack. We are very dedicated to the notion of sovereignty--that we deal with them on a nation-to-nation basis-- but sometimes you have to give to get. We could build more casinos--we can have 500 slots in every casino we build, and there's no limit on how many we can build--but no tribe wants to build more casinos. So we have a stake in offering them something that will make them want to revise that rule."

It would certainly create a little more elbow room for the gamblers of southern Arizona and northern Mexico. When Desert Diamond opened in October of 1993, the tribe simply converted a high-stakes bingo hall near the Tucson airport into a casino. The result is a pre-fab-crete building surrounded by asphalt with a tiny "cafe" inside and no alcohol service. (The Tohono O'odham nation is divided into 11 political districts, and all of them have different liquor ordinances. On the old Nogales Highway near the airport, liquor can be sold but not possessed or consumed.) The city was so starved for gambling--500 slot machines serving a population base of 800,000!--that the casino was an instant success, warts and all. A reviewer for the Tucson Weekly called it a place where "old Pueblo-style Rat Packers who always wear their sunglasses at night rub elbows with bleary-eyed keno- junkies, spandex-covered suburbanites, and big-haired thrill seekers at the crowded poker tables and buffet lines."

Two years later the tribe threw up a temporary building next door to house bingo and a poker room, and a short time after that they built a much smaller casino, the Golden Hasan, on the far western edge of their reservation near the town of Why.

Every expansion met with resistance and foot-dragging from the state government. When the casino installed "Game Master" slots, which have video screens that can be changed to five different games, the state wanted to count each slot machine as five instead of one. When they asked in 1998 for approval of their new $52 million casino on the south side of Tucson, state gaming regulators claimed they had 390 unresolved "incident reports" involving counterfeit bills, theft and other infractions that weren't properly reported to the authorities. (The tribe says all the crimes were properly reported.) Governor Symington said at one point that he didn't intend to renew the ten-year gambling compacts with any of the Arizona tribes, but voters overwhelming supported the Indians in a 1996 referendum. Finally Symington left office in the midst of a scandal and the Tohono O'odham breathed a sigh of relief.

The short-term plans of the tribe--even if the current gambling compact is not expanded--is to own at least four facilities with 1400 machines, including their showplace, tentatively called Desert Diamond II, which will open this fall at Pima Mine Road and Interstate 19, which is the main artery connecting Arizona to Mexico. "There are 800,000 Mexican nationals within driving distance of that casino," says Norris, "and we'll be the closest casino to Mexico."

It will also be a far cry from the shabby frenzy of Desert Diamond. The main floor will be 185,000 square feet, or four times bigger than Desert Diamond, and is modeled after the circular Hard Rock Casino in Las Vegas. Also included will be a retail gallery, an Indian museum, a 350-seat gourmet restaurant (this time they're building in an area where alcohol is legal), and lots of convention facilities. The new bingo hall is modeled after the most admired bingo facility in America--the one at Mystic Lake, Minn.--and will seat 2000. The bingo hall can also be converted into a concert hall for what has up till now been one of the few casino markets with no entertainment at all. "We hope to bring big-name entertainers here," says Norris. "People ask me if I can get Jennifer Lopez. I don't know if we can get her, but we'll have big names."

It's all heady stuff for a tribe of 24,000 that was languishing in poverty just a decade ago. The Tohono O'odham have lived on the same land for more than 2,200 years and are one of the most ancient people of the Southwest. But after hundreds of years of learning how to raise desert plants from the five-inch- per-year watershed of the Sonoran Desert, the Tohono O'odham were wiped out not by war but by the growth of Tucson, which siphoned off their water and caused their arroyos to dry up and wither away. (The federal courts eventually ruled that their watershed had been stolen illegally, but by then it was too late.)

The saguaro cactus is sacred to them, and their new year begins in June when the saguaro fruits ripen. At the tribal capital in Sells, Ariz., they still celebrate the elaborate three-day saguaro wine feast, but it has long since ceased to be part of their economy. To survive in the 20th century, they shifted to cattle raising and, to a small extent, royalties from mines located on their land. But before gambling came along, the two biggest employers on the reservation were the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Indian Health Service, a common situation for tribes that can't find enough work for their members. Today there are 800 employees at Desert Diamond, and 60 per cent of them are Tohono O'odham.

Sadly, the Tohono O'odham have the highest rate of diabetes in the world, and only recently have nutritionists begun to understand why. All those plant products they grew in the desert before the water vanished--things like cholla buds, chia seeds, tepary beans, pads of prickly pear cactus, and flour made from mesquite pods--are perfect foods for a desert people because they digest very slowly and stave off hunger in times of drought. They're among the healthiest foods in the world--complex carbohydrates with an extremely high fiber content. The Tohono O'odham were so healthy that, when their bodies were exposed to the simple-carbohydrate low-fiber diet of the average American, they couldn't handle it. Now efforts are being made to grow the old foods again, mostly as a diabetes cure.

The Tohono O'odham also originated what anthropologists say is the most elaborate of all Indian ceremonies, something called the "wi:gida," with masked dancers wearing headdreses of turkey tail feathers. The purpose of the ceremony was to keep the world in order and prevent a flood. But there haven't been any floods on Tohono O'odham land for a long long time, so the ceremony is rarely performed anymore. The only flood--and the state of Arizona should let it happen, if only in repayment for the taking of their water--is the flood of gambling money.

7350 S. Old Nogales Highway, Tucson
Theme: Sardine-Can Chic
Opened: 1993 (Building opened as high-stakes bingo hall in
Known For: Down-and-dirty slots action.
Marketing niche: Snowbirds, locals.
Gambler's Intensity: High
Cocktail speed: No alcohol
Dealers: Harried
Bosses: Gruff and vigilant
Tables: 10 (poker only)
Slots: 500
Rooms: 0
Surrounding area: Trailer park on one side, airport industrial park on the other
Overall rating: 50
Joe Bob's bankroll: Up $80 after two hours of low-key Texas
Hold 'Em: total to date: -$141




Joe Bob Briggs on Facebook