For the Gila River Indian Community, Gaming Is the Engine that Powers the Economy

Stephen Roe Lewis, Governor of the Gila River Indian Community (Courtesy Gila River Indian Community)

Stephen Roe Lewis, Governor of the Gila River Indian Community, comes from a family with a long history of service and giving back to the community that they call home.

His mother was an educator who went to law school, worked for the state of Arizona, and served as a children’s court judge for the Community’s Tribal court system.

His father, Rodney Lewis was the Gila River Indian Community’s first attorney, and when he passed away last year at the age of 77, a headline in the Arizona Republic referred to him as “Tribal trailblazer” and “a force behind [the] landmark water settlement.” He was the first Native American to pass the bar in Arizona and the first Native American to argue a case — which he won — before the United States Supreme Court. His advocacy and legal representation led to the passage of the historic Arizona Water Settlements Act.

The Gila River Indian Community’s Lone Butte Casino (Courtesy Gila River Gaming Enterprises, Inc.)

For Governor Lewis, his father’s example provides a perspective of the past that he uses to anchor his own leadership for the future.

“My father was really a trailblazer and a visionary with regards to water and to protecting our sovereignty,” Governor Lewis said in an interview with Native Business. “He was there at the table negotiating the first compacts with Tribes in Arizona in the 1990s, and he saw economic development as really one of those engines that would sustain us for the future.”

“He saw gaming as an important part of that — not the end all, but an important part,” Lewis continued. “I see myself as being a caretaker of all my father’s work and his decisions, and being a defender of all the achievements that my father had so dearly fought for.”

The Water Settlement was the culmination of a century-long dispute that is deeply ingrained in the Tribe’s history.

The Gila River Indian Community is made up of two distinct Tribes — the Akimel O’otham, which means “the people of the water,” and the Pee-Posh, or the Maricopa. The-Pee Posh originally came from the Colorado River, and when they arrived in the area that is now metropolitan Phoenix, they settled there, forming a military alliance with the Akimel O’otham. Today, the two Tribes still exist within the 23,000-member Gila River Indian Community, each retaining its own distinct language, culture and ceremonies.

Governor Lewis says one of the defining moments of the Tribe’s history was the diversion of water on the Gila River more than 150 years ago.

“That was devastating to us, because we were historically agricultural and farmers,” he said. “We traced ourselves to the Hohokam civilization, which inhabited current metropolitan Phoenix for thousands of years. Their ancient canal system is one of the most sophisticated architectural engineering feats that rivals even the Egyptian canals of the Nile Valley.”

READ MORE: Infrastructure and Tribal Resistance to Catastrophe: How the Hohokam Survived

“Some of these canals have been dated to be over a thousand years old,” he said. “That gives you a perspective on how long we have been a part of this land here.”

The Gila River was the Tribes’ lifeblood. When the water was diverted, their agriculture-based economy collapsed, and they were pushed almost to the edge of extinction. It wouldn’t be until 2004 that their water rights would be restored. With more than 25 percent of Colorado River water part of the Tribe’s entitlement, they’ve restored farming and agriculture, and are today building a modern, state-of-the-art irrigation system.

READ MORE: Rio Reimagined to Revitalize Rivers & Spur Economic Growth in the Valley of the Sun

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The Gila River Indian Community’s Wild Horse Pass Casino (Courtesy Gila River Gaming Enterprises, Inc.)

In the mid-1990s, Tribes and the state of Arizona negotiated gaming compacts which allowed the Gila River Indian Community to start opening casinos on Tribal lands.

READ MORE: Partnership With Arizona Cardinals to Increase Gila River Hotels & Casinos Brand Recognition and Empower Youth

“That was another touchstone for economic development, and it was historic for us,” Lewis said. 

The Tribe started out with Lone Butte Casino, followed by a Sprung structure to house the Wild Horse Pass Casino. In the early 2000s, this would be replaced by the current Wild Horse Pass casino, hotel and conference center. They also have a third casino, Vee Quiva.

READ MORE: Gila River Breaks Ground on $143M Resort Expansion 

Kenneth Manuel, CEO of Gila River Hotels & Casinos, has been with the Tribe’s gaming operation since it started in 1994. He began his career working in slot operations, worked his way up into various management positions, and today is the first member of the Gila River Indian Community to hold the position of Chief Executive Officer. He says this distinction is “one of the biggest honors that I could ever have.”

Gila River Gaming Enterprises CEO Kenneth Manuel accepts the 2018 Business of the Year Award from the Chandler, Arizona Chamber of Commerce. (Courtesy Gila River Gaming Enterprises, Inc.)

“I was probably all of 22 or 23 years old when I started, and it’s really amazing how far we’ve come,” Manuel told Native Business. “I can remember the old building that we started in. It was an old data center that the Community renovated just to basically house about 250 slot machines and a small deli.”

READ MORE: From Slots to the C-Suite: Kenneth Manuel, Jr., CEO, Gila River Hotels & Casinos

“To go from a really old renovated building into the world-class facility that we have today is really amazing,” he continued.

“As is the case with most Tribes, Gila River Gaming is the engine that our economy runs on,” Governor Lewis said. “It’s also one of the major employers in our community.”

He says that an important part of the Gila River story is that their gaming operations are self-managed, which goes back to the community’s focus on being self-reliant.

“Our values system is that we care for our own, we protect our own, and we provide for our own,” Lewis said. “That is one of the successes of our gaming enterprises. We’ve always self-managed it and allowed our community members to get trained, to go to school, to thrive, and to move up. We depend on ourselves to provide for our future.”

Lewis cites Manuel as an example of this Tribal success story.

“A number of our upper management are community members, including our CEO Ken Manuel,” Lewis said. “Ken is not just a friend of mine, but I consider him a brother as well. Our families are close and we grew up together. I have a lot of respect for him and a lot of admiration for what he’s done.”

Manuel brings a unique set of experiences to his role in the C-Suite. Before becoming CEO, he sat on the Board of Directors for 7-and-a-half years, and he says that it was during this time that he really helped elevate their facilities into world-class destinations.

“Not only have I had operational experience working in slot operations, but I’ve been exposed to the development side, working with world-class architects like the Friedmutter Group out of Las Vegas and large general contractors like Tutor Perini and Kittle, just to name a few,” Manuel said.

As a Gila River Indian Community member who grew up in the Community before the gaming compacts were signed, Manuel has had a front row seat to the ways that it has impacted the Tribe.

“Growing up in the Community before gaming existed really taught me a great lesson,” Manuel said. “I know what it was like to not have certain things. The housing that existed on the reservation was not great at all. I remember growing up in a house with no running water inside, and my mother would boil water on an old wood-burning stove.”

“That makes me appreciate what we’re able to do today,” he said. “In my role as Chief Executive Officer, I’m charged with generating revenue for the Gila River Indian Community. I take that extremely, extremely personally.”

He says that because of the impact that the revenues generated from Gila River Gaming have in supporting the Gila River Indian Community, it takes on a broader cause for him.

“It’s almost like you’re providing for your family, because when I see the benefit of the revenues and how they help the community as a whole, it makes me extremely proud of what we do on a daily basis,” Manuel said.

“The mission and vision for the gaming enterprise has always been to generate revenue for the Gila River Indian Community, to provide employment for members of the Gila River Indian Community, and also to participate in the economic development of the Gila River Indian Community,” he continued.

Even though Gila River Gaming is the engine that powers the Gila River Indian Community, Governor Lewis says it can’t be the only source of revenue.

“One of the things that our elders always impressed upon us once we got into gaming was that we can’t rely on that exclusively,” Lewis said. “We’re always looking at ways of diversifying our economy, and that has been a goal of how the Gila River Indian Community sees economic development.”

“Gaming is not the end all,” he continued. “We also have the Wild Horse Pass area, which is Tribally owned land set aside exclusively for economic development. We have a managed golf course there called Whirlwind Golf Course, which has won a lot of national and international awards for its design and management.”

Lewis also said that his previous roles, prior to being elected Governor, have helped to inform his activities with regard to gaming. After graduating from Arizona State University with a Bachelor of Science degree in American Indian Studies and Justice Studies, one of his first jobs was serving as the Gila River Gaming Commissioner, right after the casinos opened. 

“My first employment was on the regulatory side,” Lewis said. “When you oversee your gaming enterprises as a regulatory body, you have to be aware and well-versed in the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act and the National Indian Gaming Commission. You have to know the importance of the distinction between Class II and Class III games. You have to know the gaming compacts in Arizona.”

“So you see the importance of Tribes regulating their own gaming entities as an essential sovereign function,” he said. “You don’t take that lightly. It’s very important that Tribes’ jealously protect that civil regulatory responsibility.”

He says that because the Gila River Indian Community relies so much on gaming as a main source of revenue, gaming regulators are critical to protecting its integrity, making sure that gaming is in compliance with all federal, state and Tribal ordinances, as well as compacts and the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA).

“My position as a gaming regulator really provided me with the training and experience to be a Tribal leader,” Lewis said.

After pursuing graduate studies at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, Lewis held several other roles with the Tribe, including on the Gila River Healthcare Board, which oversees the Tribe’s healthcare system. After serving as Lieutenant Governor, he was elected Governor in 2014.

Like many Tribal leaders, he is responsible for a number of issues that impact Community members, including water, economic development, law enforcement, housing, infrastructure, schools, and investment of the Tribe’s assets. And he says that one of the keys to doing this in the right way is by staying connected to his people.

“It’s important that you still have a connection to your people, because their perspectives are powerful,” Lewis said. “These are really important issues that keep you grounded. You have to keep yourself grounded as an elected leader.”

And as he carries out his mission as a leader, he says the revenues from Gila River Gaming are key.

“Gaming is critical, at least for the Gila River Indian Community, to provide for all of the unmet federal funding needs,” he said. “When we talk about roads, there are all these unfunded priorities within the federal government, and our gaming revenue is critical to that.”

READ MORE: The Road to Nowhere: Inadequate Transportation Hinders Tribal Economic Development

“For housing, we’re at over 23,000 Tribal members, so housing is critically important,” he continued. “Funds from NAHASDA and HUD decrease every year. There’s less and less federal money that we get, and that’s where a lot of our gaming revenue helps.”

For Manuel, Gila River Hotels & Casinos 25-year-operation milestone in April 2019 was significant and celebratory, an opportunity to commemorate gaming’s substantial contributions to the Tribal economy. And he said he has to acknowledge the Tribe’s leadership, including the Governor, Lieutenant Governor, and Community Council, as fundamental to the gaming enterprise’s success.

“We would not be successful if we did not have the amazing support of our leaders,” Manuel said.

The Gila River Indian Community’s Vee Quiva Casino (Courtesy Gila River Gaming Enterprises, Inc.)

And as Gila River Gaming — and Governor Lewis — look toward the future, they are always looking to continue the momentum.

“Tribes have always been adaptive cultures and communities,” Lewis said. “We’ve had to be, because of all that we’ve gone through, including genocide, removal and forced assimilation. We’ve always been really resilient and adaptive. With our economic development, we’ve adapted to our surroundings, to the market, and to potential changes and challenges. We’re going to do so again.

“With gaming, we’re really entering into a new business pattern or growth because of technology,” he continued. “If you look at the millennial generation, they’re making gaming more interactive. Whether it’s internet gaming, whether it’s sports betting, whether it’s other new technologies, we’re entering into a new chapter of gaming. And I think that’s across Indian country — Gila River included. So we’re going to have to be ahead of the curve.”

This feature was originally published pre-pandemic in the gaming issue of Native Business Magazine.

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