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Wadena Tries for Political Comeback
By Tom Robertson
April 9, 1999
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After serving 28 months in federal prison, former White Earth Tribal Chairman Darrell "Chip" Wadena is back home on the reservation. Convicted in 1996 of 15 felony counts including conspiracy, theft and embezzlement of tribal funds, Wadena still contends he did nothing wrong. He now says he plans to seek the White Earth chairmanship again in 2000.

Wadena: Although they imprisoned my body, my mind was still free and I just made up my mind that they weren't going to break me, you know?
CHIP WADENA WAS ONCE one of the most powerful men in Indian country. He reigned as chairman of White Earth for 20 years, and once served as president of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe, which encompasses six Minnesota reservations. Now, sipping coffee at his modest home on North Twin Lake in Naytauwash, Wadena says he's shrugging off the bad memories of nearly two-and-a-half years behind bars, and will turn his attention to regaining political power.
Wadena: It's almost like, you can't quit this thing, you know? All your've served people and, to know that they still depend on you, you kind of put your own life aside and start looking to what you can do for those people that are less fortunate. It's tough to just say, to walk away from it, you know what I mean? So I'm going to get active again and I intend to run for tribal chairman again when it comes up.
While Wadena talks about service to his people, some on the reservation say the former chairman worried more about serving himself. The federal indictment that led to his 1996 conviction included charges that Wadena skimmed profits from the Shooting Star Casino, appointed himself to bogus commissions paying handsome salaries, and conspired to rig casino-construction bids so that he and his friends could reap the profits.
Visenor: Personally, I feel that Chip would have a very difficult time to garner that kind of support.
Erma Visenor was among a group called Camp Justice, which helped federal investigators convict Wadena. Visenor is now the White Earth Tribe's secretary-treasurer.
Visenor: What's Chip going to do if he can't be chairman? Most of us have other careers, but he doesn't. And it was a good life for him. I mean, he owes the tribe 470-some-thousand dollars in restitution. Yes, he's had a good life here. And he yearns for that. I mean, didn't Marcos and these people, they yearn for that same position, and went to their grave yearning for that, so I don't see it as any different. He wants to come back.
But Wadena does have some support, even from those who once despised him. Former Tribal Council member Lowell Bellanger was a member of the inner circle of Camp Justice, and he once called Wadena a "dictator. " But Bellanger alleges the new tribal government, headed by Visenor and Chairman John Buckanaga, is worse than the Wadena regime.
Bellanger: There was no change whatever. There is more thievery right now going on. There is no such thing as accountability. I predict that if things don't change and the government don't come in here and take this government and check it out and do some prosecuting, there's going to be violence. There is going to be violence.
Bellanger accuses the current government of oppressing tribal members - of using scare tactics and threats of firings to silence political opposition. And despite Wadena's own documented crimes against the tribe, Bellanger says he forgives the former chairman, and will work to put him back in office.
Bellanger: My theory is, he did things wrong, yes, he paid for them. He went in and did his time behind bars. He did his time. All right. Now he's home. Hey, we don't kick a guy when he's down. You don't kick a man when he's down. He done his time. He paid his dept. Okay. It's not for us to kick him. It's for us to pick him up and say, "Mr. Wadena, let us use your experience, and let us use you to do some accountability. You made a mistake, you paid your dept. I hope you learned something. I hope you learned not to do the same thing again, to work with people, and do the right thing. "
Tribal Chairman John Buckanaga could not be reached for comment for this story, but Secretary-Treasurer Erma Visenor says the current tribal government has done nothing illegal. She says the small group of vocal critics thrive on negativism and are intent on creating chaos on the reservation.
Visenor: I'm confident that this tribal government will, is moving ahead, we are doing what is right. We work for the best interest of the people, most of us work 60 hours a week. We walked into a government that was in shambles. It has taken us some time to gather and to organize and to really build up where we are today.
Yet in the few months since his release from prison, Wadena and his supporters have already made moves to oust the current government. Wadena sent a long list of allegations to the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe asking the organization to intervene by seeking an audit of all tribal programs. The MCT rejected that request. Now there is a petition circulating on the reservation calling for new elections for all five tribal council positions. Tribal attorney Zenas Baer says the current government is legitimate, and he doesn't believe Wadena has any substantial political support.
Baer: I know there are certain people that do support him and that will always support Chip Wadena, in spite of what he did to the tribe, in spite of the disrespect he brought to the tribe, in spite of the vote fraud that had been rampant for many years. There are still people who will always adore Chip Wadena. But I think that number is small and not by any means representative of the majority of people on White Earth.
But Chip Wadena has a different take on his chances for regaining the top spot at White Earth.
Wadena: I think the support is there enough to win. I believe that. I mean, last time I won, prior to the trouble that started here, I won with 94 percent of the vote in White Earth, so apparently I was doing something right.
There is the potential for more legal troubles at White Earth. Tribal officials say audits show $4.5 million was looted from the reservation's housing program over a period of several years during the Wadena administration. Federal investigators have been tight-lipped on when, or if indictments will be handed down in that case.

Tom Robertson covers northwest Minnesota for Minnesota Public Radio. You can reach him at .