Grand Rapids’ powerbrokers have united against it. Other business and community leaders — most outside of Kent County — have rallied behind it.
With the U.S. Department of Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs intending to take the land into trust this month, this summer will mark the beginning of either a massive construction project or a prolonged legal fight.
For better or worse, the tribe is gearing up for construction.
The night before his interview with the Business Journal, Tribal Chairman D.K. Sprague presided over a surprisingly large gathering of his organization’s supporters. Nearly 3,000 crowded into the Ampro building for a rally in support of the casino. He had a similar turnout for the casino’s two-day job fair last week.
The reception was a stark contrast to the tribe’s earliest efforts.
Four years ago, the tribe planned to present its intentions to the community at a public meeting at Wayland High School, but never got the chance. The event descended into chaos as protesters from as far away as Detroit and Indiana stormed the assembly. Sprague and his associates couldn’t speak over the disruptions — anti-gaming chants, racial slurs, and baseball’s “tomahawk chop” — and abandoned the effort.
“But from that very ugly incident, good things happened,” Sprague said.
Following that debacle, a group of offended residents formed The Friends of Gun Lake Indians (FOGLI), the sponsor of the May 24 rally.
“I didn’t know them from no one,” Sprague recalled. “At the time, they came to the office and apologized for what happened and that we never got a chance to say what we wanted to do.”
While the now 6,000-member FOGLI emerged from the economic controversy that has galvanized the community on opposite sides of the tribe, its foundation parallels that of the tribe’s efforts as a whole.
“We’ve always had a close-knit community,” Sprague said. “Before we were recognized, the church was the focal point of the community. Whenever there was a need in the community, we came together and acted as one.”
Sprague recalled a time when a tribe member had broken his leg and been unable to work. In just a few weeks, the tribal community had raised thousands of dollars to help the out-of-work contractor and his family.
Today, his community has more options.
With its federal recognition in 1999, the tribe has gained access to federal aid programs through the Bureau of Indian Affairs. To varying degrees, the tribe can now provide its members with better higher education, health care, housing and elderly care opportunities.
“We’re doing a lot of great things for the membership that we couldn’t do before we were recognized,” Sprague said. “We’ll cover the whole gamut of a person’s needs if we can. The problem is that not one program we have access to is funded at 100 percent. We rely on federal programs that are grossly under-funded.
“That is why we chose to pursue the economic path we’re on, so we can be self-sufficient and not depend on the government to fill the needs of our people.”
When the tribe began the process of organizing itself for federal recognition in the late ’80s, the tribal elders appointed Sprague as chairman.
“I was surprised,” he said. “In their infinite wisdom they chose me. I’d never really thought much about it before, but I had been given a chance to really help my people.”
Sprague said his veteran status may have attributed to the council’s decision, as Native Americans hold veterans in high esteem. He served in the U.S. Army for six years, including a tour in Vietnam. Following that, he worked in a GM factory and as a mason before landing a job on the railroad. He worked as a conductor on a run from Grand Rapids to Chicago for 25 years, retiring from what is now CSX Corp. in 2000.
“It was the tribe that bought me my first cell phone because I was always on the road,” Sprague said.
“I remember trying to have a conference call with him on the train,” said John Shagonaby, CEO of the tribe’s corporate identity, MBPI Inc. “It was hard trying to talk over the whistles.”
Sprague is also a longtime contributing member of the Red Cross and has deployed to 14 national disasters around the world. He pointed to a picture on his office wall, a snapshot of him signing the tribe’s federal recognition paperwork in 1999. It was taken hours after his return from a hurricane-relief mission in Puerto Rico.
Since his appointment, Sprague has retained the position through election. In his tenure — most of it unpaid — Sprague has seen the tribe’s office grow from two employees to 27. Its services have increased exponentially, primarily through federal programs but also through its own efforts and fundraisers.
The tribe will break ground on a community center this summer. Several traditional gardens are planned as well, including one already in place behind the tribe’s offices on 142nd Avenue in Dorr Township.
But the limitations of the government programs and traditional fundraising are quickly reached, Sprague said.
Health-care benefits don’t cover prescriptions and don’t apply at all unless a member is uninsured and not covered by Medicare — and sometimes not even then. Tuition waivers are only applicable for Michigan public schools and don’t include housing. The tribe has some limited funds earmarked for housing costs.
Family housing programs only kick in at the poverty line.
Most importantly, the tribe cannot get its members jobs. At the time of recognition, the 300-member tribe had an unemployment rate of 27 percent. Much of its membership has dispersed throughout the Midwest in search of work.
Unlike the state’s 11 other recognized tribes, the Gun Lake Tribe has no reservation land to attract businesses.
“And the members see what the other tribes have,” Shagonaby said. “They see their facilities and the services they can provide. They look to us as elected officials to get them what they want.
“We tell them we don’t have the money for those things,” he said. “They say build a casino.”
Sprague said that since the plans for the casino were announced, members living elsewhere have indicated a desire to return home.
“That has happened with other communities that have turned to gaming,” Sprague said. “It draws people back for jobs that left for economic reasons. If we can provide that, people will come back.”
In addition to jobs, the casino would provide the tribe its first land and likely fund further acquisitions toward the establishment of a full reservation, complete with an operating government and tribal police.