Ongoing Debate About Tribal
Membership has Big Money at Stake
David Crooks says some friends think he resembles a younger version of his cousin, Glynn Crooks, the vice chairman of the tiny Dakota Indian community that owns Mystic Lake Casino. But relations and appearances haven't counted for much.
As a member of the Shakopee Mdewakanton Dakota, Glynn makes about $36,000 every two weeks from his share of casino profits. David was rejected for tribal membership and lives modestly in south Minneapolis.
How does someone become a Shakopee Dakota?
In Minnesota, that's literally a million-dollar question.
It's also a question that has prompted several members of Congress, including Rep. Gil Gutknecht, R-Minn., to call for hearings into the enrollment process.
"What do I need to get enrolled?" David Crooks asked. "Is there a secret handshake I don't know? A password? What is it?"
The federal government gives American Indian tribes wide discretion in defining their members. Some require one-fourth, one-eighth or 1/32nd blood; others have less precise descendancy standards.
For decades, membership disputes played out among Indians with little attention from the broader public. But when a few tribes started to distribute hefty profit-sharing checks from their casinos, membership took on greater significance.
The Shakopee haven't disclosed their membership, but estimates range from 250 to 300. By some accounts, the tribe has expanded its rolls by about 65 people in the past six years by "adopting" applicants who could demonstrate they were direct descendants of tribal members. David Crooks says he meets a more restrictive standard also allowed by the tribe -- that members have at least one-fourth Mdewakanton blood. He says he is more than one-third Mdewakanton.
His father, Robert, who died in 1973, was the brother of Norman Crooks, a former Shakopee tribal chairman who brought big-time bingo to Minnesota before casinos were approved. Norman, who died in 1989, is the father of current Tribal Chairman Stanley Crooks.
Robert also was a brother of Amos Crooks, Glynn's father.
"He is who he says he is," tribal spokesman William Hardacker said of David Crooks. "He is related to the Crooks family."
Hardacker said David Crooks is eligible to apply to become an enrolled tribal member. But eligibility doesn't guarantee admittance.
"By majority vote, his membership request was denied," Hardacker said. "The reasons why? Nobody knows. It's done by secret ballot."
Money and heritage
One tribal document shows that a member who challenged David Crooks' application questioned his commitment to the Shakopee Indian community.
"I truly believe his only interest is the money," Dolly Almond wrote. "I do not think he has proved his community interest/participation."
David Crooks, 32, doesn't deny that he wants the money, but says that's not the only reason he's interested in joining the tribe. He says he is like thousands of Indians who rediscovered their roots in the past few decades, dramatically increasing the census count of American Indians.
He grew up in St. Paul at a time when it was common for Mdewakanton and other Indians to live outside their reservations. He recounts sketchy memories of visiting relatives on the reservation with his father. He was 6 when his dad died, and he said he lost contact with Mdewakanton culture soon afterward.
His mother, a non-Indian, became involved with a white man who he says wouldn't allow him contact with the tribe. As an adult he has had scrapes with the law, including a burglary conviction in the 1980s, and worked hanging drywall. In 1992 he began efforts to be enrolled in the Shakopee Mdewakanton.
"At first it was because I wanted to have a link to my father," he said.
But 1992 also was the year that Mystic Lake Casino opened in Prior Lake. The Shakopee Mdewakanton were about to become millionaires because of the monthly payments, called "per capitas," that are shared by enrolled tribal members. And David Crooks concedes that the money -- now about $935,000 per year -- is another reason he wants to join them.
"Here I am, a first cousin to Glynn and Stan, and I'm nnot getting anything," he said.
He was rejected in a 1996 meeting of tribal members. He asked Glynn why, and said he was told: "It's just because people in the tribe don't know who I am."
David Crooks said he was deprived of his Shakopee culture during most of his life through no fault of his own.
In a 1996 letter to a tribal official, he wrote: "Despite what some enrolled members may think, I am very much interested in the Mdewakanton Sioux Community, its culture and heritage. If admitted, I intend to live in the community and develop a small business."
Joining the tribe
The standards for becoming a member of the state's richest tribe have been much debated.
David Crooks' rejection occurred as tribal leaders were feeling heat for expanding tribal membership with a more lenient admission policy. In 1994 the tribe began admitting members who could prove descendancy, a less stringent standard than another provision that admits people who have at least one-fourth Mdewakanton blood.
Stanley Crooks, the tribal chairman, said lowering admission standards made sense because the community was small and more members were marrying non-Indians or Indians from other tribes, and their children had less Mdewakanton blood.
Some tribal dissidents attacked the new policy, saying it diluted the culture of the band and was being used to admit Crooks relatives and solidify the family's political strength.
But a three-judge panel of the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the federal government shouldn't intervene.
"We find that this . . . is most properly left to tribal authorities, in whom the discretion over tribal membership determinations is vested," the Appeals Court wrote regarding the Shakopee policy.
Moreover, it said that Congress didn't define tribal member when it passed the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, which allowed tribes to distribute casino profits to members.
In December, the Department of the Interior sent dissidents a letter saying it had no plans to intervene in the membership dispute.
However, several members of Congress have asked a House committee to conduct hearings into the Shakopee band's membership policies and distribution of gambling profits.
What impact it would have on David Crooks is unclear.
"I am concerned that the current tribal leadership at Shakopee may have been engaged in a deliberate and illegal pattern of providing full citizenship rights and benefits to large numbers of individuals who do not qualify," Gutknecht wrote the committee chairman last fall.
"It is also my understanding that . . . many persons who appear eligible for enrollment as members . . . have been summarily and arbitrarily denied membership by popular vote," he added.
The debate within the tribe is sometimes arcane.
David Crooks says he has 37.5 percent Mdewakanton blood, so he qualifies for membership even under the more restrictive requirement of one-fourth blood.
But tribal dissident Winifred Feezor disputed the bloodline of David's father. "David possesses only 27/128th Mdewakanton Sioux blood, 5/128th short of the necessary 32/128th or one-fourth," she wrote to a tribal official.
And Feezor claimed that Stanley Crooks also lacks the required blood to be a tribal member.
Such talk of blood lines obscures the reality that members ultimately hold the power to decide who joins them and who doesn't. Other than the note from Almond and speculation that he's not well-known by members, David Crooks said he has no theories for why he was rejected.
He said other members had lived off the reservation.
He said his burglary conviction didn't come up at the meeting before members rejected him, and moral turpitude doesn't appear to be a criteria. He pointed out that tribal member Dean Brooks continued receiving profit-sharing checks after his 1998 conviction for murdering his girlfriend. (Hardacker, the tribe's spokesman, said that no members have been removed from enrollment lists in recent years.)
David Crooks said he hasn't given up joining the tribe.
"He is eligible to reapply," Hardacker said.
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