Courtesy Viejas Casino & Resort
Viejas Casino & Resort is owned by the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians, and features many ties to water.

Storytelling Architecture: 5 Native Casinos That Tell Stories

Alysa Landry

Casinos are often known for their glitz and glamour, their larger-than-life décor and promises that once inside, guests can forget—even for a couple of hours—about the outside world.

Indian gaming is no exception, with tribes dedicating much time to the design of such facilities, and offering full packages of dining, lodging, gaming and shopping. But look closer. In the architectural or interior design of many of these Native-owned facilities, you’ll find depictions of creation stories, references to legends or more contemporary accounts of culture or tribes’ relationships to the land.

Here are 5 Native casinos that tell stories through architecture or design.

Downstream Casino Resort; Quapaw, Oklahoma

Owned by the Quapaw Tribe of Oklahoma, this casino’s design was inspired by what tribal chairman John Berrey calls “the finest pottery of prehistoric North America.”

“The Quapaw Tribe is known for being the finest potters,” he said. “When we met the architects, we told them we wanted to see the same iconic designs used to decorate those ceramic pieces.”

The result, Berrey said, is subtle architectural components that reflect the tribe’s deep history on the bank of the Mississippi River. You’ll find the pottery designs replicated in the carpet, wallpaper and even the light fixtures.

The interior design also includes references to water, Berrey said. The word Quapaw means “downstream people,” and the casino features tiles that reflect the tribe’s heritage with the river.

“Our heritage is very much a part of our facility,” he said. “It’s not really over the top, but it’s subtle throughout the architectural components.”

Ho-Chunk Casino Wisconsin Dells; Baraboo, Wisconsin

The central feature at this casino, owned by the Ho-Chunk tribe of Wisconsin, is the grand lobby, said David Nejelski, director of design for Thalden Boyd Emery Architects.

The mammoth, two-story lobby is designed to look like the vast natural landscape of Wisconsin Dells, an area in south-central Wisconsin. Trees, murals and paintings of animals combine to transport the visitor to a different time or place.

“We have a series of features that have transformed the space,” Nejelski said. “The ceiling is built in curves to capture local rock formations. The cuts in the handrails recall pine boughs. In other places, the details recall eagles or beavers.”

The exterior design includes traditional colors and patterns and a replica of Stand Rock, a famous rock formation in Wisconsin Dells.

Twin Arrows Navajo Casino Resort; Flagstaff, Arizona

Visitors at the Navajo Nation’s newest casino and resort can experience all four worlds that are part of the creation story.

Twin Arrows Navajo Casino was designed in layers, said Suzanne Couture, senior designer for the architectural firm Friedmutter Group. Each one builds off the one before to take a visitor on a visual and sensual journey through the creation.

“Many different elements of the story are portrayed in the design,” she said. “We have the basic style of architecture, which plays off of the desert surroundings and modern elements, but that is embellished with elements of the creation story.”

The interior design has “thousands of references” to the story, ranging from handprint and basket motifs to white shells in the tile, Couture said. In the lobby, a giant chandelier includes four colored rings—black, blue, yellow and white—symbolizing the four worlds.

“The whole experience is a layering of detail that describes these stories,” she said. “In the design, we’re really moving vertically from the first world to the fourth, rising from one world to the next.”

Viejas Casino & Resort; Alpine, California

An interactive fountain at this casino near California’s southern border depicts a traditional woven basket, said Tony Sanpietro, vice president of advertising and entertainment.

Owned by the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians, this 133,000-square-foot gaming facility features many ties to water, and each reference tells a story, Sanpietro said.

“Water is such a big part of the culture,” he said. “Even the ceiling represents an inverted river.”

Other cultural ties include native plants and bronze statues of coyotes, rattlesnakes, mountain lions and geese.

“Everything we used is representative of the culture,” Sanpietro said. “All the materials, all the design elements are indicative of the land and culture.”

Mohegan Sun; Uncasville, Connecticut

This massive, 34-story casino, hotel and entertainment complex features Native décor at every turn, said Anita Fowler, operations director for the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe’s Tantaquidgeon Museum.

“Originally, the design didn’t have any real input from tribal members,” she said. “But we decided that we wanted to incorporate our stories anywhere you look.”

One of the largest gaming facilities in the United States, Mohegan Sun offers 364,000 square feet of gaming, but it also ensures no visitor is untouched by the tribe’s rich history. The facility has three main entrances and three distinct casinos, separated by theme: Earth, Sky and Wind.

“You really experience different moods in each of the casinos,” Fowler said.

The Casino of the Earth features changing seasons and incorporates legends about each time of year. The Casino of the Sky showcases the changing constellations, illustrating the journey of the spirit, Fowler said. The Casino of the Wind capitalizes on the spirit of the wind and features a 35-foot animated waterfall.

You need to be logged in in order to post comments
Please use the log in option at the bottom of this page