Blood Money

On the Shakopee Mdewakanton reservation, dissidents want to know: Who is an Indian?

A one-quarter blood-quantum standard remains typical for Minnesota's Ojibwe and Dakota communities. But nationally some tribes have adopted far lower requirements. For instance, Connecticut's Mashantucket Pequot--who run the biggest Native American casino in the nation, Foxwoods--have set a one-sixteenth limit. A diluting of blood, the argument goes, is the inevitable result of a small population that practically forces members to marry outside the band.

Neither Crooks nor tribal attorney William Hardacker would comment for this story. But Crooks laid out his views in a 1999 letter to First District U.S. representative Gil Gutknecht. At the time, critics were calling for an inquiry into the tribe's enrollment practices by the House Resources Committee. "Tribal citizenship is an internal tribal matter and is the essence of tribal sovereignty," Crooks argued, and hearings on the dispute "would set a dangerous precedent."

"We fear there would be no end in sight if the committee were to go down that road," the chairman continued. "Each and every disgruntled member and political opponent to the seated tribal government of every Indian nation would demand his or her own day before the Congress."

Winifred Feezor says Shakopee's chairman has turned tribal membership into a popularity contest
Tony Nelson
Winifred Feezor says Shakopee's chairman has turned tribal membership into a popularity contest

That response did not satisfy Gutknecht, who--along with five other members of Congress--reiterated his request for hearings in a September letter to committee chairman Don Young. This time Gutknecht also called for an inquiry into the BIA's "inaction" on the matter, and expressed fears that "the current tribal leadership at Shakopee may have been engaged in a deliberate and illegal pattern of providing full citizenship rights and benefits to large numbers of individuals who do not qualify for membership under the tribe's constitution."

No hearings were ever scheduled. According to Cohen, that's how the federal government has historically handled the matter--lots of talk, no action. In a 1994 review of the tribe's efforts to revise its constitution, the BIA said it was "reluctant to agree to the proposal to eliminate residence and blood quantum as a prerequisite for tribal membership." But in the years since, the bureau has done nothing to stop the tribe from proceeding with its plan.

"The federal government is very willing to go into other sovereign nations that haven't had legitimate elections," Cohen concludes. "Haiti, Panama, Nicaragua, Kosovo. But it's a different situation when it involves American Indians. You don't want to be patronizing. You don't want to tell them what to do. But they're federal laws. And the crime here is that there are legitimate Indians that are being prevented from becoming members."

Bill Lawrence, publisher of the St. Paul-based Native American Press, observes that a hands-off approach has become typical in tribal-federal relations. "I think the policy of the Clinton administration has been to deal with tribes as sovereign entities," Lawrence says, "and so the agencies have really backed off." Money may play a role as well, he adds, noting that Shakopee Mdewakanton donations to the Democratic National Committee in 1995 and '96 figured in the campaign-finance scandal over tribal lobbying against a casino in Hudson, Wisconsin. "The tribes have a lot more savvy and influence," Lawrence maintains, "and they've got a lot more money to contribute to politicians that can lean on the BIA and the Interior."

For her part, Winifred Feezor says she doesn't care about the money. Under her standard for membership, she points out, her own children don't qualify for benefits at Shakopee, though one of her sons has enrolled. "I couldn't believe my ears when I heard that," she recalls. "He was put on, no doubt in my mind, to get me to hush up and quit. And now he says to me, 'Mom, just give it up.' But my other children believe like I do. I still know what's right."

Feezor says she worries about the effect of easy cash on youth and thinks the tribe would benefit from more community investments. She's glad the casino-fueled cash bonanza has made the 70 percent welfare rates of a decade ago nothing but a bad memory on the tiny reservation. But, she asserts, "most of the people here don't go to school, or they don't finish school. I think you ought to work for a living, but a lot of these kids have never worked a day in their life."

"The greed took over," she adds with a note of resignation. "If the government is too blind to see it, I guess it's a lost cause."

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