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Continued: Fond du Lac tribe’s leader stands firm in casino fight with Duluth

  • Article by: JENNA ROSS , Star Tribune
  • Last update: November 3, 2013 - 9:53 PM

“Being a young, single parent, being Indian — she had some odds against her, no doubt about that,” said Rick Smith, Diver’s classmate who now directs UMD’s American Indian Learning Resource Center. But she was determined to get her degree. “Nothing was going to stop her.”

Diver’s friends often call her determined. Tenacious. Resolute. But in a stage whisper, she admitted to being just plain “stubborn.” Then she laughed.

An early education

Diver speaks about the complex relationship between the band and Duluth with an expertise that shows she’s been immersed in it for decades.

Straight out of college, she became the sole staffer for the Fond-du-Luth Casino’s economic development commission, a half-band, half-city group that distributed part of the casino’s profits.

“Talk about being thrown in the deep end,” she said. “Half your bosses hate the other half, and they were all suing each other back then.”

The 1984 agreements that established the first urban tribal casino in the country “were my bible, the whole context of my work,” she said. In 1994, revised agreements outlined the city’s 19 percent share of gross revenues.

The city and the band interpret each document differently. The two sides even disagree on whether the band needed the city’s approval to build Fond-du-Luth, which has earned the tribe close to $200 million since 1994.

City: “That was groundbreaking at the time,” Ness said. “And it could have only happened with the enthusiastic support of the city of Duluth.”

Band: Duluth’s public support was nice, but not necessary, said Diver. “The best the city did was not object to us being there.”

In 2009, the tribe stopped paying the city its cut, which was then about $6 million a year and $75 million since 1994. The city sued.

While the dispute wound through federal court, the band asked the National Indian Gaming Commission to review the agreement. The agency found that it violated the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, which requires tribes to have “sole proprietary interest” for tribal casinos.

Earlier this year, an appeals court ruled for the Fond du Lac band — agreeing that it does not have to pay Duluth going forward. But last month, a judge ruled that the tribe owes the city at least $10.4 million in back payments.

Ness said that he knew Diver from her days running the YWCA of Duluth, attended her inauguration as chairwoman and “felt really good” about what they might accomplish together. Thus, what came next was “extremely disappointing and disheartening.”

This week’s arguments before the Minnesota Supreme Court involve Fond du Lac’s effort to put property it purchased next to the downtown Duluth casino into trust, making it reservation land exempt from local property taxes.

A question of legacy

A flat-screen in the elegant, wood-clad lobby of the reservation’s Tribal Center rotates faded photos of past Fond du Lac chairmen and tribal councils. Soon, some history will accompany their mugs.

Diver knows that when she’s “just some former elected leader,” people will mention the Fond-du-Luth dispute. But she hopes that isn’t her only legacy.

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