WATERSMEET, Mich. — If any Indian tribe could ill afford to lose money in a Mexico casino scam, it is the disadvantaged Lac Vieux Desert Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.
Anchored in rolling woodlands of Michigan's Upper Peninsula, the tribe's 600 members have faced constant hardship for more than a century.
As recently as the mid-1970s, the median income per household for the tribe was only $2,300, and fully half of its working age members were unemployed.
When the tribe opened a bingo hall with a few slot machines in 1988, the year it was recognized as a separate nation, the new income allowed some members to move from overcrowded, rundown houses into better dwellings.
Over the past two decades, the tribe built the Lac Vieux Desert Casino Resort, the 76-room Dancing Eagles Hotel and a nine-hole golf course, earning enough to finance 30 new homes, a cultural-recreation center, a clinic, childcare facilities, a police force and water and wastewater treatment facilities.
But there were still too few jobs, and the loss of a $6.5 million casino investment in Mexico and ensuing legal fees have kept the tribe in crisis, unable to upgrade the casino's aging slot machines or build new attractions.
"There's no money to take care of our people," said James Williams Jr., 43, a former tribal chairman.
In hindsight, the investment in Mexico was unwise. But what's more surprising, tribal members say, is the lack of interest among elected officials into what they say amounts to a racketeering scam in which U.S. Indian tribes were specifically targeted by foreigners using a Louisiana lawyer and intermediaries.
The tribe has gotten almost no help from legislators, most recently Republican Rep. Dan Benishek, whose 1st Congressional District includes Michigan's Upper Peninsula. His press aide did not respond to an email query.
Queries to the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City also brought no response.
"The FBI is supposed to be taking care of Native Americans," said William A. Graven, an Arizona investor who took another $2 million from the Lac Vieux Desert Band for a joint investment with Mexican "casino czar" Juan Jose Rojas-Cardona, throwing in nearly $1 million of his own money, all of it now lost. "Why aren't they down there frying his ass?"
Graven noted that federal law gives Native Americans special protections, such as requiring that those who swindle tribal members repay twice the value of what is taken.
"If you've taken an Indian's money, you've taken federal money," said Graven.
Whatever the case, the loss in Mexico has renewed the tribe's difficulties.
"Our revenues keep going down. For the last four years, they've gone down, down, down," said Tyrone McGeshick, slot director at the casino resort.
"We haven't been able to give our employees raises for at least five years," added Thomas J. McGeshick Sr., Tyrone's uncle and a member of the tribal council, adding that most make $7.50 an hour.
The two McGeshicks and Williams talked to a visiting reporter at a table in the casino restaurant. Chippewa artifacts lined the walls. A 17-foot-long birch bark canoe adorned the entrance.
Tribal leaders hoped the Mexico investment would finance an expansion of the casino resort, allowing them to add a water park, a bowling alley and perhaps another hotel.
"We would've been a full-blown destination resort," Williams said.
Instead of expanding, the tribe pedals backward, reeling from the loss.
"In the casino industry, you try to update your slot floor by 20 percent each year, and we haven't changed any machines in five years. We have older games now," said Tyrone McGeshick.
On a weekday in early November, as snow fell outside, only a few dozen people sat at the casino slots.
"During our wintertime, the locals keep the doors open. They may come in every other day, and spend $20 or $30," McGeshick said.
In October, the casino underwent a fresh round of layoffs, sacking some 15 people and cutting back the blackjack tables from three shifts a day to just one shift. Managers have their hands full keeping the mood up.
"If we can't keep our employees happy, the customers feel it," Williams said.
Tribal businesses are able to employ only 30 percent of adult members, he added, and a majority of others can't find jobs. Many feel reluctant to seek work away from tribal lands.
"A lot of our people have low self-esteem for going out to do something for themselves outside of the tribe," Williams said.
Some 50 tribal members have no fixed place to live, going from house to house, relying on the generosity of relatives.
"They are not homeless but they are always moving from one place to another," Tyrone McGeshick said. "It's kind of hard to see."
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