Project tears at Wis. Indian tribe

Published 12:00 am Friday, April 25, 2008

NATCHEZ — While the Grand Soleil moves on in its construction, a tribe of American Indians in Wisconsin is facing animosity, financial whiplash and opposition in the wake of their decision to partner with the casino.

The Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians has invested financially in the Grand Soleil Casino Natchez project.

The tribe agreed to help fund the project and in order to do so, they secured a bond that, according to tribal council member Brooks Big John, they initially thought would only be $30 million.

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When the bond was voted on Jan. 2, an additional $20 million had been tacked on to help pay for the Grand Soleil.

The council voted to accept the bond, but Big John did not, as he was leery of it, he said.

“The entire council, when they decided to sign onto the bond Jan. 2 was not fully aware of the repercussions and totality of bond indenture itself,” he said.

He said the 210-page document was never fully explained to the council and they never received any consultation.

“That’s why I voted no on it,” Big John said.

The bond got enough votes to pass, however, and now the tribe is feeling the consequences, Big John said.

“It’s brought us to our knees,” Big John said. “We’re struggling to make our pay periods every year, we’re struggling to pay our bills.”

The tribe owns a casino called The Lake of the Torches in Lac du Flambeau, Wisc. and according to Big John and tribal member Bill Poupart, revenue coming in from the casino is being used to pay off the bond.

According to Poupart, who said he has reviewed National Indian Gaming Commission documents, revenue from the casino is broken down in a way that 69 percent is supposed to go back in the tribe.

Carl Edwards, tribal council member, said all casino revenue from the Lake of the Torches is forwarded to the tribe in compliance with the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.

It’s conflicting reports such as these that have caused a rift within the tribal council and tribe itself.

Essentially, the tribal council is split in half — those who support the casino project and those who don’t, or at least have become suspicious of how its funded and if the money is being handled legally and ethically.

In the meantime, according to Poupart and Big John, in an effort to “trim the fat” to be able to pay back to this bond, there have been severe cutbacks and lay offs from the casino.

“Some of our leaders try to mention it’s business as usual,” Big John said. “In my eyes it’s not business as usual.”

“Our people are crying for help and crying for recognition. We’ve never seen layoffs and firings to this nature before.”

Edwards, said there have been no cutbacks or job terminations from the Lake of the Torches.

Big John said this split is all because of this bond agreement, which wasn’t issued entirely to fund Grand Soleil but that is a majority of it.

Poupart said the tribe is surrounded by smoking mirrors, too. When tribal members ask for financial projections or any kind of information of the project, their requests are ignored.

“They still aren’t giving us any information on what’s going on,”

Poupart said. “We’ve asked for financial projections on the Natchez casino and they don’t share them with the other council people.”

Big John agreed that all their requests have been denied.

“To this day we have not seen all the financial contracts, market studies, feasibility studies, just a few people have been privy to it,” Big John said. “If you keep withholding information, you get to second guessing and doubt that leaves a bad taste in a lot of people’s mouths.”

This friction between the tribal members has caused a rift that is becoming violent on the reservation.

“Because of this Natchez project, it has split our community right down the middle,” Poupart.

A takeover took place on March 26, where a group of protestors stormed the tribal center and attempted to set up camp in protest.

They were chased by the police and ended up hiding in another building for fear of what the policemen would do to them, Poupart said.

Realizing what was going on, the community began to rally around the few protestors who hid in the building for 13 hours.

Poupart said 300 people were outside the building in support of those on the inside, camp fires were lit and drums were beaten.

Policemen called for reinforcements until nearly 100 of them stood by the crowd.

A group of 20 or 30 supporters began walking toward the building where the protestors were camped out and the police assumed they were storming the building.

“The cops freaked out and started pepper spraying people and turned the fire hoses on the people as well,” Poupart said.

He said several people ended up having to go to the hospital.

Edwards said the takeover is currently being investigated by the county’s district attorney, as the takeover was illegal and confidential documents were stolen and copied from the tribal council office.

Two or three weeks ago, Poupart said those opposing the tribal council right now set up a fire, which they call the “sacred fire.”

“It’s a protest and a show of solidarity among people,” he said.

The fire is watched 24 hours a day and has been blazing since the day they lit it, despite efforts to put it out by those resenting the protestors.

Edwards said the 20-some protestors are politically charged as it’s election time and that they do not have the support of the tribe.

Poupart begs to differ, as he said though the group may have 20-outspoken members, they have much silent support among the tribe.

Despite what is taking place in Wisconsin, Bill Bayba, president of Grand Soleil, said the conflict will not affect what is taking place in Natchez.

“They’ve been good business partners,” he said. “Whatever the inner workings are, it’s really immaterial to the Grand Soleil.”

He said the casino is working in accordance with Mississippi gaming laws.

“Everything is moving along,” he said.