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Wealth Leads to Membership Disputes Among Tribal Members
By John Biewen
August 24, 1997

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The Shakopee Mdwakanton Sioux of Minnesota are one of the smallest - and richest - American Indian tribes. The tribe's casino near Minneapolis is so lucrative that tribe members each receive some $700,000 a year in casino revenues. Not surprisingly, the issue of who is and who is not a Shakopee Sioux has taken on new significance since the money started flowing. The tribal government and some tribe members have spent millions of dollars in a legal dispute over membership. So far the federal government has declined to intervene.

WHEN THE SHAKOPEE Mdwakanton Sioux tribe was established in 1969, it had just 13 charter members, a few hundred acres of land, and almost nothing else. Most tribe members lived in trailers on gravel roads, and subsisted with the help of government farm commodities. But when Congress cleared the way for Indian gambling in 1988, the Shakopee Sioux found themselves in a lucrative spot - literally. Unlike most Indian land, which is far from population centers, the Shakopee reservation is just a half-hour from downtown Minneapolis - an easy drive for the region's two-and-a-half million residents.

Sound: casino
Mystic Lake, the Shakopee tribe's Las Vegas-style casino and hotel complex, now draws thousands of visitors a day. The tribal government won't talk about its finances, but a former tribal chairman estimates net profits at $150 - 200 million a year. The reservation's roads are paved now, and the trailers replaced by split-level, suburban-style homes.
Sound: health club
Tom Seesz is Director of Dakotah Sport and Fitness, the tribe's sprawling, $13 million health club. It's open to casino guests and paying customers from nearby towns, as well as tribe members.
Seesz: We have two full-size gyms, three racquetball courts, two squash courts.
The transformation of the Shakopee reservation into a wildly successful tourist destination is striking. But the tiny tribe has gained just as much attention for what it does with its casino profits. The tribe distributes most of the money directly to its tiny membership - 110 adults and their children. Adult members say they each get a check for more than $27,000, before taxes, every two weeks. Industry experts say no other tribe in the country gives its enrollees as much money just for being members. Tribal Chairman Stanley Crooks declined to be interviewed for this report. His cousin, Vice Chairman Glynn Crooks, sums up the leadership's response to questions about the tribe's wealth.
Crooks: It's just nobody's business what we do with our money. Somebody wins a lottery out there, we don't go to their house and say, "Well, how do you spend your money?"
But a few Shakopee Mdwakanton members have been trying for four years to bring the scrutiny of outsiders - the federal government in particular - to their reservation. 68-year-old Winnifred Feezor has spent large chunks of her share of casino money on attorneys' fees. She's been trying to stop the tribal leadership from adopting new members who she says don't meet the tribe's blood requirement.
Feezor: Our constitution and bylaws did not say "for every nationality." It didn't say "for every tribe." It specifically said, "Mdwakanton people, a quarter blood."
The tribal constitution requires that members have one-fourth Mdwakanton Dakota, or Sioux, blood. Tribal leaders don't dispute that they've "adopted" dozens of members with less than the one-fourth blood quantum. Vice Chairman Crooks says most of the adoptees are children of enrolled members.
Crooks: Our constitution allows for provision for people to be adopted. By their very adoption that makes them constitutionally qualified members of the tribe.
Crooks says if the tribe stuck to the letter of its constitution, it would soon run out of members because few people meet the one-quarter blood requirement. But Feezor says the Crooks government has denied membership to about 100 qualified Mdwakanton Dakota - including some of her cousins - because, she says, they're not relatives or political allies of Chairman Crooks.
Feezor: I called it "Crooksville" and they got awfully upset over it. But it's true. If you're a Crooks you've got it made. So therefore I think it should not be called Mdwakanton, take that name off. We're no longer Mdwakantons. So I think the government needs to step in and help us - help me - to do what's right, do what's honest.
Feezor insists she's concerned about democracy and tribal integrity, not money. But Feezor says the Shakopee Tribe is paying $50 million a year to people who don't qualify as tribal members, and withholding millions from people who do qualify. Feezor sued in federal court, charging violations of federal Indian gaming law. A district judge in St. Paul and the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the suit, saying federal courts have no say in tribal membership disputes. Feezor has asked the US Supreme Court to review the case. Tribal officials deny they use double standards in choosing members. But staff attorney William Hardacker says the tribal government can use its own discretion, no matter what its constitution says.
Hardacker: It's an inherent right of an Indian tribe to determine its membership, and just because someone may qualify to be a member of the tribe doesn't grant them automatic rights to be a member of that particular tribe.
The US Interior Department has vacillated on the Shakopee dispute. Several times federal officials rejected the tribe's efforts to change its constitution or its enrollment rules, saying unqualified members voted for the changes. But the Shakopee Government kept trying, and the Interior Department recently let stand a tribal ordinance that allows the tribe to adopt new members whether or not they meet the constitutional standards. An Interior Department spokesman told NPR he couldn't find anyone who could talk knowledgeably about the Shakopee case; when pressed, the spokesman said the department wouldn't comment on the dispute because of pending litigation.
Prescott: Doesn't anybody care about integrity? I mean, if you have a law, don't you want to follow your law?
Former Shakopee Tribal Chairman Leonard Prescott was voted out of office in the early 1990s, after presiding over the construction of Mystic Lake Casino. The Crooks government later removed Prescott's daughter from the tribal membership rolls. Prescott says that move was part of a vendetta against him. Tribal leaders say Prescott's daughter didn't file the proper documents for membership. Prescott spent three years suing the tribe and the federal government over the membership dispute, but he gave up a year ago. He says he couldn't compete with the Shakopee government and its high-powered Minneapolis and Washington, DC law firms. Prescott accuses federal officials of washing their hands of the dispute rather than fighting the rich tribe.
Prescott: And I don't know that people really looked at that or cared about Indian people or cared about their laws; they're just a small part of this society that we live in. So if you overstep or step on somebody's rights in Indian Country, does it really matter? I don't think so.
Prescott says it may take several generations for the Shakopee tribe to "reach maturity," as he puts it - to build enough checks and balances to operate by the rule of law instead of factional politics. Tribal Vice Chairman Glynn Crooks says if any Shakopee Sioux members don't approve of their leaders, those members should stop cashing their bi-weekly checks.