In the Native American community of Blackwater, Arizona, gambling money flows from nearby casinos but personal incomes remain among the lowest in the US. Chris McGreal visits for the last in his series on Americas poorest towns
Chuck Morgan is back where he began. Almost.
There used to be an old building, like a barn, up on the hill there. We lived there and we had no water, no electricity, no bathroom. We had an outhouse. We had to live by lamps. Wood stoves. Trucked our own water in by wagon, he said. We had just two big old rooms. A living room and a bedroom together. The whole family there. The other room was a little kitchen.
Morgan is 64 now. In his time hes been a logger in California, fought in Vietnam and sought release in drugs and alcohol, before being drawn back to the small town of Blackwater on the sprawling Gila River Indian reservation in southern Arizona the res, as its known to those who live there.
When he left half a century ago in search of a path out of deprivation, the reservation was best known outside its borders as the home of Ira Hayes, one of six US marines immortalised in the photograph of soldiers raising an American flag over the Japanese island of Iwo Jima in the second world war. Hayes was hailed by presidents and feted across the country. But his decline into alcoholism he was arrested dozens of times for drunken behaviour and drink-related death at the age of 32 was often portrayed as a consequence of life on the reservation, although the toll of war and fame may have had more to do with it.
Gila River Indian Community, known on the reservation as the GRIC, is defined to the outside world by something else these days: the highest rate of obesity and diabetes in the United States. Its people have probably been subjected to more medical studies of the disease than any other on the planet.
But even that development is being eclipsed by another change. This place is different. So different from when I left, said Morgan. They give you a house now. A free house. My brother got one. They give you it without paying a penny, and free water. Everything started getting different when these casinos came up.
For 20 years, the GRIC has tapped into the wellspring that has reversed the fortunes of Native American communities close to a city big enough to provide a steady stream of punters for slot machines and blackjack tables. Gila River has Phoenixs 4 million residents a few minutes drive away.
The flow of hundreds of millions of dollars each year into Gila Rivers casinos helps fund the outlines of a welfare state in a country where the very idea is widely regarded as un-American. Free land and free houses. Its own healthcare system. Regular cash payments to all residents as their slice of the gambling revenues. Even the first Indian reservation television station.
While most young Americans rack up debts getting a university education, Gila River reservation helps pay the bills. For elderly people there are free meals and organised trips to the cinema.
For all that, Blackwater has been, by one measure, the poorest or at least the lowest income town in the country. According to the US census bureaus American community survey 2008-2012 of communities of more than 1,000 people the latest statistics available at the time of reporting the median household income in Blackwater was just $9,491 a year. Nationally it was $53,915 in 2012. It has improved more recently to $12,723, but is still less than a quarter of the national average. It is the final stop in a series of Guardian dispatches about the lives of people trying to make a life in places that seem the most remote from the American Dream.
I was picking cotton in the fields at five years old, said Lidya, who would only give her first name. She was one of the women working at a centre in Blackwater that provides free lunches for elderly people. You had this long sack and you had to fill it with cotton. This wasnt 1868, it was 1968. The casinos changed a lot of things. Were dependent on them now but there is still that poverty out there. The majority of people here struggle to get by.
Blackwater sits at the southern end of the 580 square miles designated by the US Congress in 1859 as a home for two tribes – the Akimel Oodham tribe (also known as the Pima) and the Pee Posh (also known as the Maricopa).
The area around the town of little more than 1,000 people 94% Native American is mostly farmland and desert. The dried-up bed of the Gila river, which was once the tribes lifeblood, is at the towns eastern flank with the San Tan mountains as backdrop.
Facilities in Blackwater are few beyond tribal offices. No cafes, bars or restaurants. The new houses paid for by the casino revenues, clustered together in their own neighbourhoods, stand out from the crumpled homes that have endured decades of desert winds.
There is a stillness about the place during the day. Those who work are at the casinos, in the fields or have commuted to one of the towns off the reservation. Those who dont work are kept indoors by the heat.
The road north runs the length of Gila River reservation, passing one largely indistinguishable community after another until the skyscrapers of Arizonas capital, Phoenix, rise up against the mountains.
The reservations northern tip reaches almost to the city limits. It is the geography of this small corner that has delivered the promise of a different future. The tribal council has taken advantage of a 1987 US supreme court ruling that recognised a degree of sovereignty for Native American reservations as domestic dependent nations. Gila River joined the band of Indian communities that got into the casino businesses after the justices said state governments had no authority to stop or regulate them.
The reservation spent $200m building the Wild Horse Pass casino and hotel, the largest in the state when it was completed. The luxury resort now includes a concert venue, golf course and a motorsports race track. The tribal council, as on other reservations, wont reveal how much it makes from the Wild Horse and two other casinos on Gila River but estimates put it at around $250m a year.
The high-priced cocktails and luxury cars and the wads of cash lost on the turn of a card reflect a lifestyle those who live in Blackwater only glimpse if they trouble to venture to the other end of the reservation.
More than half of Blackwaters residents live below the poverty line. Half of those have an income that is less than half the level set as the poverty line. About one-third of the working-age population is unemployed. Yet the numbers are only part of the story.
Gila River reservation has had its fleeting moments of fame and infamy. It was the site of an internment camp for thousands of Japanese Americans during the second world war, over the objections of the tribes.
Towards the wars end, Ira Hayess return from Japan brought a more welcome kind of attention. He is in the far left of the photograph as the American flag is lifted over Iwo Jima during the battle with the Japanese for the island. Within days, three of the six soldiers in the picture were dead.
Years later, his life story was told in a film, The Outsider, where a white man, Tony Curtis, played the Native American hero. It also inspired a Johnny Cash hit, The Ballad of Ira Hayes, with lyrics touching on a bitter legacy that is the source of many of the reservations problems to this day:
The water grew Iras peoples crops
Til the white man stole the water rights
And the sparklin water stopped.
The sparkling waters of the Gila river made the tribes who lived around it successful farmers. The river irrigated beans, corn and cotton. The Spanish brought new crops, wheat and watermelon, and cattle in the 17th century. By the 1850s, the tribes were prospering selling food and cotton to white settlers and miners.
The US government encouraged whites to trek west and populate Arizona territory by promising free land on condition it was cultivated. That required the settlers to irrigate from the Gila river. As their numbers grew, so more of the river was diverted, until it was reduced to a near trickle by the late 19th century.
Drought was the final blow. The tribes were forced to rely on food from the US government. It sent lard, white flour and canned meats, changing the eating habits of the Native Americans. Today, bread fried in lard is not only popular but regarded as traditional. The small game and birds their ancestors hunted gave way to fatty beef.
Photographs of the reservations beauty queens line a wall at the tribal headquarters in Sacaton. They are radiant and smiling. They are also what clothing manufacturers would describe as on the plus size.
Size matters because it represents fears for the future of the reservations young, even if it is a highly sensitive subject after Gila Rivers residents were labelled the fattest people in America by the media.
Half of all working-age adults within the GRIC have type 2 diabetes. Among teenagers 15 to 19, the rate is more than 10 times that of the Native American population as a whole in the US. Close to nine out of 10 residents will be diagnosed with the disease by the age of 55.
Two years ago, Blackwater community school warned the federal government in a grant application (pdf) that it had a high number of children with unhealthy weight levels on the reservation. Unfortunately, many of the children at Blackwater community school are at risk to develop type 2 diabetes as children, it added.
Diabetes increases the risk of heart attacks and kidney failure. At the elderly centre in Blackwater, Lidya said that of the 100 people she served lunch to every day, a dozen were on dialysis.
That it wasnt always this way is clear from Pima people living in Mexico, where diabetes rates are considerably lower and about the same as in the rest of that country. Not only do Mexican Pima eat more healthily but they do more physical activity as farmers.
People on the reservation sometimes feel as if they are part of one large clinical study. The National Institutes of Health arrived five decades ago to try to account for the levels of obesity and diabetes. Almost all of the population is now involved in the research.
An extraordinary number of academic papers have been written. Theories have come and gone, including of a gene that developed in the Pima to store body fat to cope with periods of famine, which has made it hard to shed excess weight.
The tribal authorities have responded with relentless health campaigns. Billboards promote health and wellness fairs and mass exercise drives in the parks. Stark warnings about diet spring from the community newspaper. The reservations health department placed an advert picturing sugar pouring from a can of Coca-Cola. There is no caption. Everyone understands.
The soft drinks and sugar industries would probably have pounced on such a graphic warning by any other public authority, but the same political rules do not apply on the reservation.
Casino revenues have paid for a well-equipped gym in Blackwater, and theres an indoor basketball court next door that would be the envy of many American high schools. But the gym looks as though it is rarely visited and Alan Blackwater, chairman for the district that covers the town and surrounding area, laments that young people dont use the basketball court much either.
They barely come here except for community meetings, he said. Weve got all kinds programmes. Walks. Prevention. That kind of stuff. It makes a difference for some people. Not everyone.
Blackwater was diagnosed with the disease in the 1990s. I have diabetes. Practically everybody does. Eating the wrong kind of food, I guess. It took years and years and years before I changed my lifestyle, he said. I dont take no medication. I eat the right kind of food now. I changed that. I exercise but not right now because Ive got a bum knee.
For all of the campaigns, diabetes rates continue to rise among young people.
Something else has been linked by the GRICs health department to the development of the disease: the stresses of reservation life, particularly poverty, unemployment, crime, gang activity.
Blackwater has lived within the Gila River community his whole life. He said it had always been beset by problems common to other reservations. When he was young, it was routine for men to leave to look for work.
They had a relocation programme way back where they would move them off to try and get a trade, he said. Move them to the cities like Chicago, California. There was nothing for them here. Some of them never came back.
Morgan remembers the hardship. I had a kerosene lamp to do my homework. Maybe thats why I wear glasses now, he said. My grandparents lived across the river the same way. We kind of grew up there too because my dad drank a lot. I guess it was rough but it didnt seem like it then. My dad got hold of someone who had a vacant house. We moved there. It was a little better. Had electricity, lights.
When Morgan was 14 he persuaded his parents to send him to a boarding school in California. The tribal government paid. Right after I graduated from school, I enlisted in the marine corps. Boot camp in San Diego. Went to combat infantry school and then, whoosh, Vietnam, he said.
A red US marines flag flies over Morgans house. It represents a complex past. On the one hand theres Ira Hayes. On the other, Vietnam veterans were for a long time regarded as akin to war criminals by many Americans.
The guys fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, theyre way up here, said Morgan, lifting his hand above his grey hair. Vietnam veterans were way down here, he added, lowering his hand to his knee.
Then there is Native American history at the hands of the US army.
The military has long been a path off reservations for young men and, more recently, women, who have limited choices if they remain at home. A disproportionately high number of Native Americans sign up.
But it is not forgotten by some that they are fighting for the same military that defeated their tribes, stole their land and broke treaty after treaty. Morgan said it used to bother him, but not any more.
When I was younger I felt stronger about it. Wounded Knee [massacre] and all that, he said. I dont really think about that any more. Weve got our little land here. I go party with the white boys or the blacks, or the Mexicans sometimes. Im not one of those who says, Im Indian and you effers put us on this land.
Still, there are limits. We dont celebrate Columbus Day. We celebrate Thanksgiving just to eat, he said.
After Vietnam, Morgan went to find his high school sweetheart, who was living on another Indian reservation in California. He moved there for 15 years and they had four boys and a girl together.
Morgan took up logging and then became a firefighter. For a while he was a construction worker too. But the relationship fell apart and he returned to Gila River in 1984. A few years later, three of his sons were killed in a car crash along with their girlfriends and Morgans grandchildren.
Through it all he battled with issues well documented in reservation life. I did a lot of drugs but I quit. I dont bother with that any more. But I still drink, he said.
Blackwater echoed his experience. The alcohol and drugs, I thought I was old when I started. Fourteen or 15. People started younger than that, he said. We had a little meth. It wasnt as strong as the stuff nowadays but it was strong enough for me. Mostly I did marijuana coming up from Mexico. There was some of that LSD but that was back in the 60s.
Morgan and Blackwater were not alone in saying that drug use fell away with age, but that dependence on alcohol remains an issue for many on the reservation. The single largest cause of death for working-age people within the Gila River community is alcoholic liver disease. The health authorities say 85% of the reservations residents suffer a premature death compared with 52% for the rest of Arizona.
The reservation has a number of prevention programmes such as the Gila River Prevention Coalition to promote cultural pride, strength and wellness, sober challenge week and community block parties with lectures on the dangers of methamphetamine.
It remains a struggle for the authorities. A young man working in a cafe in the reservations main town, Sacaton, frankly admitted his attachment to drugs and alcohol. He cheerfully pulled up a video on his phone of what he planned to try next smoking alcohol.
Theres nothing to do here. Most kids just leave, he said.
Blackwater said his three adult children remained on the reservation but struggled to find work. My sons work on and off. Contract work. Labour. No full-time employment. One of my sons has five or six children. I help them out sometimes. My daughter-in-law is the only one working full time. Used to be security at casino. Now custodian at hospital, he said. You can get a job if you dont have a problem with the drugs or alcohol. You have to be clean.
He did not say if that was factor in his own sons struggles to find full-time work.
Blackwater regards drug and alcohol excesses as a rite of passage. What does bother him is a new phenomenon: the gangs that seem woven into the fabric of life for young people on the reservation.
In 2013, Blackwater community school applied for a grant to fund programmes to combat high rates of academic failure. It blamed a dropout rate of about 40% on drugs and gangs. Gila River Indian Community has among the highest levels of gang, juvenile delinquency and substance abuse activities of any tribal community in the United States, the school said in the application. Phoenix gang members have been actively recruiting GRIC youth to join their gangs. There are an estimated 20 locally and nationally affiliated gangs established on GRIC.
Gang members have armed themselves with semi automatic weapons and responsible for drive-by shootings. They are also deeply involved in the drug trade.
Man, those people dont work, said Morgan. I think its related to those social ills.
Those social ills are documented in a series of US government reports about Indian reservations. A 2014 US Justice Department document on violence against Native American children (pdf) makes for shocking reading.
Today, a vast majority of American Indian and Alaska Native children live in communities with alarmingly high rates of poverty, homelessness, drug abuse, alcoholism, suicide and victimization. Domestic violence, sexual assault and child abuse are widespread, it said.
The report cast the abuse in the context of historical trauma caused by loss of home, land, culture and language and the subsequent abuse of generations of Native children in American boarding schools.
Every single day, a majority of American Indian and Alaska Native children are exposed to violence within the walls of their own homes, the report said. Sadly, [American Indian] children experience post-traumatic stress disorder at the same rate as veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan and triple the rate of the general population.
Physical abuse has been a factor in an epidemic of young people taking their own lives on Indian reservations. According to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is the second most common cause of death for American Indians aged 10 to 34. It is two and a half times the national average for the age group.
Alan Blackwater lamented the death of a 16-year-old who took his own life in the town. He was a good athlete. I dont know if it was related to drugs, he said. We had a session where everybody came in and we talked about it.
An 18-year-old student at Blackwater high school, Darius Jackson, was chosen as the reservations representative to a White House summit on American Indian youth last December.
Youth suicide is an upcoming issue in my tribal community, he told Arizona public broadcasting. Young people are taking their lives at a young age, and were trying to get that to decrease.
The Obama administration launched a Hope for Life day in September to raise awareness in Indian country about suicide prevention.
Native communities suffer from a suicide rate that is more than twice the national average, said the administrations assistant secretary for Indian affairs, Kevin Washburn, in launching the initiative. There is no greater tragedy in Indian country.
The White House report also linked the high number of young suicides to alcohol and drug abuse.
The reservations political leaders shy away from public discussion of such sensitive issues, preferring to regard them as an internal matter for the tribes. Gila Rivers president and several of its politicians declined to speak or did not reply to interview requests.
Zuzette Kisto, then public affairs director at the Gila River reservation, went so far as to try to prevent reservation residents from talking on the grounds of sovereignty. She said questions had to be approved by the tribal council because of the nature of the information.
Asked if this was not in conflict with the first amendment of the US constitution, assuring free speech and a free press, Kisto replied: Not according to our community guidelines.
Anything you do have can be confiscated by the tribal police and you can be arrested for criminal trespass, she added.
Other members of the community are more open. Roberto and Claude Jackson wrote and directed a film set around its gang culture, called In Circles. Its protagonist, a young artist called Isaac, returns from living it up in Phoenix to be drawn in to confrontation with one of the reservations gangs. The film, made for only about $2,000, is at times a bleak portrait of life within the Gila River Indian community, touching on drugs, violence and despair for young people, though the story is ultimately one of redemption.
The Jackson brothers were out to reflect reality while not succumbing to despair. But they were concerned at the reaction the film might receive from the community.
I didnt want to tell a story that felt a Native American exploitation film or anything to that effect. We also had in mind about how our community is and how tribal nations are perceived, said Claude. Robert and I did latch on to a story that had these gangster movie elements but also knew that because our protagonist was an artist, we show everyone that in the end hes victorious.
He makes the right decision. He doesnt resort to violence. He wins out and thats the best thing we can ask for in the story.
People have come up to us and expressed their gratification. One gentleman who was paralysed from the waist down, he saw the movie and he was telling me that a lot of the aspects of the movie were very realistic to him. He said it in a way where he said he was that era and situation. The gangs and violence. He said, look at how I am right now. He was really taken with it.
The brothers grew up just off the reservation in south Phoenix, although both have worked on the reservation for years. Were pretty much urban Indian, as they say, said Claude, who is a successful criminal and civil lawyer after being sworn in at the Arizona bar.
There are opportunities we have now that werent around a few generations ago. Those are being taken advantage of with a lot of community members getting their degrees and becoming professionals. We recently had someone graduate and get a medical degree. Theyre getting into the education field as well, he said.
Federal funding and casino revenues offer young people the chance to pursue an advanced education. Grants pay for university fees and some colleges offer scholarships to Native American students to encourage diversity.
Still, all of that is a reminder of the obstacles many young Native Americans face.
Blackwater community school said in its report to the federal government that dropout rates on the reservation, ranging from 34% to 42% depending on the school, are about four times the Arizona state average of 9%. This in turn contributes to high unemployment and low wages, the submission said. According to the census, no resident of Blackwater has a university degree.
The tribes spent decades trying to revive the Gila river. The reservations leaders sent Ira Hayes to plead with leaders of Congress in Washington to pass a law restoring the water supply. It happened but not until 2004.
The resulting settlement provided the reservation with enough water to supply a city the size of Washington DC and $680m to build aqueducts and irrigation systems.
After he returned to the reservation, Chuck Morgan got a job on construction of the waterways. I started working on one end of it. Never thought Id see it finished in my lifetime. They talked about it for a long time. Now I see it and its wow, he said.
The reservation does not need anything like the amount of water it is now entitled to. In a desert region constantly battling drought and needing to provide for ever-growing cities, that puts the GRIC in a powerful and potentially profitable position.
Some on the reservation see the renewed flow of water as representing a revival that points the way back to traditional ways of life, including farming and foods, and a reversal of the diabetes epidemic.
But mostly hopes for the future are invested in the one-armed bandits and poker tables. Fifteen Indian tribes run casinos in Arizona, pulling in a total of nearly $2bn a year. They keep secret how much they make but, based on the number of gambling tables and machines, and revenue payments, the GRIC probably earns close to $250m a year.
Under agreements with the state, a slice helps to fund schools, hospitals, wildlife conservation and to promote tourism. The reservations give millions of dollars to causes of their own choice, such as food for the homeless and healthcare for poorer children.
In a reflection of the reversal of fortunes the tribes have enjoyed, Gila River reservations government has made individual donations running from a few thousand dollars to more than $100,000 to groups fighting child abuse, to research into diabetes, to a historical society, and to pay for body cameras for a police force of a town just beyond the reservations borders. It also donated $500,000 to a Phoenix homeless shelter.
This largesse, albeit as part of a politically forged agreement between the tribes and the state, prompted some on the Gila River reservation to ask why they werent getting their share.
The charge was led by Philbert Soroquisara, who questioned why casino revenues were being used to sponsor professional baseball and American football teams in Phoenix. He also accused the tribal government of becoming greedy with gaming revenues and of paying itself bonuses while most residents got nothing.
Everyone deserves a piece of that pie, said Soroquisara, who died in 2009, during a campaign for direct cash payments to members of the tribes from the casino revenues. The tribal council was strongly opposed and for a while stalled the demand by warning that it could cause people to lose federal benefits such as food stamps. But eventually a referendum settled the matter as voters approved cash payments, known as revenue allocation, by two votes to one. Most members of the reservation receive about $1,200 a year, paid quarterly.
That community spirit does not extend to the reservations neighbours. Gila Rivers tribal council is spending millions of dollars in legal fees and political donations to persuade the US Congress to block the Tohono Oodham Nation from building a casino closer to Phoenix than its own gambling palaces, and so potentially bleeding off a lot of business.
The GRIC has enlisted political support with well-placed donations to John McCain, the former presidential candidate and one of Arizonas senators. It has also hired a Washington DC lobby firm.
The issue has become increasingly bitter. The Tohono Oodham accuse McCain and other politicians of intruding on the sovereignty of the reservations, and the Gila River reservation of wanting to keep the spoils of gambling to itself.
The differences hinge on a patch of land the Tohono Oodham bought near Phoenix as compensation for a large area of agricultural land it lost to the construction of a dam by the US government. Because it is not contiguous to the main reservation, opponents of the casino argued it should not be recognised as tribal land. The courts did not agree and construction of the casino is under way.
For now the money is still flowing.
Alan Blackwater is not sure all of this has been good for the community. He worries about overreliance.
Maybe we were better off way back then. We had to pay our own bills and so forth. We had our own water company. We collected payments from each household and we had a responsibility to repair the water lines, he said. Now, we dont take care of that. We dont even pay for water. I think it cost too much to collect the payments. People used to get by in the old days too. There was more self-sufficiency, self-reliance.
Thats not how Morgan sees it. When I think back about it, from there we used to live with nothing and now weve got something. Ive put in one of the new houses thats coming up. My brother got a new house, and he waited 10 years. Ive been on the list about five years, he said.
Some white people think were rich because we dont have to pay for too much for anything. And we get money. But I wouldnt call us rich.