He started working construction right out of high school, specializing in masonry. He loves motorcycles so much that he built his own campground south of Deadwood, S.D., providing himself a spot to stay during the annual summertime biker rally in nearby Sturgis.

When that 600-mile commute to the Black Hills got tiring, Charlie Vig taught himself to fly and bought a Cessna.

"I love the freedom of flying and it's been an inspiration to me and our kids, showing that we can do anything we put our minds to," said Vig, 52.

He now soars into uncharted skies as the new chairman of Minnesota's richest and most influential Indian tribe.

A virtual unknown outside the cloaked inner workings of the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community, Vig moved up to the top spot after only eight months as vice chairman when six-term, 20-year leader Stanley Crooks died Aug. 25 from a lung illness.

"This just happened, so the pressure is just hitting me now," Vig conceded during a recent interview.

Vig steps up at a critical juncture, a time that experts warn might be the beginning of the end of the tribal casino boom era that made his tiny band of 480 members richer than they ever imagined, each earning $1 million a year. Plans to legalize Internet gambling and open state-run casinos are being floated across the country as budget-crunched lawmakers look for new revenue streams to ford.

Vig spoke about the changing landscape with Crooks before the chairman's death.

"Keeping our sovereignty and being self-sufficient were his goals in life," Vig said. "He didn't want us to be assimilated into the white man's world, saying we'd have to sustain ourselves if the gaming enterprise went away or our economic engine was taken away."

That's why the Shakopee tribe has bought up 3,000 acres of land, invested in wind energy and organic food, and become a major lending arm for tribes across the country in an attempt to diversify. If proceeds should fall, it could be difficult for the tribe, which has grown accustomed to its windfall. Before his death, Crooks joked that unemployment among his members stood higher than 90 percent -- entirely voluntary.

Tested before

It's not the first time Vig has had to step up. The youngest of eight kids, he was just 9 when his father died of cancer. When he started working nearly 20 years ago in the tribe's new gold mine, Mystic Lake casino, he was a project manager with three employees. Within three years, he was supervising more than 800 workers as a vice president on his way to seven terms on the tribe's board of gambling directors.

With more than 4,000 employees in and outside the gaming operations, Vig now takes over a tribe that is by far Scott County's largest employer with a payroll of $154 million. It is also a major philanthropic machine that forks out $28 million annually to charities and tribes from Montana to Wisconsin.

Vig is now firmly in the focus of all of Indian Country -- not to mention politicians from Prior Lake to St. Paul to Washington.

"It's a very difficult and challenging, if not daunting, task to follow in the footsteps of a leader like Stanley Crooks," said attorney Philip Baker-Shenk, who captains the tribe's legal team in Washington.

When Vig was elected in tribal elections in January, he succeeded vice chairman Glynn Crooks, who had spent 16 years as second fiddle to his cousin Stanley. Glynn Crooks often served as the public face for the family and tribe, dressing in Dakota regalia, including an eagle bonnet, as he did at the chairman's funeral last week.

Stanley spent 20 years as chairman, a spot originally held by his father, Norman Crooks, and later by his cousin and rival Leonard Prescott. Vig's accession is noteworthy because he isn't named Crooks, but the tribe's powerful family clearly blessed his promotion.

"The chairman had talked to me in the past and thought I'd be a good candidate," said Vig, who now holds the title he uses when he talks about Crooks. "He's been mentioning my stepping up for years."

While Crooks' death jolted Vig and his tribe, it didn't come as a complete shock.

"The chairman's health had been failing for a while, and this wasn't totally unexpected," Vig said. "One of the reasons I stepped up is because most of the people knew the chairman might not make it to his next term. They had the confidence in me to follow through."

Tribal rules dictate that the vice chairman becomes chairman if there's a death in office, so Vig should be chairman for at least three more years -- although little in tribal politics is ever a sure thing.

Similarities and differences

Ernie Stevens, an Oneida tribal leader from Wisconsin who has run the National Indian Gaming Association in Washington for more than a decade, said he expects a smooth transition between Crooks and Vig.

"The two are similar in terms of their devotion to their community and Indian Country, and that's probably not a coincidence," Stevens said. "Stanley has taught and mentored all of us. We're his warriors, and we'll do what's he's taught us on a local and national level."

For Vig, those lessons from Crooks are twofold: Continuing the tribe's unparalleled track record of giving while bracing for the days when the gambling windfalls are over.

Under Crooks' leadership, Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community donations grew from $3 million to $28 million a year and added up to $722 million in grants and loans to less prosperous tribes and other causes since 1996.

"Our biggest goal was, and will remain, giving back and helping other tribes," Vig said.

Vig said his beliefs mirror Crooks' -- "the only difference is the chairman was approximately 20 years ahead of me."

Their styles do differ.

"We have the same goals in our minds and our hearts, but, when the chairman had a vision, he made it happen," Vig said. "I probably do a little more due diligence and consensus building, while the chairman had a way of getting us to agree pretty easily. I'm not there yet, but it will come."

Out along Bear Butte Creek, 6 miles south of Deadwood, S.D., the Creekside Campground Vig owns includes 3.5 acres for RVs and tents, and the six cabins he built.

"Charlie is straight and upright and they're lucky to have him," said the campground's caretaker, Andy, who declined to give his last name because he likes "living off the grid." He's been Vig's friend and employee for more than 15 years.

"He's just a down-to-earth guy who doesn't judge and gets along with everybody," Andy said.

Baker-Shenk, the tribe's Washington lawyer, echoes the Deadwood caretaker's appraisal: "Charlie is a very creative, down-to-earth leader who inspires confidence and looks and seems very comfortable in his own element."

Curt Brown • 612-673-4767