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Harjo: Strictly confidential, who's keeping secrets from the Sand Creek descendants?

There's big talk about a big money deal in the making in the name of the Cheyenne and Arapaho people and the Sand Creek Massacre.

But, don't tell any Cheyennes, Arapahos or Sand Creek descendants, because it's a big honking secret.

The "Cheyenne-Arapaho Homecoming Project" proposes a casino in Colorado, whose profits are intended to extinguish all tribal claims in the state and to make up for the Colorado Volunteers' massacre of elders, pregnant women and children at a Cheyenne peace camp along the Sand Creek in 1864.

The project is the brainchild of a lawyer/venture capitalist, Steve Hillard, who runs Council Tree Communications in Longmont, Colo. He teamed up with some Alaska Natives who have crazy clout with Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, and can get him to get Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colo., to support the project.

Reality check: Sen. Campbell is both Cheyenne and the senior senator from Colorado. Why would his support depend on a bank shot from Alaska? Apparently, it's such a big secret that Campbell isn't supposed to know about it yet. I wonder if that's because he represents Colorado or because he's Cheyenne.

Don't get me wrong. Cheyennes and Arapahos are among the poorest people in the United States and, if there's an honest, legal, workable plan to make a pile of money, I'm all for that.

There may be nothing wrong with the homecoming project, except that mighty big talk is taking place in very small circles.

Council Tree has pitched the plan to selected tribal officials in hush-hush meetings in Oklahoma, Montana, Wyoming and Colorado, claiming that an agreement is already in place between the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma and the Native American Land Group.

The Native American Land Group's "controlling member" is the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, which represents Inupiat business interests and owns five million acres of land in far north Alaska. Its partners in the Land Group are Council Tree and the Bethel Native, Kuskokwim and St. George Tanaq Corporations. The corporations bonded with Stevens over prospects for oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Council Tree, in business for five years, describes itself as Colorado's "most successful venture capital fund ? during the 2001-2003 recession." It trades on Hillard's appointment to the Federal Communications Commission's Advisory Committee on Diversity for Communications in the Digital Age and touts these triumphs: "Telemundo - Spanish language television network; controlled by Council Tree; sold to NBC ($2.7B);" and "Alaska Native Wireless - largest minority-controlled owner of FCC licenses in history ($3.0B)."

Council Tree's "Confidential Presentation" is a razzle-dazzle document dated September 2003, with "Strictly Confidential" in bold letters on each of its 16 pages.

The secret document states that the homecoming project "will fulfill 10 core objectives." The top two listed are "self-determination by the Tribes to create a destiny with increased income, employment, health and education resources for their members" and "Native Americans helping Native Americans."

Third on the list of objectives is "redress of Colorado legacy of massacre and genocide." The eighth is "funding ($2.0 million) for completion of Sand Creek Massacre National Park Service Unit." The document also states that the project will "publicly redress the crimes committed against Native Americans and the particular atrocity of Sand Creek" and will "return dignity to the Tribes."

The project's fourth goal is "protection of the state from title-clouding land and water claims." High priorities of the project are "substantial economic benefits" to Colorado - 3,000-plus new jobs and $780-plus million in revenue sharing in the first 10 years - and $3 million in "core funding" for an events center that is "particularly desired by Latino community."

Other project objectives in the document are listed as "substantial mitigation, containment and local cooperation measures" and "strong public support from Colorado voters."

The big selling points for Colorado, according to Council Tree, are that the state would get a "no cost resolution of Tribal land, water and mineral claims," not to mention $50 million in new payroll taxes, $30 million in new sales taxes and $22 million in new toll-paying traffic on the 470.

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Council Tree predicts "$1 billion in direct revenues and other economic benefits to the State" and "3388 new jobs with taxable payroll of $1.6 billion over 10 years," in addition to a $100 million construction project and 900 jobs and 54,000 out-of-state visitors in the first year.

The tribes would get a small reservation 15-30 miles east of Denver. On it, they would build a casino, a Plains Indian Cultural and Media Center and a five-star restaurant in a glass-enclosed rooftop observatory.

Council Tree maintains that these enterprises would bring the tribes $1.1 billion in cash flow in the initial ten years, $1.85 billion over 15 years and $200 million-plus in perpetual annual cash flow.

All this is promised at "zero cost to the state and federal government."

So, who is paying for the project?

The confidential document is a bit vague on that point. It states that the project is "funded by blue chip national funds and Native American groups" and that "Council Tree has substantial economic sponsorship and is well experienced in achieving capital structures of $100-plus million."

"The Tribes will acquire and improve the Reservation land at their own cost, and will not seek any financial assistance from the State or local governments," says Council Tree.

Council Tree's document describes a telephone survey of "800 Colorado frequent voters," reporting that the "results were stunning - 78 percent of Colorado voters support the designation of a reservation as compensation to the Cheyenne-Arapaho for the Sand Creek Massacre and their subsequent forced removal from Colorado." Fifteen percent of the respondents were opposed and seven percent didn't know.

Republicans, who comprise 35 percent of Colorado voters, responded favorably, at 73 percent; Democrats (24 percent of state voters), at 79 percent; and Independents (37 percent of state voters), at 85 percent.

Council Tree also reports that "58 percent of Colorado voters favor limited Indian gaming on the Reservation consistent with the Project."

Ciruli Associates conducted the survey on July 14 to 22 and posed the project overview question this way:

"After the massacre atrocities were committed, the survivors were forcibly removed from Colorado and placed on reservations in other states. As a form of compensation for the massacre and forcible removal from Colorado, would you favor or oppose the government designating 500 acres to the tribes for a small reservation in eastern Colorado? The land would be purchased by the tribes at their own expense and for fair market value."

According to Council Tree, "The Tribes seek to begin construction in early 2004, with payments to the Tribes and the State beginning in 2004."

Here we are, on the eve of 2004, a few short weeks before Council Tree says the project will start and money will flow. At least 800 folks in Colorado (and one white guy in Longmont) know about project. Assorted pollsters and lawyers and investors share the confidence. Some Alaska Natives are in on it. Sen. Stevens and someone on his staff may be clued in.

Isn't it about time for someone to share the big deal secret with the Cheyennes, Arapahos and Sand Creek descendants?

Suzan Shown Harjo, Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee, is president of the Morning Star Institute in Washington, D.C., and a columnist for Indian Country Today.