In the Spotlight

News & Features
More from MPR
Your Voice
DocumentJoin the conversation with other MPR listeners in the News Forum.

DocumentE-mail this pageDocumentPrint this page
Chip Wadena attempts comeback, despite criminal record
Larger view
Former White Earth tribal chairman Darrell "Chip" Wadena apparently has significant support for his bid to regain his old job. Joe Warren, left, and Umpo Goodman are among hundreds of band members who voted for Wadena in a recent primary. The two say they plan to vote for him in the general election June 8. (MPR Photo/Tom Robertson)
Former White Earth Tribal Chairman Darrell "Chip" Wadena is trying to get his old job back. Wadena was chairman of the White Earth Indian Reservation for 20 years. He was considered one of the most powerful American Indian leaders in the country. That is, until he was convicted in 1996 of bid rigging, money laundering and stealing from his own people. He served two and a half years in a federal prison. Next month, voters on White Earth will choose between Wadena, and former secretary-treasurer Erma Vizenor. It was Vizenor's testimony that helped put Wadena behind bars. Despite Wadena's criminal record, it's not hard to find people on the reservation who want to put him back in office.

White Earth, Minn. — You might think there'd be little support for putting a convicted felon in the top tribal office. But in a recent primary election, Chip Wadena got the most votes out of 13 candidates. There are "Elect Chip" campaign signs all over the White Earth Reservation. Umpo Goodman, 24, has one in her front yard.

"My point of view of him was this really bad person who stole, until I worked with him at the Shooting Star Casino at bingo, and I got to know him on a personal level," said Goodman. "And he's not anything that I grew up thinking he was."

Goodman was only 15 when the news broke that Chip Wadena and other tribal officials were targets of a federal investigation. Prosecutors charged Wadena with stealing more than $500,000. They said he and other officials rigged casino construction bids and set up bogus tribal agencies that provided them with big salaries. Others in Wadena's administration were charged with voter fraud. They stuffed ballot boxes with votes from dead people.

Larger view
Image Erma Vizenor

Filmmaker Nick Kurzon documented Wadena's downfall in the 1999 HBO documentary "Super Chief." The film portrays Wadena as an arrogant and controlling leader. In one scene, Wadena explains how he gained the support of off-reservation voters. Wadena says when absentee ballot request forms were mailed, they included only his campaign literature.

"And then when they open it up it's there, and if they choose to vote, they... And usually they'll get the vote ballot with everybody's names on it, but the only one they know is me, because I've got my brochure," said Wadena.

In another scene, Wadena spins a gold ring on his finger as he boasts of his extensive travels.

"Last year I've been to Las Vegas, Washington D.C., the state of Washington, Albuquerque, New Mexico, Florida," said Wadena. "I've been to Germany, I've been to France, I've been to England, I've been to Italy, I've been to Spain and North Africa. You know, it's a politician's job. It also turns into a politician's life."

Wadena declined to be interviewed for this story. He spoke to Minnesota Public Radio just after he was released from prison in 1999. At that time, he claimed he did nothing wrong. Wadena said he felt regaining the chairmanship was his destiny.

"It's almost like you can't quit this thing, you know," he said. "All your life, or a good part of your life I guess, you've served people and to know that they still depend on you, you kind of put your own life aside."

When an official who has been entrusted with the welfare of an entire nation steals, embezzles, oppresses the people and is guilty of that and shows no remorse ... it's not what we want to show our children.
- Erma Vizenor

Chip Wadena opponents say Wadena's name on a ballot is like reliving a bad dream. Erma Vizenor spent five years of her life trying to bring Wadena to justice in the '90s. Now, she's determined to defeat him in the June 8 election.

"I believe it's the most important election in the history of our tribe," Vizenor said. "It's an election (about), do we want to keep corruption out, or do we want to bring corruption back."

Vizenor says a few hundred years ago, Wadena would have been banished from the tribe for what he did. She says Wadena deserves an opportunity to start a new life, but not as leader of Minnesota's largest Indian reservation.

"When an official who has been entrusted with the welfare of an entire nation steals, embezzles, oppresses the people and is guilty of that and shows no remorse -- is in total denial of that -- no, we as Native people, that is not our life," said Vizenor. "It's not what we want to show our children."

Primary election totals show most of Wadena's support is from people who live on the reservation. Nearly all of the votes in White Earth's largest community, Naytahwaush, went to Wadena. That's his hometown. But most band members don't live on the reservation. Vizenor got better than twice as many votes as Wadena from those absentee voters.

Lee Antell is executive director of the Indian OIC in Minneapolis. Antell says he finds the prospect of another Wadena administration frightening. He says Wadena has support on the reservation because band members have a jaded image of tribal government.

"The conditions have been the same for so long that they really don't see any hope, that they really don't think that it makes any difference who gets elected," said Antell. "I think people have a very low standard of expectations on what tribal government can do. And as a result, they don't seem to put much value in education or experience in that position."

Several Vizenor supporters declined to be interviewed for this story. They expressed fear that if Wadena were to get elected again, they'd lose their jobs for speaking against him. One tribal elder agreed to talk, but did not want to be identified. He says if Wadena is elected, it will turn back the clock to the days of patronage and nepotism.

"It's going to be all family again," he said. "That's the way it is, all the help goes to that particular family. I don't think the people realize what's going to happen if he does get in. And I think it's a real sorry thing. A sorry mess, is what I think."

Some Wadena supporters say they're willing to forgive and forget. Joe Foster is a tribal elder and a longtime Wadena supporter. He says Erma Vizenor's background as an educator and Harvard graduate doesn't impress him. Foster plans to vote for Wadena again.

Larger view
Image Joe Foster

"He did some time, and I suppose he had time to think about what he should have been doing," said Foster. "And I believe that he's ready for that chance. I just think he just got on the wrong track."

Band member Joe Warren says despite Wadena's criminal record, the former chairman did a lot of good for the tribe during his 20 years in office. Warren says he believes all elected officials on White Earth steal. He says Wadena just got caught.

"I don't want people to think that we're blind or we don't remember," Warren said. "Everybody says, 'Oh, you don't remember, some of you don't remember what he's done.' I remember very well what he did. He's helped a lot of people out. Yeah, they did a few crooked dealings. But as I look at it, everybody that's been in there does. They get in there and they get what's for themselves, their families."

Opponents say if Wadena wins the election and becomes chairman, it would open up huge legal issues. The tribal chairman serves as CEO of the band's casino and business enterprises. He or she oversees the receipt of millions of dollars in federal funds. That requires a chairman to pass a background check. With Chip Wadena's felony convictions, there's some question as to whether he could pass one.

Meanwhile, Wadena may be the target of another federal probe. WDAY radio in Fargo reported earlier this month the FBI and U.S. attorneys in three states are investigating allegations that Wadena is part of a scheme to launder fraudulent vehicle titles. The scheme is known as "title-washing." Wadena denies the accusations.

Respond to this story
News Headlines
Related Subjects