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Gambling deal painted 2 ways

ST. PAUL -- Erma Vizenor stood below a 100-year-old painting of an American Indian treaty signing, saying Friday's announcement of a deal with Minnesota leaders was like that depicted in the painting.

"I stand before you today looking at a ... beautiful oil painting of our ancestors, strong good people always, always coming in good will with the welfare of their people within their hearts." said Vizenor, chairwoman of the White Earth Band of Chippewa. "And today we have that spirit. We are the modern-day chiefs, facing tremendous challenges in our tribes."

With that, Vizenor and leaders of two other northern bands joined Gov. Tim Pawlenty in announcing a deal to open a Twin Cities-area casino to benefit the state and tribes. Like the ceremony in the "Treaty of Traverse des Sioux" painting, it didn't take long for problems to arise.

With Vizenor and Pawlenty were Chairman George Goggleye of Leech Lake and Secretary Judy Roy of Red Lake bands of Chippewa. Pawlenty and tribal leaders later flew to Moorhead, Duluth and Rochester to sell the plan, which they say would bring $164 million a year to the state and $372 million to the tribes.

Friday's announcement, in the governor's ornate Capitol reception room, centered on the financial help a Twin Cities casino would bring the three northern tribes.

"It's time that Minnesota and tribal governments who are represented as part of this partnership get a better deal," the Republican governor said.

Pawlenty said he has abandoned his hope of getting $350 million in donations from all tribes that run the state's 18 Indian casinos. Now, he is centered on opening the Twin Cities casino for the three tribes that have most of the state's Indians and some of the highest poverty rates. Leaders of the three bands say their remote locations don't allow their existing casinos to bring in enough money.

"This is going to give us an opportunity to provide for our people in a way that gaming has not done for our tribe," Goggleye said. "Unfortunately we are a victim of geography."

A new casino would go far in helping the 400 people who are on a waiting list for housing on the Red Lake Indian Reservation, said Darrell Seki Sr., treasurer of the band.

The plan would require legislative approval, which is far from assured. Minutes after Pawlenty's announcement, a group of 14 senators announced their opposition.

Pawlenty expects legal challenges to the plan, but he said during his Moorhead stop that they would not slow it down. Similar arrangements have passed constitutional muster in several states, said Dan McElroy, Pawlenty's chief of staff.

The casino would be owned and operated by the tribes and paid for by a bond issue, McElroy said. The sale of bonds also would cover the cost of the one-time, $200 million casino licensing fee, he said.

Minnesota's other tribes oppose the new casino plan, saying it would hurt their casinos. Doreen Hagen, president of the Prairie Island Indian Community, said her tribe's Treasure Island Resort & Casino could lose 30 percent of its business to a new operation.

Henry Buffalo Jr., who represents two tribes opposed to the Pawlenty casino plan, said gambling "is a mature market" and there is not room for another casino.

Buffalo and Hagen said Pawlenty is trying to bribe the three tribes with gambling revenue. "His tactics have been no different than providing alcohol," Buffalo said, referring to a method the federal government used in the 1800s to bribe Indians.

Hagen said it was appropriate that Pawlenty invited Indian leaders to stand below the treaty painting because he is using the tactic the government used when white settlers moved west. "We are really disappointed that he is using the same divide and conquer."

The treaty depicted in the painting did not end the economic strife Indians faced at the time, she said.

Forum reporter Dave Olson contributed to this story.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.