Low – Casino Opening

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Even prior to 1994 and federal recognition we were approached by lobbying groups and other financiers that were interested in funding our efforts in getting federal recognition. The clear objective, I think, was that they were hoping they would have a leg up. Then if we did get federal recognition, we could participate in the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act and participate in gaming. We made no promises at that time with any of those funders. Nobody from the Pokagon Band committed to going with anybody just because they funded our efforts, but we certainly weren’t going to turn away the money. We needed the money to hire lobbyists. And how we got out of the Branch of Acknowledgement in the recognition process, which was going nowhere, was essentially by hiring lobbyists. And that’s how business is done in Washington D.C. I really saw that for the first time. You don’t just call up the congressman and go to his office and pitch a good plan and anything happens. Not in my experience, anyway. So we decided that we were going to go with these lobbyists. We had advice again from Sharon O’Brien and Don Fixico. We had elders, John Warren comes to mind, Tom Topash, Danny Rapp, Kevin Doherty, Clarence White, and many others that I’m not remembering that—Phil Alexis—that really helped—Joe Winchester, Judy Winchester—these folks that really, we all saw the writing on the wall that it was, that we should take advantage of this. And so we did.

And we, being on the economic development committee, I’d seen other opportunities that we could get, which made gaming a pretty easy choice to be attracted to, because the other choices were if we got federal recognition we could become the landfill for the City of Chicago, if we took land into trust, because land wouldn’t be regulated by the State of Michigan. And so there’d be no environmental controls. Well, you can understand why we wouldn’t be too enthused about doing that to Mother Earth. The other was to do, because we’re on that side of Michigan with a lot of sand and gravel, is we would have been open-pit gravel mining without any environmental controls. And so that also was of no interest to do that to Nokmeskignan, Mother Earth. Recognizing also that we’re in a rust belt, I don’t know if people think of southwest Michigan as a rust belt, but we lost factories that I grew up with—like Studebakers, like Clark Equipment, like Bendix Brake, like Whirlpool, the manufacturing site anyway, Garden City Fan, Tyler Refrigeration—all gone. And so people who had previously been making pretty good union wage labor were getting retrained to work at Taco Bell and so, you know, it was a difficult time. So when we had opportunity to, after our federal recognition to think in terms of gaming, for me it wasn’t a difficult choice.

But, what we wanted to do to make sure that the community was behind us was we presented this to the community in a community-wide meeting. And I remember that meeting, that gymnasium at a local school was packed. I’d never seen so many Pokagon Potawatomi people in my life in one place, and they voted on whether or not to go into gaming. And it’s the only time, we usually if you have three Potawatomi people you can’t get them to agree on anything. We had 100 percent vote for gaming, 100 percent. So, that was pretty profound.

And so we went about the business of picking a gaming partner, because we certainly did not have the money to go about the business of building a casino and running it. We didn’t know how to manage it. None of us had ever been trained to do that. So we picked a gaming partner then we went about the business of negotiating a compact, which is a contract, but it’s essentially a contract between sovereigns, it’s called a compact. And so we did a compact with the State of Michigan. We decided to go with State of Michigan first. And so we went ahead and we got that compact negotiated. And it was good favorable terms, favorable terms for the Tribe, favorable terms for the State.

So we went about the business of taking the land into trust. We met a lot of opposition from a group called TOMAC. Taxpayers of Michigan Against Casinos. And they dragged us through court. TOMAC didn’t want our casino to open in New Buffalo, Michigan. And we fought for ten years all the way up to the Court of Appeals in Washington D.C., right the step below the U.S. Supreme Court. And spent millions of dollars. The riverboat casinos in Indiana. They didn’t want the competition, which is odd because actually, as you know in Vegas, the more casinos, the more people come. Competition begets more business. But, for whatever reason, they spent a lot of money fighting us. Anyway, so we finally succeeded in our long, long lawsuit, and a couple of years ago were able to open up Four Winds Casino in New Buffalo. I remember seeing the building go up. I don’t get overwhelmed over too many things too much, I’m two years from being an elder, you know, so I like to think I’ve seen a lot, but there was something when we had a community meeting, the building was almost ready to be opened. And the pride the people took in that building, it was profound. It was that in and of itself, to see people walking around, proud to be Pokagon, proud that this was theirs, proud that this was their legacy, it was wonderful. It was one of the best moments of my life. And so, since then, the Pokagons have been doing well with Four Winds Casino.

My name is John Low and I’m an enrolled member of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indian Nation. I was born in Niles, Michigan, near the tribal headquarters in Dowagiac. And I grew up in that community, I [was] raised by my grandmother and my mother, who were Potawatomi. I am a lawyer. Graduated from University of Michigan Law School in 1981. I returned home at the request of my elders and also because of my own sense of responsibility and desire to return home and work in a small town practice and also work as a tribal attorney on behalf of the community and did so. And worked on the process along with many, many, many others who did more work than me on the federal recognition process, which was finally successful in 1994. Since 1994, I’m a co-author of our tribal constitution. Since 1994, I’ve served on tribal council, I’ve served on several committees for the tribe, including the Traditions and Repatriation Committee and the Economic Development Committee as a coauthor of the tribal constitution. I also subsequently took a leave of absence from practicing law and returned to school. First to get a second B.A. in American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota and then a Master’s Degree from the University of Chicago in the Social Sciences and now am completing a PhD in Cultural Studies at the University of Michigan in American culture. Currently, I’m employed as a visiting professor [in the American [Indian] Studies program] at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. I live in Chicago and visit often with my relatives and my friends and with my community in Michigan. While I was at the University of Michigan, I also earned a graduate certificate in Museum Studies, which worked well with my subjects that I’m studying for my dissertation, but it also led to employment. I became the Executive Director at the Mitchell Museum of the American Indian, which I served as that director for about almost two years, the Mitchell Museum being located in Evanston, Illinois, and had the opportunity to work with a lot of Native and non-Native people in both curatorial and exhibition and preservation issues.

Production credits:

Executive Producer, Loretta Fowler
Assistant Producer, Brian Mornar
Production by Mike Media Group

Photo credits:

U.S. Capitol – photo courtesy of Wikipedia
Tribal Leaders at Press Conference – photo courtesy of South Bend Tribune/Barbara Allison
Michigan Capitol – photo courtesy of Wikipedia
Buffington Harbor Casino, Gary IN – photo courtesy of Jade Cabagnot
Majestic Star Casino, Gary IN – photo courtesy of Jade Cabagnot
Couple with sign – photo courtesy of South Bend Tribune/Rebecca Belling
Steel beam – photo courtesy of South Bend Tribune/Shayna Breslin
Casino ceiling – photo courtesy of South Bend Tribune/Jim Rider
Elders signing beam – photo courtesy of South Bend Tribune/Shayna Breslin
Ribbon cutting – photo courtesy of South Bend Tribune/Jim Rider
Front of Four Winds casino – photo courtesy of South Bend Tribune

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