After the Gold Rush

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."  

Almost as soon as Amos Crooks received his 40 acres, he gave half of it to his brother Harold, who in turn gave 19 of his 20 acres over to another brother, a now-mythic figure named Norman Crooks. Restless and stubbornly single-minded, Norman arrived with his family in the 1960s and gave the nascent community its identity. "Amos was really good at helping us with the cultural side and my Grandpa Norman was really good with the business side," says Cherrie Crooks-Bathel, the tribe's gaming commissioner and executive assistant to the business council. "It started when we were little kids. Grandpa would let you go with him to the powwows, but for part of the time you had to help him run his popcorn and snowcone stand. He only had an eighth grade education, but he was intelligent beyond books. He used to say, 'Here's my mail, I don't know what it says, can you help me?' Just to make sure we all knew how to read."

Norman Crooks turned out to be a born organizer and entrepreneur. Little was being done about the substandard housing and water among Native Americans in the area, in part because its tribal government was located 140 miles away in Granite Falls. So Norman spearheaded the effort that led to the Bureau of Indian Affairs's recognizing the Shakopee Mdewakanton Dakota as an independent tribe in 1969, assigning 248 acres of ancestral land and designating 13 people from five mostly interrelated families as charter members. To no one's surprise, Norman was elected the first tribal chairman. According to his second son, Stanley Crooks, the current tribal chairman, "His vision was always for a larger community than what we started with. His concern was to make a place for his children and grandchildren, and to do that he knew we needed to do something so that other folks would come and bring their families."

Eventually the BIA began making more modest one-acre land assignments to any Mdewakanton Dakota who could prove lineal descent back to 1886, when the land was initially set aside. Norman's consuming passion was to create some type of business or industry to support them. There were some celebrated failures: He began a raspberry farm that had a promising first year before all the plants died. Another short-lived business involved stripping the copper out of used wire. When Dutch elm disease blighted scores of trees in the area and a state law was passed prohibiting the burning of diseased logs, Norman created a furor by using the reservation's status as sovereign land immune to many state laws to set up a log-burning zone--with hefty fees.

"I can still remember the cloud of gray smoke going over Shakopee and Prior Lake and all the surrounding towns getting mad, and there's Norman, the old rascal, with a big grin on his face," says Roseann Campagnoli, the tribe's longtime director of public relations. Later there would be similar run-ins with the authorities when the Mdewakanton became the first Minnesota tribe to sell tobacco without paying federal or state taxes, again invoking sovereign nation status. Federal agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms camped at the border to stop drivers who had purchased quantities of cigarettes.

But members of the tribe, for the most part, barely got by. When Sally Milroy moved to the reservation in 1978, "it was still mostly trailers and very small houses because people couldn't afford anything else," she says. Most of those who had jobs at all worked at local factories or nursing homes for little better than minimum wage. With a shortage of wells on the reservation and many families often jammed together under a single roof, septic systems were frequently overwhelmed. Basics such as health care were also lacking. Milroy, a registered nurse who worked for Minnesota Sioux Tribes, a social services agency serving people on the state's four Dakota reservations--in Morton, Granite Falls, Prairie Island, and Shakopee--says, "if it wasn't a medical emergency, it usually wasn't covered. If you needed your gall bladder out, you had to wait until the end of the quarter to see if we had enough money. For dental, we took care of the children first. What was left for adults usually wasn't enough to do anything but extractions. Some people really suffered."  

In 1981, the executive director of Minnesota Sioux Tribes came back from a summer course in Florida with news that the Seminole tribes were operating a thriving bingo business. Ever a connoisseur of the new angle, Norman Crooks went down personally to scout the operation. He came back a bingo convert. At a general council meeting before the almost unanimously skeptical members of his tribe, he proposed that the Mdewakanton start their own bingo game. "Like everyone else, I thought it was foolish," Stanley Crooks says. "Even the main roads to get out to the reservation were gravel, and all we had was a small community center we had set up through a grant from the Bush Foundation. Everybody said, 'What are you going to do, put tables up in the community center and play bingo? With whom? Who is going to come out to the middle of nowhere on gravel roads to play bingo?' But he was convinced it would work."

A number of gaming companies were willing to lend the tribe $1 million to build a bingo hall and, in exchange for 45 percent of the profits, help them manage it. One of the ways Norman wore down tribal resistance was by agreeing to have the hall built on his land since no one else wanted it on their property--at least not until they saw the long lines of cars backed up nightly on those gravel roads beginning in October 1982. From the beginning, the market for gambling out at Shakopee took on the fervor of a gold rush. Three hours after the 7 p.m. starting time, with the 1,200-seat hall already jammed to capacity, people would still be pulling into the parking lot, exchanging a traffic jam for a waiting line in hopes of squeezing in some bingo. Norman Crooks had finally found work for his tribe.

Nobody knew how long it would last. With the bingo operation producing fast profits--the note on the hall was paid off in just six months--the tribe decided at a general council meeting to pay out the money in monthly distributions to its members. "The first payment came to about a hundred bucks. A couple of months later it was $300 and a couple of months after that it was $500," Sally Milroy says. "In the beginning there was a kind of paranoia and disbelief--we still didn't think it was going to last. But before long we started saying, 'Let's use the money for things we need.'" An education fund was set up with 3 percent of the profits. A dentist was hired and an on-site office built so that the adult Mdewakanton--many of them diabetics who required a lot of fresh fruit and vegetables in their diets--could eat without pain. Daycare was established in the basement of the community center so that members with children could go to work. Trailers were slowly but surely being replaced by permanent housing. Counseling for domestic violence and chemical dependence was strengthened. And because the profits kept rising, all this was done without diminishing the monthly checks received by members.

But the injection of bingo money into the community also exacerbated the disputes over tribal membership, nepotism, and land ownership typical to many reservations. With revenues far higher than expected, members of the tribe began to resent the arrangement that called for the management company, Pan American, to receive 45 percent of the profits over a 15-year period. Even Stanley Crooks argued in general council that his father should renegotiate along the lines of an 80-20 split, but Norman was adamant, saying he'd given his word. That stubborn show of principle was undercut by accounting records that allegedly showed that Norman was receiving more than 10 times as much money from the bingo profits as the average tribal member, at a time when per capita payments had been cut from $1,000 to $600 per month.

A dissident group led by Leonard Prescott and a couple of families who had previously been involved in land disputes with Norman toppled him from power in 1984; Prescott became the new tribal chair. It marked the beginning of a long, bitter, and much-publicized feud between supporters of Prescott--whose mother is Norman's sister-in-law--and members of the Crooks family and their allies. Each side has wrested power from the other amid a constant flurry of embarrassing disclosures and allegations, and the death of Norman Crooks in 1989 has not prevented the dispute from broadening into physical confrontations and labyrinthian legal battles that continue to this day.  

Currently, Prescott is challenging an amendment to the tribe's constitution that allows members to be enrolled into the tribe even if they do not possess at least one-quarter Mdewakanton Dakota blood. He claims that Stanley Crooks is packing tribal rolls with members who don't meet the Mdewakanton lineage standards in order to keep himself in power, and that forsaking the blood requirement robs the tribe of its traditional heritage and authority. Crooks counters that sons and daughters of enrolled members who live on the reservation have a right to share in the proceeds as well as the duties of the tribe, and that rigid adherence to the blood requirement would mean the eventual demise of the Shakopee Mdewakanton and their heritage.

Contentious intra-tribal disputes are not uncommon: Approximately 10 percent of the 500 Indian reservations in the United States have multiple factions claiming to be the rightful governors of the tribe. What makes the Shakopee Mdewakanton Dakota dispute noteworthy is wealth--it is the second richest tribe in the country, behind only the Pequots in Connecticut. The phrase "pocketbook issues" takes on new meaning when you consider that dozens of Mdewakanton voting in the tribal elections on January 16 were choosing between a man who supported their eligibility to receive nearly half a million dollars per year, and a man who at one point sought to cut them out altogether. Not surprisingly, Crooks won handily, albeit by fewer votes than the number of adult enrollees the tribe had added during his previous term in office.

Political turmoil hasn't deterred tribal profits, however. After settling with Pan American upon taking over for Norman Crooks, Prescott negotiated one of the nation's first gaming agreements between a Native American tribe and a state government, securing the right to blackjack, slots, and video poker. And it was Prescott who spearheaded the construction and design of the $15 million casino, completed in 1992--the year Stanley Crooks defeated him to gain the tribal chair.

Since then, Crooks has diversified the tribal economy with a number of new businesses. There's the huge, $13 million Dakotah! Sport and Fitness center, featuring a hockey rink, firing range, two full-size basketball courts, a rock-climbing wall, a pool with three water slides, racquetball courts, a full complement of exercise equipment, a martial arts studio, and the largest indoor fitness floor in the metro area. Right next door is the $4 million Playworks education and child care center, which includes a five-story atrium, slides, ball pits, videos, pool tables, an array of early-childhood educational toys, and the largest indoor playground in the nation. Within a half-mile of all this is a convenience store, a mall with a travel agency, and a credit bureau; nearby stands a new community center to expand the social service programs and a new development center to plan more expansion. A $15 million hotel, currently under construction right next to the casino, is scheduled to be completed this summer. In the meantime, there is the Dakotah Meadows RV and camping area--24 mobile homes equipped with kitchens for casino patrons who don't want to go home and those reservation visitors who aren't on the premises to gamble. But there are not many of the latter.

"Pretty soon we're going to have to make you an honorary tribal member," Campagnoli tells me with just a hint of irritation one day as I ask her to arrange yet another interview. Efforts to contact tribal members on my own have resulted in a stone wall of silence, leaving my access at the limits of Campagnoli's patience. As it is, she attends nearly all the interviews, which are invariably held at neutral locations like the community center or someone's office.

Tribal officials are sensitive to the prying eyes of outsiders. As thousands of casino patrons take the main exit out of the casino parking lot every day, they drive past a development of attractively modern but hardly majestic houses built into the field directly across the street. This is Big Eagle's Village. Inattentive casino patrons might drive right into the Village were it not for the security checkpoint and the sign politely warning that this is a Private Road. A public relations brochure handed out by the tribe describes the setting as "a modern subdivision indistinguishable from any Twin Cities suburb."  

The name chosen for this private suburban housing project is so ironic that it has to be purposeful. Big Eagle was a legendary Mdewakanton chief whose insight into the doomed Dakota uprising of 1862 is quoted at length in the book History Of The Santee Sioux. "The whites were always trying to make the Indians give up their life and live like white men," he said. "[T]he Indians did not know how to do that and did not want to anyway. If the Indians had tried to make the whites live like them, the whites would have resisted, and it was the same way with many Indians."

Up in a conference room at the tribe's new community center, Campagnoli and Ken Thomas, a recently enrolled member who just finished serving on the Little Six board of directors, are extolling the ways that casino wealth has enabled the tribe to broaden its members' exposure to Dakota history and traditions. Moments later, Gary Cavender walks in, leaning on his cane with a broad smile. Cavender's father was Norman Crooks's brother-in-law; about 12 years ago, Cavender moved to Shakopee at Crooks's request to start a church group. He has no trouble reconciling Christianity and Native American spirituality, he says: "Every kind of religion basically says that we are all relatives, and that includes the stars and the earth and the trees." A congenial man with a self-deprecating sense of humor, Cavender hasn't been privy to the preceding conversation.

"As far as I'm concerned," he sighs, "some people here can talk the talk but aren't willing to walk the walk. We're still trying to get used to this explosion of wealth. The way it grew, it was too fast for people to comprehend. We've lost our tiospa, a sense of our extended family. This tribe would be the ideal size for an extended family; in fact it is an extended family, but people don't want to acknowledge it. I go through this community and I literally see fences. That's not our way, with fences and door locks and rejection. The tiospa, the thing that held us together and allowed us to survive through some rough things, it's gone. All of a sudden, we are rugged individuals with a lot of money. We're trying to fly faster than the speed of light, and life's too slow.

"Of course we have to live in this world--I've got four televisions in my house," Cavender says with a quick, high-pitched chuckle. "But we have to have discipline, to take the time to reidentify ourselves. Birds are still birds, trees are still trees, sky is still sky. The beauty and awe of it are still here. Sometimes I cry, I see something so beautiful I can't hold it in: I have to stop and offer it tobacco. I still sing the songs my great-grandmother taught me; I have taught them to my granddaughter. As a result, she loves to dance, and although she was raised in the urban situation of south Minneapolis, she knows who she is. People here need to know who they are."

Fifteen years ago, the Mdewakanton didn't have enough money to pave their roads or clear their sewer lines. Today, despite giving other Native American tribes preference in the hiring of their 4,000 employees, they are criticized for imposing a glass ceiling on Native workers. In 1980, the dropout rate among Mdewakanton schoolchildren was high because of lack of job opportunities; today, some say, it's high because 16-year-old students figure they are going to receive a huge annual income in two years. This has led the tribe to consider a rule that would limit per capita payments if members have not graduated or remained in school to the age of 18.

"These children have their own unique set of advantages and their own kinds of problems," says Mike Breiner, the manager of the tribe's education department. "As much as anything the kids are dealing with within themselves, there are outside problems. We try to tell them, 'People are going to label you. If one kid is involved in something, whether it's drugs or a behavior problem, then all of you are going to get pigeonholed and people will say it of all Mdewakanton. You have to understand why we as a community need to stick together. If it were just you taking a fall, that's fine; but the truth is, if you fall, we all fall.'

"The same applies to the adults. You have probably encountered some resistance from people out here. That's because everyone gets pigeonholed. Yes, there is money out here; I won't deny it. And yes, there are relationship problems between the Prescotts and the Crookses. But I don't want to be judged in terms of those soap operas and have my life on center stage as being on one side or the other, as the object of some dirt people have spread about us. People don't want to talk about this, partly because anytime anybody in this community makes a statement, we all have to own it."  

Meanwhile, whenever there is a request for any type of funding for any Native Americans in Minnesota, there is invariably a legislator, foundation administrator, or social service bureaucrat who wants to know whether the applicant has attempted to access any of that "gambling money" out in Shakopee. "People have no concept of what it means to be sovereign," says Campagnoli. "What would citizens of the semi-sovereign State of Minnesota think if they were asked to help bail out the State of Arkansas simply because it was low on cash and Minnesota's budget had a surplus?"

Some Mdewakanton are candid about the nature of the lives they lead. "When the checks first started coming in, I was working for a salary and building a house; I knew what life commitments and bills and budgets were," says Crooks-Bathel. "At first they were only two or three hundred dollars, which to me was extra money; I tried to invest half and use the other half for treats like a pair of shoes I might not otherwise buy. So we'd put it away, but the checks kept coming in and it got to an amount where you'd say, 'God, I can blow all of it for this month if I want to! Pretty soon you're doing that for six, eight months, maybe a year. Then you start to realize, 'Hey, I blew a lot of money.'

"I think each person is on that cycle somewhere, depending on how they were raised. Some people are still stuck on that spend-spend-spend part because they never think it is going to end. Some think it is going to end tomorrow and they haven't spent a dime in three years. I've been through the cycle; I saved, then I spent, now I'm back to saving. There are some months when my husband and I say, 'Well, what are we going to do with it?' We'll need to find another bank or another investment company, and there are already all these financial advisers and stocks and mutual funds and you've got to understand it and teach yourself about it or someone will take advantage of you. But my husband and I both work--we own a liquor store that he runs and he is a deputy sheriff part time for Scott County, and I work here doing a lot of different things for the tribe. We've got two kids and one is in hockey. We don't have time to spend on dealing with the money, you know what I mean?"

One day in 1994, Crooks-Bathel decided that she was going to go out and buy herself something special. It turned out to be a brand new Ford Mustang. Now it sits in her garage. "I only drive it on my birthday," she says. "It was just one of those things. But I think of money mostly in terms of my career. I work a lot for my own self-satisfaction, and always have, ever since I was legally able to at 14." Crooks-Bathel was the motivating force behind the construction of Playworks. She describes the $4 million project as "my baby," adding that, "I work at these political jobs so that when I pick up that check, I can feel like I earned it."

Now in her 50s, Sally Milroy remembers hard times riding in the back of a van and sliding around on a metal folding chair beside boxes of canned goods being delivered to Minnesota Dakota tribes in the winter. She and her three daughters can laugh about the convoluted scheme they had to endure to get eyeglasses to the tribe's children: A mobile clinic would come down from Bemidji to conduct exams, the results of which would be sent to Duluth, where the glasses were made, which were then shipped by mail to Shakopee. The glasses never fit; the bows would invariably stop at the middle of the temple or go all the way to the back of the child's head. She remembers agonized general council meetings that had to be held to determine whether the mileage rate could be raised a penny per mile on trips around the state.

When the first two or three big checks rolled in, she felt too guilty to cash them. "I guess it was because I had worked all my life, and here was something that was just given to me," she says. "I remember taking a check home and putting it on the table and looking at it. And I said to my ex-husband, 'I can't believe this. I don't know if I want it.'  

"My husband was a bricklayer, but we never had a fireplace. He built fireplaces for other people; we could never afford one. So today, I have a house with a fireplace. And it should also be known that about 95 percent of the people on this reservation give away some of their money to help relatives with funeral or living expenses or put children through school. I remember my uncle, who passed away last year, saying, 'If Indian people hadn't looked out for one another back in the 1800s, there would not be an Indian living today.' I believe that."

A few days before he was elected vice chair of the tribe, Glynn Crooks sat on one of the benches placed every few hundred feet in the large circular aisle rimming the casino floor. In front of him, the large picture window frames a flock of ducks braving the chill, swimming in an orderly V beneath an outdoor sculpture of a large bald eagle perched on a branch. Off to the side, a giant crane and other construction equipment for the new hotel swing in and out of view. Our interview completed, Crooks--who, as a son of Amos Crooks, was one of the first settlers on the tribal land--gets up to show me the way out. "You can just continue walking around that way and the exit will be on your left. Or," he says, his eyes dancing above a conspiratorial smile, his hand sweeping toward the chiming machines, "if you'd like to stay and gamble, we wouldn't mind." CP

"What we are dealing with here," says Little Six chairman Sonny Crooks, "is no different from... some hillbilly from the Ozarks who wins the lottery. People are going to say, 'What gives him the right?'"

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