Chip Wadena, longtime head of White Earth band, dies at 75

  • Article by: PAT DOYLE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 24, 2014 - 10:04 PM

Family said the longtime head of White Earth band died after a long illness.

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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.

Casino conflict

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.

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  • Darrell (Chip) Wadena in an April 27, 2004 file photo.

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