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Diane and Don LaPointe walked through the whirring canyon of slot machines, past the stocked buffet, through a gauntlet of flower bouquets and into Mystic Lake's opulent theater Wednesday morning. It was a fitting place for the couple from Nebraska's Santee Sioux reservation to pay their last respects to Stanley Crooks. After all, Crooks began his 20-year, six-term reign as chairman of the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community in 1992 just as the wildly profitable Mystic Lake opened.
Crooks, 70, died on Saturday from a respiratory ailment. His blend of humble tenacity, political savvy and fierce commitment to tribal sovereignty and self-sufficiency is credited with transforming the tiny Shakopee community into one of the nation's richest and most philanthropic Indian bands.
Its nearly 500 members reportedly receive more than a $1 million a year mainly from gambling proceeds, and the tribe has donated and lent hundreds of millions of dollars to poorer tribes from Montana to Wisconsin. Such financial clout made Crooks one of the most influential tribal leaders in the country.
That's why leaders from across Indian Country joined Gov. Mark Dayton and other political leaders at Crooks' funeral, where he lay in a open casket that also held a bonnet of eagle feathers and an American flag. The dignitaries overflowed the small Tiowakan Spiritual Center in Prior Lake and an adjacent tent, so the LaPointes joined more than 200 people watching the funeral on a huge screen in the casino's showroom.
"He was always serious but with a smile," said Don LaPointe, 72, a tribal probation officer and former Santee Sioux chairman. He credit Crooks with giving his tribe $1 million a year for a decade, as well as providing loans to build a casino. "He was one of the most generous and successful persons around."
Set leadership standard
During the 90-minute service, where Dakota drumming honor songs mixed with Bible readings, tribal leaders spoke of Crooks' relentless work ethic, his deep sense of family and their desire to "carry his torch" to further prosperity. But there were lighter moments, too, as they discussed Crooks' love of both his dog, Sophie, and his golf hobby that produced seven holes in one.
"Chairman Crooks has elevated the bar of what tribal leadership is and what tribal leadership should be," said Cecelia Firethunder, former president of the Oglala Sioux Nation in South Dakota.
Crooks was born in Pipestone, Minn., and grew up poor among six brothers before joining the U.S. Navy during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. His father, Norman Crooks, was among the founders of the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community that organized in 1969, settling on a parcel of land near Prior Lake that the U.S. government set aside in the 1880s for Indians considered "friendlies" during the bloody six-week war that claimed more than 600 lives in 1862.
The elder Crooks opened the first high-stakes bingo hall, Little Six, in 1982. Mystic Lake opened 10 years later and, with its proximity to the Twin Cities, the windfall began just as his son, Stan, was first elected chairman. After a few years at the helm, Crooks relaxed rules that required one-quarter Mdewakanton blood for tribal membership. That swelled the ranks with enough new members who owed their newfound wealth to Crooks that they in turn entrusted him with deep loyalty.
"That's how good politicians work," LaPointe said with a grin.
Attorney Phillip Baker-Shenk, who represents Crooks' interests and flew in from Washington, D.C., for the funeral, said: "Political leaders often have a relatively short shelf life, whether that's inside or outside Indian Country. To continue to meet the aspirations of the voters for that long a period of time is a testament to his extraordinary leadership qualities."
Ernie Stevens, an Oneida tribal member from Wisconsin and chairman of the National Indian Gaming Association in Washington, spoke at the funeral after leading a wake that went into the early hours of Wednesday morning. Stevens talked about how Crooks and his wife of 48 years, Cheryl, would graciously welcome him to visit their recreational vehicle each August at the Shakopee band's annual Wacipi powwow.
"Whenever we sat down with Stan and Cheryl, they'd always offer a cup of coffee, a sandwich and a snack," Stevens said. "Everything they did on a day-to-day basis was about giving and sharing."
As Mystic Lake boomed, Crooks oversaw donations that grew from $3 million a year to more than $28 million last year, besting charitable contributions from corporations including 3M and U.S. Bancorp. All told, the tribe has donated more than $243 million and lent poorer tribes more than $478 million since 1996.
In recent interviews, Crooks talked about the difference between being rich and wealthy -- the later being something that builds -- and his concern that younger tribal members are becoming undisciplined and spoiled because gambling has robbed their necessity or desire to work. With Internet gambling and state-run casinos starting to make inroads into tribal casino profits nationally, Crooks had been talking about becoming less reliant on gambling. His tribe has purchased more than 3,000 acres of land, and some of his last projects included adding a wind turbine and an organic grocery store to his reservation.
New vice chairman Keith Anderson hinted at the changes on the horizon, looking down at Crooks' casket and saying: "Keep an eye on us as our ancestors have. We need you more than ever."
Curt Brown • 612-673-4767