After the Gold Rush

How casino millions changed life on the Mdewakanton Dakota reservation in Shakopee.

Even from a distance, you can see the dozen beams of light that reach into the night sky around Shakopee, emanating from the circular roof of the Mystic Lake Casino. Unlike the careening spotlights that accompany Hollywood premieres and sales at car dealerships, the beams have been arrayed in a fixed position. From the roof to the point where the circle of lights intersect, the dominant image is of a Native American tipi. But up where the beams spread out into the sky, the lights come to look more like a funnel from the heavens.

Inside, thousands of people are nodding at their blackjack dealers, saying hit me one more time. Thousands of others are pulling the slots or pumping their popcorn buckets full of coins into video poker. It is 11 o'clock on a Friday morning. Upstairs, one carpeted floor and three security guards removed from the glitz and chorus of chimes from the gaming machines that befog the senses on the casino floor, Raymond "Sonny" Crooks sits in the muted light of his elegant, unpretentious office. Dressed in a burgundy turtleneck adorned with a large AIDS ribbon pin, he wears a broad mustache perched above a slight beard, framed by his shoulder-length hair. A bemused smile plays on his face as he recites a question he says he hears all too frequently: "'You mean, you're the chairman of the board?' they ask. Yup. You got a problem with that? And I can tell they are thinking, 'How come the white folk aren't doing it?' I hire a bunch of white folk to do it for me."

As chairman of the board of Little Six Incorporated, the official gaming arm of the Shakopee Mdewakanton Dakota Tribe, Sonny Crooks guides the fortunes of one of the 25 largest companies in Minnesota. Although LSI has a number of other holdings on the 1,490-acre Shakopee reservation, the heart of its operation is Mystic Lake Casino. In 1994, gross revenues from LSI's gaming enterprises were $496 million, netting $96 million in profits. Per capita payments to the 111 members of the Shakopee Mdewakanton Dakota Tribe over the age of 18 are reported to be $40,000 a month.

"When we first started bingo in 1982, the same thing happened here that happened at Canterbury Downs," Crooks says, referring to the moribund racetrack. "At first people were climbing over each other to get out here, then after a year or so, it started slacking off, from a full house down to about a quarter of the house. We had to develop marketing strategies to get it back up. The same thing happened after we got into gaming [blackjack, the slots, and video poker]. So there have been ebbs and flows. But until there was money, nobody really cared what went on out here.

"I had a man come into my driveway the other day and ask, 'Is this where the Indians live? I want to see the big houses. Are you an Indian? They are getting all that money, are they getting the land too?'" Crooks says, his voice still soft and conversational. Minutes earlier, he had spoken about the inability of Native Americans to get home mortgages from banks, because the reservation land they would build on, deeded over from the federal government, cannot be used as collateral. In recent years the tribe has set up its own mortgage company with casino revenues.

"The sentiment of that guy, after 12, 14 years, it starts to get a little old," Crooks says. "What we are dealing with here is no different from--and excuse the racist and sociological improprieties of this--if you get some hillbilly from the Ozarks who wins the lottery and attempts to infiltrate your so-called upper-crust society. People are going to say, 'He comes from the mountains, from hillbilly stock, what gives him the right? Just because he's got money doesn't mean he's as good.' That's no different than the situation we are in, which is, 'You're an Indian; you've lived on the reservation; us white folks here in the United State defeated you and we gave you that land to live on. What makes you think you should have that money and go after the same things we go after, that American Dream?'"

He leans back into his chair and sighs. "We have made a little bit of money. But it hasn't been easy and it hasn't been very pleasant at times. Put your family on a 40-acre plot, spread a couple hundred thousand dollars around [the community] and see where the natural born leaders come from and where the scavengers come from. It would be one hell of an anthropological paper."

Sonny's father, Amos Crooks, arrived in Shakopee in the spring of 1959 from the Upper Dakota reservation in Granite Falls, having been granted a 40-acre assignment from the Lower Dakota tribe in Morton. The Shakopee parcel was part of lands given to the Dakota in response to the protection they afforded some white settlers during the Dakota uprising of 1862. Unable to obtain a mortgage, the Crookses spent most of their first year in a trailer while scraping together enough money to build a basement and get it covered before winter. Sonny, who was in fifth grade at the time, remembers hauling cinder blocks down into the foundation hole on weekends, when Amos had returned from his work with NSP. Shakopee was almost all farmland back then, and Sonny recalls "going out and doing the 'Indian thing'--eating wild strawberries and choke cherries and raspberries and looking for things in the pastures and rocks around by the river. There were very few Indians in Shakopee at the time and at school it was like throwing black beans into a group of white beans."

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