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Moving on

Texas Kickapoo rebuild after corruption scandal

EAGLE PASS, Texas - For Chairman Juan Garza, taking over leadership of the Kickapoo Traditional Tribe of Texas with little experience at the height of a 2002 corruption scandal and financial disaster was no easy task. But he and the tribe have been strengthened by what they have learned in the past several years, he said, and are facing a positive future.

In 2002, a swell of discontent among the Texas Kickapoo ousted then-chairman Raul Garza and business manager Isidro Garza Jr., a non-Indian, which led to a federal investigation of the Garzas and five others for embezzlement, tax evasion and civil rights violations.

High-level Washington circles were caught up in the investigation and ensuing media attention, as a photo circulated by Raul Garza fueled speculation about a link between Kickapoo adviser and disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff and President Bush.

In February, the ''Kickapoo Seven'' trial finally came to an end, with Isidro Garza Jr. receiving 20 years in prison for tax evasion and stealing from the Kickapoo, and the other defendants plea bargaining or receiving lesser sentences.

''I think we've moved on from that,'' said Juan Garza in his office in downtown Eagle Pass. ''The defendants are serving their time and there's nothing left to say about it.''

Now, he said, the tribe is tackling the issues that were there before the trial thrust the Kickapoo into the media spotlight: building stable income for the casino and the 500-plus members of the Texas tribe, educating their children, and dealing with health problems like addiction and diabetes.

''We're just barely getting on our feet,'' Garza said.

''When there was a change of government in 2002, little did we know that we only had $60,000 in the cage at the casino; that was all the money we had.''

When Garza and others from the newly elected tribal government went to the bank to check on their financial status, they were told the previous tribal government had left them $20 million in debt.

Now, according to Garza, though the tribe still has debt, it has managed to put away some savings.

''The tribal council decides everything this time. We don't have anyone else telling us what to do. That's the main thing we do to safeguard the tribe's money.''

Garza, who was re-elected as tribal chairman last year, said income from the 1,000 slots and 20 gaming tables at the Lucky Eagle Casino has finally enabled tribal members to give up the migrant farm work they had survived on for years. Now, he said, all Texas tribal members are employed by the casino, as well as some tribal members from Kansas, with a total employment of more than 700.

The Kickapoo, who originated in the Great Lakes region, split up into several groups in the 19th century as they kept moving to avoid immigrant invasions.

By the end of the 20th century, there were fewer than 2,000 Kickapoo separated into tribal groups in Oklahoma, Kansas, Arizona, Texas and Nacimiento, Mexico. The Texas Kickapoo consider Nacimiento their spiritual home, and many continue to return there on weekends to practice their religion.

Casino profits have enabled the tribe to build more housing on the land they acquired in Texas in the 1980s, after living for years in traditional wikiups under the International Bridge in Eagle Pass, Garza said.

Children of parents who were illiterate now are obtaining GEDs, graduating from high school and going on to community colleges and universities, thanks to the stability of casino income. Each child in school receives $400 a month, as well as a $2,000 stipend once they graduate from high school and a laptop or desktop computer when they enter college.

The tribe has also been able to buy land in Texas and Mexico, where traditional deer hunting for ceremonies can be practiced, and plans to invest in a hotel and a new road to the casino.

It recently hired a consultant for its pecan farm in an effort to make that business more profitable.

But there is much that still has to be done, Garza said. Diabetes and addiction to paint fumes continue to plague the tribe, and more income is needed for the tribe's Healing Grounds health center.

A cultural center and tribal school would ensure that the new generation of Kickapoo doesn't forget their own language and culture, Garza added.

''I didn't even know we were from the Great Lakes when I was growing up,'' he said. ''I thought we were from Mexico.''

To build revenue, the tribe has petitioned the state government to expand from a Class II to a Class III casino license, which will enable it to offer full Las Vegas-style gaming, including blackjack and roulette.

Texas, so far, has refused.

The Kickapoo position is that Texas has not operated from ''a good-faith negotiation,'' said Garza, who is also a paralegal for Native law services. The U.S. Department of the Interior agreed with the Kickapoo, but a 5th Circuit court recently backed up Texas' refusal. The Kickapoo have now appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

In June or July, they will find out whether the Supreme Court will hear the case.

''I think the case that's in the Supreme Court is important for all Native Americans to know,'' Garza said. ''It can affect a lot of people, even the ones that have compacts already.''