- Associated Press - Friday, December 1, 2017

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) - The Hopi Tribe has signed an agreement with Arizona that allows it to lease or operate up to 900 slot machines - the last of the state’s tribes to do so.

Hopi Chairman Herman Honanie signed the compact a day before leaving office, contemplating the loss of up to 85 percent of the tribe’s budget with the expected closure of a coal mine in 2019.

“I believe providing opportunities and a path to prosperity for our people is of the highest importance,” Honanie said in a statement.

On the small northeastern reservation that’s encircled by the much larger Navajo Nation, talk of casinos generally accompanies talk of coal. Hopis have rejected the tribe’s participation in gambling at least twice at the polls, in 1995 and 2004. Each time, supporters have pointed to the need for a new source of revenue to provide services for tribal members while opponents have said gambling goes against cultural customs and would add to social ills.

Honanie told The Associated Press earlier this year that opinions change and a study would be needed to assess the gambling landscape. The Hopi Tribal Council authorized the leadership a year ago to negotiate a compact with the state.

“Our situation is fast-changing, so we have a situation where we need to consider but need to consider it in the best light possible,” Honanie said.

The Kayenta Mine has only one customer, the Navajo Generating Station near Page. The plant’s owners decided earlier this year to shut it down in December 2019 in favor of power produced by natural gas and got the final approvals this week. If it closes, so does the mine run by Peabody Energy. Peabody is trying to find a new owner for the power plant but that’s considered a long shot.

It’s unclear whether the Hopi Tribe is leaning toward leasing slot machines to be used in another tribe’s casino or opening its own casino.

“Whatever the end result, leases or a facility, that is good for the Hopi Tribe and it’s also good for the state,” said Verrin Kewenvoyouma, an attorney who represented the Hopi Tribe in the gambling compact.

The most recent figures from the Arizona Department of Gaming show tribal casinos have contributed nearly $1.35 billion to the state since 2003.

The U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs now has 45 days to review the compact that is standard among Arizona tribes, said Caroline Oppleman, a spokeswoman for the gaming department.

Sixteen Arizona tribes together operate two dozen casinos in the state, and five lease their slot machines, according to the gaming department. Under the standard tribal compact, casinos collectively can have 18,158 slot machines. About 15,250 are in operation.

The closest casino to the Hopi reservation is owned by the Navajo Nation east of Flagstaff. The Hopis have contemplated building a casino on tribal trust land off Interstate 40 near Winslow, estimating the business would create hundreds of jobs and tens of millions of dollars in revenue. The compact allows Hopi to operate three casinos.

The new Hopi chairman and vice chairman, Tim Nuvangyaoma and Clark Tenakhongva, were sworn into office Friday. Nuvangyaoma did not immediately return messages seeking comment but has said he needs time to assess the tribe’s investments and economic development proposals. The two leaders get much of their authority from the Tribal Council.

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