January 18 was election day at the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community, but Winifred Feezor stayed home. She allows that she has "slowed down a bunch" in recent years, following the death of her husband and her mother and a series of strokes. But it wasn't frailty that kept the 70-year-old retired physician's assistant and longtime political activist away from the polling booth. Feezor says she just didn't care for the absence of choice availed to members of the Prior Lake-based band. In the race for the top office, incumbent tribal chairman Stanley Crooks was unopposed. "Why bother to vote?" she says. "What good could it do?"
The daughter of a Mdewakanton mother and a father from South Dakota's Yankton Dakota tribe, Feezor married a white railroad man, had four children, and spent most of her adult life in North Carolina. Her voice retains a sweet, Southern-tinged lilt, but it turns sharp at the mention of Stanley Crooks. "He's a fiery, feisty little rascal," she says in a grandmotherly rebuke. "He doesn't respect women or old people."
Feezor's gripe with Crooks isn't just about manners. Along with her ally and younger sister Cecelia St. James, Feezor has spent the better part of the decade trying to convince federal courts and the Bureau of Indian Affairs that, as she puts it, "there's something bad wrong here." At the heart of her grievance is the claim that the Crooks administration has added more than 200 people to the tribal rolls even though they were not eligible for membership under Shakopee's constitution.
Feezor says those same members were then permitted to vote on whether to relax enrollment standards, guaranteeing themselves generous per-capita payouts from Mystic Lake Casino and providing Crooks with a virtual lock on power. Meanwhile, Feezor says, scores of other Mdewankantons who ought to be admitted to the tribe have been kept out.
"It's a crying shame," she says. "You see the qualified ones sitting on the outside looking in. We call them the orphans. Then every house you go by here, you see two or three new cars in the driveways, and they're full of impostors with every Tom, Dick, and Harry from every state in the union. They don't qualify, but everybody just plays dumb. As long as they're drawing money, they're happy. They think I'm a fool to be standing up like this."
Before the reservation gambling boom, accusations over the manipulation of tribal membership might not have merited much notice. But with Shakopee now doling out some $900,000 annually to each member, the long-running dispute over enrollment has become a political hot potato bouncing back and forth between tribal courts, federal courts, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), with lawyers and lobbyists busy all around. In the most recent development, Feezor and St. James last month filed a motion in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., asking for a $150 million "coercive fine" against the Department of the Interior--parent agency of the BIA--for failing to stop Shakopee's enrollment practices.
Minneapolis attorney James Cohen, who represents the sisters, says the tactic is unusual, but necessary. "The government has refused to exercise its authority to ensure that only legitimate Indians--those who are qualified under the tribe's own constitution--are running the government, occupying federal trust land, and receiving revenues," Cohen declares. "Fundamentally, the most important issue in Indian country today is 'Who is an Indian?'"
Who is Shakopee Mdewakanton is a question that requires a glance back at history. Following the Dakota uprising of 1862, the federal government revoked the treaties that provided for Dakota reservations in the state. Most of the 6,000 Dakota then living in Minnesota were banished to other states. In 1868 Congress approved the purchase of small tracts of land for the approximately 200 "friendlies" who were determined not to have participated in the revolt and who had remained in the state. Included in that group were members of the Shakopee Mdewakanton, Prairie Island, and Lower Sioux communities.
In 1969 the Shakopee reconstituted their tribe under the terms of the Indian Reorganization Act. According to the constitution adopted that year, tribal members can fall into one of three categories. The first group, the 13 so-called base enrollees, are defined as "all persons of Mdewakanton Sioux Indian blood who were not members of another tribe, band or group, and whose names appeared on the 1969 Census Roll of Mdewakanton Sioux residents of the Prior Lake Reservation."
The second group, "automatic eligibles," are children with at least one-fourth Mdewakanton blood who are born to enrolled members. Finally, people with one-quarter Mdewakanton blood who can trace their lineage to tribal members residing in the state in 1886 are eligible, but they must apply for membership. In the past decade, those standards have been relaxed, though not without considerable wrangling. The BIA and the federal courts have rejected some of the efforts, including a new constitution, three modified enrollment ordinances, and two adoption ordinances.
As it turns out, Cohen says, those rulings have amounted to hollow victories for his clients. The tribe, he says, has continued to expand its membership via a third adoption ordinance, which was okayed by the BIA's Minneapolis office and then received "tacit approval" from Interior. "Now, anybody the Crookses wish to bring in by popularity vote, whether or not they are qualified under the constitution, can be brought in, because there is no blood quantum requirement," Cohen says. As a result, he charges, the number of voting Shakopee members has jumped some 80 percent since the casino opened; by 1999, he says, the tribe was issuing payments to 175 adults, some of whom had blood quantums of less than 0.5 percent. (The tribal council declined to release membership figures or information on payouts.)
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."
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."