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Northern tribal members not convinced about casino
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Tribal leaders Erma Vizenor (White Earth), George Goggleye (Leech Lake) and Judy Roy (Red Lake) attended a Capitol news conference when Gov. Pawlenty announced the casino proposal. Members of some of those tribes are opposed to the plan. (MPR file photo)
Gov. Tim Pawlenty wants the state to partner with three northern Minnesota Indian tribes on a $550 million Twin Cities casino. Profits would be split between the state and the White Earth, Leech Lake and Red Lake Ojibwe bands. The plan has launched a high-profile debate in the Legislature.

It's also sparked a growing debate among northern tribal members. Some don't trust the state and are worried the plan is a bad deal for the tribes. They fear the tribes may give up more than they gain. Members of the Red Lake band may get a chance to vote the deal up or down.

Red Lake, Minn. — Leaders of the Red Lake Band of Ojibwe are encouraging their members to weigh in on the Twin Cities casino plan. At a recent public forum, Red Lake Chairman Buck Jourdain told band members the tribe would not participate in the deal without their support.

"This one here is by far the most significant event in the history of our tribe, since the 1800 agreements that the tribe entered into. They expect the tribal government to involve them, include them and keep them enlightened on these major issues. And I intend to do that," Jourdain said. "And the only way I can see anything like this proceeding past the legislative stage is if they're involved in an actual advisory or referendum vote."

The majority of Red Lake's tribal council supports the casino plan. They've been actively lobbying for it. But Chairman Jourdain himself remains neutral. He says even if the plan is approved by the Legislature, it won't necessarily be a done deal for Red Lake.

"Red Lake has always held that if we choose to step out and bow out, and it's not in our interest to pursue it, then we'll do that if we have to," Jourdain said.

While the tribal council is calling for a referendum on the plan, it's unclear when that vote will take place.

Leaders who support the plan say it would generate much needed revenue to deal with a wide range of social and economic problems on the reservation. But others oppose the plan.

Donald May is one of two tribal council members who oppose a Twin Cities casino. May worries that language in the current legislation could change the tribe's status as a sovereign nation. He says it could open the tribe to lawsuits that might jeopardize tribal resources.

"Number one is our sovereignty. We don't jeopardize the sovereignty of Red Lake," May said. "The money may look good, but if it jeopardizes our sovereignty, it's a no-go for me. To me, sovereignty means everything to this reservation."

These kinds of concerns are what bring people out to public forums. At the most recent tribal gathering, it was hard to find people who support the proposal.

Some tribal members are concerned about Red Lake incurring huge amounts of debt. Red Lake and the other two tribes would have to borrow millions of dollars to construct the casino. Delores Fitch of Red Lake is skeptical.

"I just don't think that there's going to be a whole lot of benefit to Indian people. I mean, we're spending millions. This is huge," Fitch said. "There's no guarantee that we're going to be getting so many millions back, because the state has never done anything for Indian people. The federal government has broken treaty after treaty after treaty... I think we're getting a screw job. And that's based on history."

That mistrust of non-Indian governments is common on Red Lake. Band member Kim Baker says she believes Gov. Pawlenty is using the northern tribes as a way to balance the state budget.

Pawlenty is using these tribes, and my tribe, to get money for him mismanaging his own state, where he thinks he's going to get money by using us.
- Kim Baker, Red Lake tribal member

"The state or the government has never been in good trust with Native people, ever. Never, since they stepped on this Turtle Island when they first came over. Not today, and never will," said Baker. "Pawlenty is using these tribes, and my tribe, to get money for him mismanaging his own state, where he thinks he's going to get money by using us. And I don't approve of that either."

Others see a Twin Cities casino as a golden opportunity. It's projected to earn close to $125 million annually for each of the three tribes. Frances Brun, a former tribal treasurer at Red Lake, says the reservation is in desperate need of an economic boost.

"Some of us that have some financial background and experience in money matters ... can see this as a stimulus to alleviate the job shortages and the housing, and also eliminate, hopefully, the idle time the people have that causes them to resort to alcohol and drugs," Brun said.

Red Lake band member Chris Jourdain says he looks forward to the chance to vote on a casino plan, even though he hasn't yet made up his mind about how he'd vote.

"If we had a chance to make some extra money -- that's what we need is money," Jourdain said. "If I see the final thing and it looks good for us, then I'm for it."

Red Lake is the only one of the three northern bands planning to let its members vote on the proposal. Red Lake is perhaps the most culturally traditional tribe in the state. That may play a role in the band's efforts to reach consensus within the community.

There won't be any public referenda on the White Earth or Leech Lake reservations. Officials there say there isn't enough time to hold a vote. Instead, those bands are planning public informational meetings to gather input from tribal members.

There is one lone voice of opposition on Leech Lake -- Archie LaRose, the band's secretary treasurer. He's the only council member against the Twin Cities casino plan. LaRose is pushing for a referendum vote on Leech Lake.

"What I see now is they're moving forward without the people's consent or input on this issue. I feel it's a big decision that we all have to live with, on this reservation and off the reservation," said LaRose. "So I think it should at least go to a referendum vote by the people. And if it was a fair deal straight across the board, I believe the people would go for this, but until that happens, they're totally opposed to it."

Other Leech Lake officials accuse LaRose of trying to derail the casino plan. Some of that criticism comes from a letter LaRose sent earlier this month to Gov. Pawlenty, in which LaRose told the governor the Leech Lake Band could not enter into an agreement with the state without LaRose's approval. Other tribal council members say LaRose is wrong, and overstepped his legal authority.

Leech Lake is in a different situation than the other two bands. White Earth and Red Lake have been pitching a Twin Cities casino for years. Leech Lake joined that effort only last year. Tribal Chairman George Goggleye says many tribal members support the plan. He admits it's come together quickly. And until now, there hasn't been time to fully inform all band members.

"I don't think we have full public support. And part of the problem is that Red Lake and White Earth have had the opportunity for three years to educate their band members. Six months is just not enough time for us. We saw the opportunity that the train was basically pulling out of the station and we needed to hop on or we were going to get left behind," said Goggleye. "In the process of doing this, we weren't able to get a whole lot of information until just recently. And now that we've got the information, it's a perfect time for us to have a good public meeting."

As government leaders from the three northern tribes gather support from their membership, the Twin Cities casino plan faces a minefield of opposition in St. Paul. Lawmakers from both parties have criticized the plan, raising both moral objections and financial concerns.

The plan also faces stiff opposition from tribes that already own casinos near the Twin Cities. They accuse the governor of trying to divide Minnesota's Indian communities. And they claim a new casino would cut into their gambling profits.

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