Tribal Casino Design: Evolution in Progress

More than 25 years ago, the passage of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA) launched full-fledged Indian gaming, and the first tribal casinos began to proliferate across the U.S. Most began as modest, understated facilities—many of them tent structures and modular buildings. Some enterprises expanded on existing Class II bingo operations while others grew out of structures bearing more resemblance to a warehouse than the noteworthy and fully “amenitized” facilities we experience today. Initially a vehicle for economic self-determination and sovereignty, the Indian gaming industry has now grown to include more than 900 facilities across the United States, owned by 242 federally recognized tribes and generating $28.1 billion in revenue on an annual basis1. As these properties grew, many tribal entities took the opportunity to create spaces and places that would honor their past and speak to the unique heritage, culture and iconography of their particular tribe.

Since then, we have all witnessed firsthand the enormous change not only in the gaming industry, but also in all aspects of our lives: technological innovations, economic opportunity and societal shifts, among others. In the last 25 years, we’ve seen paradigm shifts that have positioned casino-based gaming and entertainment and Native American tribes as a virtual crossroads of American society.

Concurrent with the evolution of these facilities, the general public’s perception and understanding of native peoples has changed. Once perceived as a homogeneous group with a singular identity, Native peoples and tribes have been increasingly recognized for their diversity, complexity and individuality. More people are now exposed to the influence, culture and values of the Native American community than ever before; our “history” is being newly examined not just in classrooms but from a broader perspective as well. The opportunities presented by the growth of Native American gaming have ensured that both the historical account and the continuing story of the Native American tribes is not just a matter of academics, but instead an evolving conversation across the nation—influencing legislation, social trends, the development of communities and the built environment.

Early Trends
The Mohegan Tribe of Connecticut was among the first to embrace this story-telling motif on a large scale with the creation of its Casinos of the Earth, Sky and Wind in the Uncasville property in 1996. In the following years, others embraced this approach and tribally themed casinos, such as Sandia Casino, Casino Arizona, Ho-Chunk Casino and the Viejas Casino, were constructed. More recently, the Downstream Casino Resort in Oklahoma and the Twin Arrows Casino Resort in Arizona have taken this concept and created noteworthy properties.

With these and other early properties across the nation interpreting the stories and heritage of Native American tribes, what can we expect next? Will the changing demographics of gaming dramatically influence the expression of these facilities? What new and unexplored opportunities are taking design in a new direction? What visual and spatial interpretations on Native American themes are resonating with our broader society and connecting more people to these entertainment experiences?

The lobby of the Sandia Casino. Photo by Jim Christy; Architect: Leo A Daly
The lobby of the Sandia Casino. Photo by Jim Christy; Architect: Leo A Daly
Changing Demographics and Expectations
Like commercial gaming properties, these facilities are embracing the opportunities to diversify amenities to provide a wider variety of experiences and social interactions. A democratic form of design is emerging that creates spaces that feel familiar to existing patrons while also embracing environments that have greater appeal to an increasingly younger patron base. This evolving approach to design is speaking more and more to the creation of places that connect with the character of specific locations as well as with individualized tribal expressions. The concept that these places need to transport you to a differing “reality” is now balanced against how the expression of space can connect people to one another in new and dynamic ways—interpersonal, cross-generational and cross-cultural. The contemporary resort casino connects us with activities and spaces that are familiar in our day-to-day lives—with museums, galleries, retail outlet, clubs, neighborhood bars and favorite restaurants that are now part of a larger gaming experience.

Refining the Message and Broadening the Experience
Over the past few decades, we have also witnessed an evolution in the conversation about cultural appropriation. Once regarded as a non-issue by many non-Natives, high profile media gaffes in the use of indigenous imagery have catapulted the topic to the forefront of popular consciousness. Even the long-established use of Native references by sports teams has been revolutionized by a growing awareness that the use of this imagery is largely racist and stereotypical in nature: the number of Native American-themed mascots is down to less than 900 from over 3000 a few decades ago. Today’s Native culture is not simply a trend nor a relic of the past, but a living, breathing entity composed of individuals as well as their societies. Still reverberating from the devastating effects of European colonialism, the heritage and culture of Native peoples is as sacrosanct as their traditional lands.

We can find a similar trend toward more complex, individualized expressions of “self” in the works of many contemporary Native American artists. The paintings of Stanley Natchez (Shoshone-Tatavian) employ traditional tribal motifs and imagery overlaid in stark contrast to representations of non-native themes such as printed currency and ledger books. It is his way of honoring his ancestors while staying current, and, as he says, “to understand the world that surrounds me.” Jewelry artist Patt Pruitt (Laguna) combines traditional silversmithing techniques and materials with contemporary forms and edgy materials like stingray, promoting his work as design where “Technology meets Tradition.” His designs reflect “an influence of a modern traditional lifestyle, both on and off the reservation.” Even the realm of fashion design has been impacted: Designer Patricia Michaels (Taos Pueblo)—best known for her appearance in the 2012 season of “Project Runway”—is described as “a traditional Native woman who is a style-maker at the forefront of modern fashion design and aesthetics.” Her high-end limited edition designs incorporate artistic hand-dyed and hand-painted fabrics using earth-friendly pigments and methods inspired by nature.

In addition to the works of artists like these, traditional forms of Native American artistry are being rethought in the context of the individual as well. Museums and collections of traditional crafts such as basket weaving and pottery have begun to identify and acknowledge the particular artist fabricating the piece as well as its ethnographic origins, elevating the role of the individual within his/her societal context and promoting the craft to artistic form, celebrating the unique idiosyncrasies of each artist’s approach.

Indian gaming properties also have begun to move past simple artifice and décor and to embrace a more complex and holistic approach to expressing their communities’ culture. The Twin Arrows Casino Resort, which opened outside of Flagstaff, Ariz., in 2013, dramatically combined both art and architecture to embody the rich history of the Diné (Navajo) people while also providing an incomparable casino resort experience. The story of the Navajo Creation and Emergence is infused in every aspect of the property from master planning to the smallest design details. In addition, the casino commissioned more than $1 million in original works of art by native peoples to augment the distinctive architecture. Unique among the works is a series of murals created by a group of Navajo artists known as Art of the People. Depicting some of the stories about the Emergence and how the Holy People created Four Worlds, the artists wove together their collective and individual understanding of creation stories told to them by their elders in hooghans as children—recreating the Navajo people’s way of life in the form of abstract painting. Perhaps most telling about this group is its mission statement, reflecting many tribal members’ desire to give back to their communities: “Encouraging a new generation of artists through the tradition of excellence, thus activating, preserving and invigorating our Native American culture through various forms of art.”

A magnificent chandelier graces the Twin Arrows Casino Resort near Flagstaff, Ariz. Photo by Kristina Ennis; Architect: Friedmutter Group
A magnificent chandelier graces the Twin Arrows Casino Resort near Flagstaff, Ariz. Photo by Kristina Ennis; Architect: Friedmutter Group
Interpretation: Embracing Change and Pushing the Envelope
Throughout the ages, design of the built environment has, like other art forms, both reflected contemporary societies and been a catalyst for change. The role of architecture in any expressionistic evolution—including what we are witnessing in tribal nations now—is convoluted. As a representation of vibrant, historically meaningful cultures, architecture has the potential to tell the story of a particular place and time as interpreted through the designers. It can enhance the experience and comprehension of place as well as inform a complex visual and experiential dialogue between person, object and environment.

Often, this role of architecture is considered in the context of government buildings, places of worship and other historically sanctioned structures, and many critics have categorized the design of leisure and entertainment environments as somehow less worthy of such auspicious countenance.

But taken in the context of tribal nations re-asserting their role in the fabric of the greater American society, should the design of these facilities be less valued than that of a museum or a courthouse? Without question, the type of environment and the preferences of the end user need to be addressed by the design, as does the context of place and purpose. Yet the opportunity still exists to create significant, dynamic and culturally relevant buildings that embrace past, present and future alike—challenging the preconceptions of the tribal casino.

As recent years have embraced the question, “What does it mean to be a Native American casino?”, the coming years will continue an exploration of this theme in broader terms. Movement toward a forward-thinking ideology—as expressed in building design—is likely to manifest itself in nongaming facilities, such as government centers and schools, as well as in the gaming facility itself.

The landscape of tomorrow’s Indian casino remains to be seen, but these trends and movements, combined with the changing demographics and experiential quality of the gaming environment, will certainly weave their way into the fabrics of these properties. The history and culture of tribal nations has been inscribed into casinos across the land for the past quarter century. Now is the time for tribal nations, operators and designers to take up the challenge of what shall become and etch the future of tribal nations in the next generation of development.

1 NIGC Gaming Revenue Report, Growth in Indian Gaming, 2004-2013.

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