For 10 years, Scott County Commissioner Barbara Marschall has considered throwing away a file sitting on her bookshelf.
It’s full of information about the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community and its ongoing mission to buy land and put it into trust, a federal protection that allows the tribe to keep it forever, tax-free.
It’s a topic that led to a contentious debate a decade ago between the tribe, Scott County and Shakopee and Prior Lake. And now, it’s come up again.
The tribe is pursuing trust status for more land. Marschall, armed with her file, has come out in opposition, echoing community concerns about a diminished tax base and rapid expansion of the tribe’s land holdings. It’s one example of a conflict that’s popped up nationwide, at times pitting tribal interests against local communities.
South suburban city and county officials are skittish about pushing back against the tribe’s request, worried that refusing support could hurt a good relationship. The tribe has poured millions of dollars into Scott County, Prior Lake and Shakopee, covering expenses for a range of services and projects.
“When you start getting out in these agreements, which are pretty significant, the cost of failure can be, in part, the relationship,” Prior Lake City Manager Frank Boyles said. “And that’s worrisome.”
Meanwhile, tribal leaders say the land is simply needed to house the growing community. It expects about 100 new lots will be needed to meet resident demand over the next five years.
“Following our Dakota cultural value of planning seven generations ahead, it is important for us to be able to provide land for our members so that we can keep the community together for generations to come,” the tribe said in a statement.
Local leaders are anxious for a resolution and aware that this isn’t the last time they’ll confront the issue.
“The tribe has publicly stated that their intent is to keep buying land and to keep putting it into trust,” Marschall said. “This is not … a one-time situation. It will keep coming before us.”
Federal trust status has long been a way for tribes to reclaim land, although its use has picked up in recent decades.
“Gaming has allowed more tribes to have the resources in order to reacquire land, and so it’s accelerated a bit over the last 25 years,” said Cris Stainbrook, president of the Indian Land Tenure Foundation.
The Shakopee tribe, which opened its first gambling operation in 1982, is considered to be among the nation’s wealthiest. It currently owns nearly 4,000 acres, about half of which are in trust.
For more than 20 years, the tribe has paid Prior Lake $400,000 annually for services including a police officer position. Similarly, Scott County has collected $280,000 annually since 1997 and Shakopee has gotten $90,000 annually since 2013.
“You have this huge economic engine sitting there,” Stainbrook said. “It’s benefiting the community in huge leaps and bounds.”
In Prior Lake, the land the tribe wants to put into trust includes a 95-acre parcel along Stemmer Ridge Road where the city has already made plans for a utilities and road project. The tribe has offered to help pay for the project’s building and maintenance in exchange for support of the trust application.
The negotiation comes as the tribe pursues putting another 93 acres, including the site of a local YMCA camp, into trust with the intent of using it for cultural purposes.
At a Jan. 26 meeting, Prior Lake City Council members expressed their support for the tribe’s proposed use of the YMCA land, but said they’re concerned — as with the Stemmer Ridge Road area — about the long-term effect of land going into trust.
“If we blind ourselves to the overall impact,” Council Member Richard Keeney said, “I think we’re doing a disservice to our residents.”
Not everyone agrees. Jack Haugen, Prior Lake’s mayor during the 2005 land trust debate, recently said he supports the proposed agreement.
“It’s not the council’s decision to make anyway; it’s up to the Bureau of Indian Affairs,” he wrote in a Jan. 22 editorial in Prior Lake’s community newspaper. “Opposition will have no meaningful value to the community.”
Stainbrook said tribes nationwide often face opposition when attempting to put land into trust status.
“It’s usually a shift in the power dynamics of the community,” he said. “And that scares the community more than anything else, I think.”
Major financial assistance
The tribe’s offer to pay for Prior Lake’s utilities project is the latest in a long line of such offers.
In the past, the tribe has paid for county road reconstructions, stoplights, turn lanes, trail improvements, warning sirens, baseball field lights, an ice rink — the list goes on.
The wealth is relatively new. The tribe was federally recognized in 1969 and opened the Little Six Bingo Palace 13 years later. Mystic Lake Casino opened in 1992 and today, the tribe is Scott County’s largest employer.
With that wealth has come a rush of donations. Since 2010, the tribe has given more than $2 million to Scott County organizations alone.
In a report to the Prior Lake City Council, city staff warned that opposing the tribe’s trust application could put future contributions to the city in jeopardy.
“None of us want that,” Boyles said. “It makes it harder all the way around.”