Tribe accused of purging dissent for casino dollars

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The casino trade has been good to the Saginaw Chippewa tribe, turning its once struggling reservation in central Michigan into a billion-dollar business venture.

However, it has also sparked a bitter fight between the tribal leadership and a hard core of dissidents, who say they are being thrown out of the tribe for political reasons and cut out of the financial windfall that could have provided for them and their offspring in perpetuity.

Greed, corruption, personal vendetta – these are the terms being used as the 2,700-odd residents of the Isabella reservation rip each other to shreds in public.

The dispute has come to a head in the past few days as the Detroit News has published a scathing series of articles accusing the Saginaw Chippewa leadership of purging 10 per cent of its membership.

In theory, the expulsions have been prompted by a renewed examination of much-contested tribal rolls to see who is a legitimate Chippewa and who is not.

The newspaper said the criteria for expulsion were being decided almost exclusively by the tribal chief, Phil Peters, and three fellow-members of an executive leadership committee.

According to the reports, the fruit of two months' investigation into tribal affairs, claims of legitimate membership were being ignored in favour of political and personal considerations.

One self-proclaimed dissident, Don Otto, told the paper about his impending expulsion hearing before the committee: "I don't expect a fair hearing because there hasn't been a fair hearing yet. They are not after the truth; they're just trying to get rid of us so that they can have more money for themselves. It's that simple."

The Detroit News said that of the first 20 letters sent out threatening expulsion, five were received by known dissidents who have either criticised the leadership in public or announced plans to run against them in elections in November. Mr Otto, for one, has documentation proving his Chippewa lineage going back to the middle of the 19th century, the paper claimed.

At the same time, the newspaper questioned whether Mr Peters was a true Chippewa, pointing out that it took him six years to gain admission when he first applied in the 1980s.

Yesterday, tribal spokesman Frank Coultier dismissed the newspaper reports as a partisan attack relying on the opinions of tribal members with known grudges against the leadership. "These people have gone to the media because they understand their argument is weak at best," he said.

Mr Coultier pointed out that a clean-up of the membership rolls was long overdue. And he defended the tribe's right to conduct its affairs as it saw fit.

Whoever is right, the dispute highlights the passions ignited by the arrival of sudden wealth on reservations that have languished in poverty for generations. The Chippewas now give each adult member $52,000 (£37,000) a year and each child $13,000, as well as free health care and other benefits. The average net worth of tribal members is now 10 times the national average.