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Shakopee Dakota - A culture of sharing

PRIOR LAKE, Minn. - Everyone knows, but not everyone may understand the purpose of giving as a tradition among American Indians.

Criticism has been leveled against successful gaming tribes for not sharing their alleged wealth with poorer tribes. But some tribes are doing so without prodding or pressure from political threats.

The Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community of Minnesota, has put their excess funds to very good use, and has done so for the most part, in silence. In fact in 2003, it put nearly $8 million dollars into education, health care, infrastructure improvements, economic development and more for tribes in the Great Plains and Great Lakes areas.

"The Shakopee Dakota have a cultural tradition of assisting others who are in need," said Tribal Chairman Stanley Crooks.

"We recognize that we have a unique opportunity to help Native Americans and, indeed, non-Indians, as well."

SMSC had donated $31.5 million to other tribes and local governments and organizations over the past six years; $22.9 million of that since January 2000; and an additional $119 million in loans.

A dozen tribes, an additional dozen schools and more than 30 American Indian and charitable organizations have benefited from the generosity of the SMSC.

One of the first tribes to be involved, the SMSC has benefited from Indian gaming. Tribal officials are reluctant to give out information about the financial success of their Mystic Lake Casino, Hotel and Resort, and said the donations and philanthropic giving of the tribe is not based on any percentage of profits or gross revenues.

"The tribe doesn't gain from the donations. We do not have a policy like Target Corporation, like the 5 percent club. We do not get tax benefits. There is a lot of need out there," said Bill Rudnicki, tribal administrator.

Rudnicki said a few years ago Chairman Crooks took him to an event for people that donated to special causes. "He said, 'would you ever see anything like that in Indian country?'"

"It's sad that a lot of American Indian nonprofits are asked by potential donors if the casino tribes helped them out. I respond by asking if Las Vegas has helped other organizations," said Rudnicki.

American Indian nonprofits are awarded only one-sixth of one percent of all philanthropic dollars nationwide, according to the First Nations Development Institute.

In many cases there are no strings attached to the generosity of the SMSC. There are exceptions, though; should a group ask for money that is intended for a school or specific project the money must go to the project.

The SMSC has been very helpful to the Santee Sioux Tribe of Nebraska. The SMSC actually saved the tribe's fledgling economic development and protected and created jobs. The Santee tribe has received more than $2 million over the past few years after it experienced legal trouble with its casino. A new casino with restaurant and a new fuel station are the result of help from the SMSC.

The Yankton Sioux Tribe would have lost a much needed dialyses center when IHS closed its facility when SMSC came to the rescue with $125,000.

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Rudnicki said the giving is not the result of pressure from outside forces, governments or political pressure. "It's an obligation that comes from the culture, not outside."

More than $1 million each has been given to the Bois Forte Band of Ojibwe, the Grand Portage Band of Ojibwe, the Upper Sioux Community and the Lower Sioux Community, all from Minnesota.

Economic opportunity donations or loans are not awarded to individuals. Rudnicki said a donation to a school system to rebuild or remodel a school building will benefit more people. Economic development money, like that given to the Empower Zone of Pine Ridge for equipment and to the Santee Sioux Tribe or to Sisseton-Wahpeton will be used to more broadly benefit the people.

"We upped the amount of giving each year and we still have to meet the needs of the tribe. There is more need out there," Rudnicki said.

He said he has toured the Crow Creek and Santee reservations. What most people see are the good things, but he said he saw the parts of the reservations that show the suffering.

The community members are descendants of the Dakota who were removed from Minnesota in 1863 after the conflict with settlers and federal agents. Among their ancestors were many of the 38 who were hanged in Mankato after the conflict came to an end.

The Shakopee were sent from Minnesota to Crow Creek, in South Dakota, then to Santee, and some of them returned to their homeland of Minnesota.

"We have attained a significant level of self-sufficiency and are very thankful for the ability to help others through our charitable giving program," Crooks said.

The Shakopee Mdewakanton Community was federally recognized in 1969. A small community of people lived on 250 acres of traditional land which was purchased in the 1880s. They had dirt roads and like most tribes were very poor. The goal of the tribe from the beginning was to become self-sufficient.

The SMSC contributes hundreds of thousands of dollars today to Scott County, Minnesota, and the town of Prior Lake for any services needed for the casino or the community.

The tribe readily admits that if it were not for the casino none of the contributions would be possible.

"During the last four years, the SMSC has experienced continued growth and development in all areas.

"We should all be very proud of the many achievements we as a community have made in this four-year period of time. Since 2000, our tribal economy has shown great strength as our tribal enterprises as a whole continue to earn significant tribal revenues," the business council stated in a prepared statement.

The Shakopee are not so na?ve as to believe that gaming will always be the economic windfall it has been. Rudnicki said the tribe is building a new golf course to draw people from different parts of the country to come and stay in the hotel and enjoy the facilities. Other tribes are also doing much the same thing in developing end destination resorts. As criticism of Indian gaming grows in different parts of the country, the possibility of an end is always on the minds of gaming leaders.

Some members of the Minnesota legislature have in the past threatened to legalize slot machines and card gambling at a horse track located just a few miles from Mystic Lake Casino Hotel. Bar owners in the state also argue that video lottery games would help to level the playing field.

New construction at Mystic Lake Casino Hotel will make things more convenient for customers with new parking facilities and covered outside areas. No expansion of the casino is planned.