The story of tribal government gaming in Arizona is one that brought tribes from rags to riches. But more importantly, the story demonstrates the ability of Native Americans in the state to overcome the disadvantages they may have had growing up to take advantage of the opportunities that gaming provides.
Kenneth Manuel is one of those success stories. When the Gila River Indian Community opened its first casino in the early 1990s, Manuel joined the team as an entry-level employee in the slot department.
“That was a great place to start,” he says. “You get to know what’s important very quickly and also to know the customers. I learned the basics there.”
Manuel started at the first casino opened by Gila River Gaming Enterprises, the Lone Butte Casino, and later held positions at the other two casinos, Wild Horse Pass Hotel & Casino and Vee Quiva Hotel & Casino.
His current job is a stepping stone to the CEO position, which he will assume when his current program is completed, but Manuel is in no hurry to get there. He is invested in developing leadership for the gaming enterprises and seeing young members of the Gila River Indian Community advance their careers.
“One of the most gratifying programs the gaming enterprise offers is the mentorship program,” he says. “I remember many years back the community wanting to develop this kind of program. This program identifies talented community members and places them in positions where they can learn from a mentor in a specific role. Once the goals have been met, the mentee earns the position they’ve been training for. It’s been part of our business culture for several years.”
Manuel says the gaming business is crucial to the tribe, both as a way to develop talent and to serve the tribal community.
“The revenues our casinos generate go to support programs such as housing, education, health care, social services, just to name a few,” he says. “So our team members are not only working to support themselves and their families, but also working to support a much larger cause, the Gila River Indian Community.”
As such, Manuel says the enterprise keeps an eye on other casinos in the very competitive Phoenix market—including the recent addition of the controversial Desert Diamond West Valley casino in Glendale owned by the Tohono O’odham Nation—but says the Gila River Indian Community is confident in its position.
“Since 1994, we’ve been the industry leader in this area,” he says. “We’re always looking to explore but we always keep the eye on the competition while concentrating on what we do best.”