At the height of his power, he drove a red pickup sporting the decal “Super Chief,” doled out government jobs to his supporters and boasted of dividing his opponents.
His enemies at the time called him a tyrant. His friends and allies saw him as a savvy but flawed leader whose success at building a tribal casino made him a target for a criminal investigation that brought him down.
Darrell “Chip” Wadena, who ran the sprawling White Earth Indian Reservation for two decades and became one of the nation’s more prominent Indian leaders, died Tuesday at age 75 after a lengthy illness.
Even a perennial political adversary on the reservation took a measured view of Wadena’s legacy.
“I want people to remember him for the good he has done,” said current tribal chair Erma Vizenor. “Serving in tribal office is not an easy job.”
As chairman of the White Earth Chippewa from 1976 to 1996 and president of the larger Minnesota Chippewa Tribe, Wadena was one of the state’s more powerful and durable politicians.
He established a reputation for dealing effectively with state and federal officials to bring housing and health care to the reservations and met with Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton at the White House.
“He had very good political instincts,” recalled former Minnesota Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe. “I considered him a friend.”
But much of Wadena’s power was exercised out of the sight of most Minnesotans, on his reservation in northwestern Minnesota. American Indian Movement leader Vernon Bellecourt and other dissident White Earth members regularly challenged his authority there.
One of the biggest controversies involved his support of a 1986 congressional act that extinguished some White Earth land claims by paying $10.4 million to the heirs of swindled Indians and another $6.6 million to the tribal government for economic development. Wadena believed Congress was intent on nullifying the Indian claims and saw the payout as the best deal for the tribe and its members. Bellecourt and other opponents saw it as a sellout.
The economic development money arrived as a new industry was bringing hope to impoverished Indian reservations: tribal casino gambling. Wadena used the funds to finance construction of the Shooting Star Casino in Mahnomen. It created nearly 1,000 jobs, about two-thirds of them for tribal members.
“Darrell Wadena was a visionary,” said Robert Durant, a member of the White Earth tribal council.
But some of Wadena’s tribal political opponents accused him of using casino jobs to reward political supporters, a claim he didn’t put to rest with the comment, “To the winner goes the spoils.” He later insisted that some of his critics also got gambling jobs.
With a large portrait of Wadena in its lobby, the casino became an icon for dissidents who accused him and other leaders of financial corruption and vote fraud.
They eventually got the attention of federal prosecutors, who investigated and charged Wadena and two other tribal council members with casino construction bid-rigging.
At trial in U.S. District Court in St. Paul, jurors heard how Wadena got $428,682 from his secret interest in a tribal council member’s drywall firm that worked on the casino even though it submitted a more expensive bid than a competitor.
But the trial also laid bare a political system foreign to non-Indians. Wadena and the other council members appointed themselves to an apparently phony tribal fishing commission with salaries of $65,000 to $75,000. They used the payments to buy a Cadillac, snowmobiles, an all-terrain vehicle and a plow.
Prosecutors said tribal elections manipulated with phony absentee ballots provided a foundation for the financial corruption.
Wadena didn’t dispute taking the money, but said he earned it creating jobs on the reservation. The rules regarding conflicts of interest didn’t apply on semi-sovereign Indian reservations, he argued, and allegations of vote theft were dismissed as technicalities.
A jury convicted Wadena in 1996 of conspiracy, bribery, money laundering, theft and embezzlement and he was sentenced to four years and three months in prison. An appeals court ordered the sentence reduced, saying it was too harsh, and Wadena served more than two years.
While his political opponents hailed the convictions, others on the reservation remain skeptical to this day. Wadena lived in a modest home on a lake with his family in the reservation town of Naytahwaush.
“He didn’t come and take any money out of my pocket,” Durant said. “I didn’t see it.”
“They say it was bid rigging,” he said. “Was it? I don’t know.”
Mounting a comeback
Wadena lost re-election while on trial but still maintained significant support on the reservation. In 2004 he staged a comeback for tribal chair. While Vizenor defeated him by 60 percent to 40 percent, she did so on the strength of absentee ballots. Wadena won narrowly on the reservation.
Vizenor said she wasn’t surprised by Wadena’s strong showing. “Chip was always a very likable person,” she said.
His daughter Ann Brown said he was consulted about tribal government even after his release from prison. “People still came up to him with questions like, ‘How do they do this on the reservation?’ ” she recalled.
Moe remembered Wadena as a pragmatic leader, recalling him breaking with other tribal leaders to pursue a more cooperative relationship between tribes and the state.
“He said, ‘We’d be interested in a relationship,’ ” Moe recalled. “He said there has to be a win-win out of this.”
The casino case wasn’t the end of his legal problems. He pleaded guilty in 2006 to conspiracy to commit mail fraud in a scheme to use tribal offices to issue “clean” titles to junked vehicles from Florida.
The most powerful White Earth leader in recent memory spent his final years in a low-key job: running bingo concessions at the Shooting Star Casino.
“He paid the price,” Moe said, referring to the prison time. “After that, he really wasn’t in play.”
Wadena died at a hospital in Fargo. He was preceded in death by his wife, Bonnie. His survivors include sons Tony, Darrell Jr., Shannon and David; daughters Tracy Wadena, Ann Brown and Serena Oppegard. Funeral arrangements are pending.