In wake of corruption, Crow Creek soldiers on
FORT THOMPSON -- Peter Lengkeek is well aware of the problems, many self-inflicted, that have plagued the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe in recent years.
Financial improprieties in tribal government.
Shoddy, almost nonexistent record keeping, with hundreds of thousands of dollars missing.
Federal funding for programs discontinued because of the fiscal mess and a huge tax bill.
Massive unemployment, hovering around 90 percent.
Widespread drinking and drug use among tribal members.
There were other issues to address, Lengkeek learned when he took office in 2010 on the tribal council. There are about 3,000 total members of the tribe, and about half live on the central South Dakota reservation.
The tribe's casino was poorly operated, with money missing and numerous machines out of order. It's only breaking even now, and providing some jobs in the small Buffalo County town of Fort Thompson.
But Lengkeek said he remains optimistic that better days are ahead, and is trying to prove that to his own people as well as other South Dakotans.
New business has been developed and more will follow, he said. Seed money and training will be provided to tribal members who want to open new businesses.
Efforts to develop wind power are under way. Lengkeek said the tribe needs to develop its natural resources. There are 190,000 tribally owned acres and many are rich in game.
There are now two guide services, fishing and hunting companies that were started with tribal seed money.
There is one motel in Fort Thompson, and it fills up during the hunting season. It also provides jobs in a town where they are scarce.
The Lode Star casino was opened in an effort to provide jobs and revenue for the tribe. But Lengkeek and fellow council member Eric Big Eagle said when they came into office, the casino was a disaster.
"It was a mess," Big Eagle said. "No reason to pull punches here."
It was stocked with old machines, and an entire bank of machines didn't work. Of the 250 machines the tribe is allowed under its compact with the state, 186 were playable, he said.
That has been changed and the tribe would welcome more machines, the councilmen said. The casino also offers blackjack, poker and threecard poker and has about 95 employees.
The longstanding problems on Crow Creek are symptoms of core issues that have afflicted the tribe in recent years and came to a head in a highly publicized trial this summer.
Duane Big Eagle, the powerful chairman of the tribe and Eric's father, was convicted Aug. 4 of bribery and conspiracy for his role in arranging contracts to build a tribal school. Several other tribal officials also were caught up in the scandal and were convicted earlier. Big Eagle's sentencing is set for Oct. 24.
Big Eagle, 61, was the tribe's chairman for 13 of the past 19 years and exercised a great deal of authority over the tribe, its government and the town of Fort Thompson.
Lengkeek is especially knowledgeable of the tribe's problems, since he's one of a new generation of leaders pledging to clean up the mess, end the corruption and bolster the economy on the reservation.
He's in his first term on the tribal council and also serves as tribal treasurer. He said he was stunned by what he learned when he took office.
"I saw the mess that was left here. It seemed hopeless," Lengkeek said. "It seemed like a mountain that couldn't be climbed."
But he said that mountain is being scaled and the tribal troubles can and will be solved.
A Minnesota accounting firm has been hired to go through records to try to untangle the fiscal mess. In the future, any and all records will be posted online and anyone who wants to see them can come to the tribal office and demand to see them, Lengkeek said.
There are other signs of progress, too.
Lengkeek said a tribal program targets youth suicide, which has been a major problem. A rash of suicides, many involving young mothers, occurred last winter, he said, but a united community effort has been mounted to halt the deadly trend.
The local 12 and younger baseball team, the Native Yankees, won a state title this summer despite scrutiny from tournament officials on players' ages, which dimmed the good feeling about the title and is a very raw point for many local residents, who feel the kids were unfairly targeted due to their race.
An artists' program has been started at the local school. Famed South Dakota artist Oscar Howe is a wellknown member of the tribe, and Lengkeek and other tribal leaders said they would love to see another talented, creative person emerge from their ranks.
"The tribe formed a nonprofit to promote and encourage our young artists in our schools," Lengkeek said.
A California artist with ties to the tribe allowed four kids to come learn from him, Lengkeek said. A calendar with artwork on it, greeting cards and mugs and glasses with the students' artwork have been created.
And most significantly, a gleaming new K-12 school is being built at Stephan. It is scheduled to open in early 2012. Several tribal members are working at the jobsite.
Lengkeek knows the image the tribe carries is one of corruption and mismanagement. While he said the positives on the reservation have unfairly been diminished, he also admits the problems were real and long-term.
Lengkeek said money was blatantly stolen by tribal officials and employees, and other laws were violated.
"I'd say about everything you could imagine," he said. "They were just selfish people. Long ago, our people were never liked that. Our ancestors were highly adaptable and resourceful. There was no room for laziness and selfishness and things like that."
Chairman Big Eagle wasn't the only person with his hand in the till.
Former officials, including Vice Chairman Randy Shields, Treasurer Norman Thompson Sr. and Secretary Thomas Thompson Sr., admitted guilt in a bribery, corruption and retaliation scheme. Archie B. Baumann pleaded guilty to bribing tribal leaders.
Former Crow Creek School Superintendent Scott Raue was also part of the corrupt pool at Crow Creek and is in federal prison.
The new school, which will replace one that burned down, opened the doors for widespread corruption as Crow Creek leaders installed a "pay-to-play" system that involved bribes and kickbacks.
Two tribal politicians, Brandon Sazue and Lester Thompson Jr., helped uncover the corruption and send the crooked leaders to prison.
The attention to the scandals has tribal members sensitive. They said while they have had to clean their dirty laundry in public, people are ignoring the progress that is being made.
Krystal Langholz, the director of Hunkpati Investments on the reservation, wrote a guest column that was published in The Daily Republic last week.
Langholz said while it's true there were grave problems in tribal government, some parts of it, such as the Crow Creek Housing Authority and Head Start, work well and were largely untouched by scandal.
She said private business growth is happening at a greater rate than has been seen in the past.
"There is an unprecedented amount of entrepreneurship on Crow Creek -- Shelby's Convenience Store, Bad Nation Barber and Beauty Salon, MGF Roofing, Hawk's Tire -- the list goes on," Langholz wrote. "Most recently I have seen Dion's Bait and Tackle, located in the heart of Fort Thompson, celebrate a grand opening and then get flooded out, only to go ahead and open yet again."
The South Dakota Indian Business Alliance, which allows public and private entities to work together to bolster economic development, is another way Indians can create a stronger economic future, she said.
A tribally owned construction company will soon be in operation, Lengkeek said.
It will have access to $2 million in bonding, and several tribal members are trained construction workers and are prepared to build anything they get a chance to, he said.
"We're ready to jump into the bid process," Big Eagle said.
Entrepreneurial classes and financial classes are offered and start-up loans and grants made available.
"The people who took advantage of the opportunities, they're up and running," Lengkeek said. "It's good to see those local businesses start up."
Currently, seven cents out of every $1 spent on the reservation stays on the reservation, he said. They hope to raise that considerably.
Two state highways, 34 and 47, cross in Fort Thompson and a bridge over the Missouri is nearby. Those are also assets, Big Eagle said.
Lengkeek led an effort to hire a Minneapolis CPA firm that has worked for the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community, a Minnesota-based tribe that owns two very successful casinos.
Last year, the Internal Revenue Service grew weary of the Crow Creek Tribe's multimillion-dollar tax debt. It placed 7,000 acres of tribal land on the block.
The Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community extended a $2.7 million loan and $1 million grant to the Crow Creek Tribe, and this spring, the land was once again the property of the tribe.
Lengkeek said Shakopee Chairman Stanley Crooks has been a great help to him and the Crow Creek Reservation.
"I told him I needed some help here to get it straightened out, because it was an unbelievable mess," Lengkeek said. "He's a man who has a huge heart and he's working to strengthen Indian Country."
On Wednesday, three auditors were hard at work in an office at tribal headquarters, their heads bowed as they examined tribal records.
Wilfred Keeble is the chairman of the tribe since Big Eagle was forced from office. Keeble, 52, said his mission is to restore trust.
"All we're trying to do is get our financial system back in order to be where it's going to be a benefit," he said.
Keeble said he didn't spend much time thinking about what happened with Big Eagle and other tribal officials ensnared in the legal process.
"The judicial system will handle it," Keeble said.
He said he thanks Thompson and Sazue for their efforts to clean up corruption in the tribe. Other South Dakota tribes have told him they admire what the Crow Creek Tribe is trying to do, Keeble said.
He is a soft-spoken, modest man who doesn't relish speaking with the media. He said he spent some time in the Crow Creek Reservation as a young man, then moved around a lot.
"Wanderer ... kind of a wanderer," Keeble said when asked about his life before he came home to the reservation.
He said he didn't know how to respond to statements by tribal members who said they trusted him to do the right thing.
"We're trying," Keeble said. "We are going to try to do what
He declined to comment when asked if he will seek a full term as chairman in the spring 2012 election, nor did he want to disclose his thoughts on the proposed changes to the tribal constitution.
'Things can get better'
While tribal leaders promise change, some tribal members are uncertain it will take hold.
One tribal member with access to information on how the tribal government operates spoke of closed-door meetings and shadowy payments that seem questionable.
The Fort Thompson resident, who asked to not be identified, said trained and qualified staffers must be retained to ensure grant dollars are not misapplied and money spent illegally.
"Things can get better," the tribal member said.
Donita Loudner is a Buffalo County commissioner who also works on the tribe's suicide prevention task force. Loudner said the drumbeat of corruption is old news to her; she's heard it for more than a decade.
"I think it's getting a lot better," she said.
She said Keeble has attended meetings on the suicide prevention effort, which was rare for previous leaders. The task force seeks to empower young people to recognize the patterns of someone contemplating suicide and help deter them or alert someone who can help.
Loudner said in the past, when important issues like suicide were discussed, the complaints and questions fell on deaf ears. She hopes that is changing.
But Loudner said elections need to be decided by who's qualified and capable of leading. Right now, it's a popularity contest.
Several tribal members echoed that statement. They said council candidates court large families, since they can swing an election.
Loudner said tribal residents were aware of the corruption. No one listened to their concerns, she said.
She said there is one answer to how tribal offices must be administered.
"Well, treat it like a business," Loudner said. "Put people in there that know what they're doing."
Dwayne Two Hawks, 56, and his son Milo Smith, 24, were sitting in front of their home Wednesday afternoon. Two Hawks is a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, while Smith is an enrolled member of the Crow Creek Tribe.
Both men said they knew money was being stolen from the tribe. They see the dirty, broken-down streets, the lack of job opportunities and the depressed conditions in Fort Thompson.
"I don't know if they'll change," Two Hawks said. "They've got to get new people in there."
He said the corruption was easy to explain. "It's really simple: Greed," Two Hawks said. "It's the same everywhere."
He said while the problem was evident in the tribal government, the people of Crow Creek must take responsibility as well.
"I think in order for things to change, people have to change themselves," Two Hawks said, pointing to widespread alcohol and drug use as well as "negative behavior." Smith may be young but he seems very pessimistic.
"Every year, every change, every council -- they're all the same," he said. "Nothing ever changes ... it's all the same." Allen Milk lived on the reservation for a time when he was young and returned to it last year. He was offered a job with the tribe and is now the accounts payable officer.
Milk was cutting checks for tribal members Wednesday. He said people have grown used to a system of seeking money and favors from their leaders and that helped foster the corruption.
He said it reminds him of Indian leaders who were put in place by the American government in the 19th century. They gained their influence by handing out gifts and favors.
"To me, it's just an evolution of that system that was brought in then," he said. "It gets a little difficult to change, because people grew up under the old system."
Most of the tribe's $2 million general fund comes from payments from land leases to tribal members and non-tribal members. Milk said there are other avenues to obtain money to benefit the tribe and he feels reforming the constitution will aid that.
The proposed changes would, among other things, make it easier to remove tribal officials charged with crimes including theft.
'I'm my man'
While Duane Big Eagle still casts a long shadow over the tribe he led, another politician with that last name is vowing to help clean up the mess.
Eric Big Eagle, Duane's son, is in his first term on the tribal council.
"I think the painful things are past," he said. "That's something that's killing us, the way things used to be done. I think people are ready for change. Look at this last election, there was a lot of first-timers (elected)."
He said his father is sorry for the fiscal problems but not ready to admit his guilt.
"He won't say what he did was wrong," Eric Big Eagle said.
He knows some people see his last name and feel he will just be another tribal boss who enriches himself without doing the right things for his people.
"There's that. He's his man, I'm my man," Eric said. "I've got decisions to make, a term to finish. And I am running for another term."
When a new council member takes office, all too often existing plans are discarded and new goals are set, he said.
"Even though they could have picked up on what the prior councilman was doing and we'd be better off now," Eric Big Eagle said. "People, they have a hard time working together a lot of the times."
But he said proving to people that widespread corruption is a thing of the past will help change things for the better. Big Eagle and Lengkeek, both 38 and friends since they were boys, said they need to convince people a new day is dawning.
"This money, it doesn't belong to us, it belongs to the people of this reservation," Lengkeek said. "They have a right to see where it is and where it goes."
Not all the improvement projects have worked.
The tribe signed a tax collection agreement with the state of South Dakota that would allow the state to collect sales, use, contractors' excise tax, motor fuel tax, cigarette tax and a host of other taxes.
It was launched in June and local residents were surprised and angered, Lengkeek and Big Eagle admit.
They said not enough publicity was done to advise people of the change, so when gas prices increased 22 cents a gallon, and other prices jumped, the outrage fueled rumors of the loss of sovereignty.
"We dropped the ball on that, no doubt," Lengkeek said.
The tribe receives 90 percent of the taxes collected, while the state gets the remaining 10 percent, plus 1 percent of the tribe's total. But the tax, which will end next week, would have brought up to $500,000 into the tribal coffers.
It may be tried again, Lengkeek and Big Eagle said, but if so, tribal employees will do all the work.
Lengkeek said he wants to prove to tribal members and others that it is a new day at Crow Creek.
"The proof is in the audits we do," he said. "The proof is in the work we do. The proof is in the federal funds and programs we are involved with again."
Eric Big Eagle almost moved to Pierre years ago but he's glad he stayed in a place where he knows most everyone and can hunt, fish and enjoy a relaxed way of life.
"I'm not stuck in Fort Thompson," he said. "I can make it anywhere. This is where I want to be."
Lengkeek, who spoke with Gov. Dennis Daugaard when he visited the tribe this summer, said he hopes the tribe becomes self-sufficient, with abundant new businesses and no government assistance.
He left when he joined the Marines, but found he missed Crow Creek and returned to the reservation.
"I had a deep calling to come back here," Lengkeek said. "This is our people. This is our homeland. I can't leave them behind. I'd like to see it improve here."
Crow Creek tribal Councilman Eric Big Eagle, left, and Treasurer Peter Lengkeek talk about the progress of the tribe in Lengkeek's office; and construction on Crow Creeks new K-12 school continues in Stephan.