A generation ago, the Shakopee Mdewakanton tribe lived in a motley collection of beat-up trailer homes, melting snow for bath water when wells froze over because they lacked indoor plumbing. Three-quarters of tribal members received government food supplements.
Today, the Shakopee Mdewakanton are believed to be the richest tribe in American history as measured by individual personal wealth: Each adult, according to court records and confirmed by one tribal member, receives a monthly payment of around $84,000, or $1.08 million a year.
The financial success of the 480 members of the Shakopee Tribe — whose ancestors 150 years ago were hunted down, slaughtered and eventually exiled from Minnesota — derives from their flourishing casino and resort operation, which on weekends swells the population of their tiny reservation to the size of a city.
“We have 99.2 percent unemployment,” Stanley R. Crooks, the tribe’s president, said as he smiled during a rare interview. “It’s entirely voluntary.”
Further, the current expansion of legalized gambling in the United States, and the prospect of more to come, could not have arrived at a worse moment for tribes, because after 25 years of booming profits, the tribal casino business has suddenly gone flat. The vast majority of tribes have not become rich. Instead, casinos have become a baseline economic necessity, lifting thousands out of poverty by serving as a primary source of income and employment.
Among other states, Massachusetts recently approved casino gambling and New York is moving in that direction. In November, Oregon voters will decide whether to open their first casinos while Michigan voters will determine whether to expand gambling there as well.
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