A reservation town fighting alcoholism, obesity and ghosts from the past
In the Native American community of Blackwater, Arizona, gambling money follows 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 build, like a barn, up on the hill there. We lived there and we had no water , no energy , no bathroom. We had an outhouse. We had to live by lamps. Wood stoves. Trucked our own water in by wagon, he told. We had just two big old rooms. A living room and a bedroom together. The whole household there. The other room was a little kitchen.
Morgan is 64 now. In his time hes been a logger in California, fight 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 track 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 creating 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 hours for drunken behaviour and drink-related demise at the age of 32 was often portrayed as a consequence of life on the reservation, although the toll of war and renown 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 are more likely been subjected to more medical analyzes of the disease than any other on countries around the world.
But even that development is being eclipsed by another change. This place is different. So different from when I left, told Morgan. They give you a home now. A free home. My friend 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 creek of punters for slot machine 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 money the outlines of a welfare country in a country where the very notion is widely regarded as un-American. Free land and free homes. Its own healthcare system. Regular cash payments to all residents as their slice of the gambling revenues. Even the first Indian reservation television station.
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 -2 012 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 member states national” median. 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.