"Our people are hurting": Challenges on Menominee Reservation explain tribe's push for Kenosha casinoSubmitted: 07/21/2014
Ben Meyer
Ben Meyer
Managing Editor / Senior Reporter

KESHENA - Most things on the Menominee Indian Reservation seem to have a waiting list.

The tribal daycare center?

Waiting list.

"We could help more parents if we had the staffing ability," says Department of Early Childhood Services Director Penny Escalante. "Right now, we don't have that staffing ability, so we have 90 people on the waiting list."

The tribal clinic?

Too much waiting, not enough care.

"It would sure be nice to have more resources to work with," says Jerry Waukau, the Tribal Health Administrator.

"We just are one of the poorest of the poor," Laurie Boivin puts it bluntly.

She's the Menominee Tribal Chairwoman.

"We are the oldest indigenous tribe to what is now the state of Wisconsin," Boivin says proudly.

The tribe has been in what's now Wisconsin for around 12,000 years.

But the Menominee have struggled since Congress took action to "terminate", or end the special relationship with, the tribe in 1954.

They got federal recognition back 19 years later, but it has never been the same.

"We have people that we turn away every day that we simply don't have enough money to service," Boivin regrets.

Menominee County has the highest poverty in the state, the worst health, and nearly the worst unemployment.

The tribe's reservation makes up the entire county.

If the tribe simply had a way to make more money, members say, it could alleviate those problems and give members a more stable life.

"We need help. This type of money coming in will help in those ways and a myriad of other ways," says Gary Besaw.

Besaw's talking about the huge amount of revenue the tribe could get from a proposed off-reservation casino in Kenosha.

"With Kenosha, we see this as a godsend as far as employment, jobs, and the boost to the economy," says Besaw, the Menominee Kenosha Gaming Authority Chairman.

The decision of whether that casino will be allowed rests with one person - the Governor.

Governor Walker asked for, and got, an extension until February 19, 2015, to make that decision.

The Forest County Potawatomi strongly oppose the plan.

As part of their opposition, they fear it could hurt the success of their Milwaukee hotel and casino.

But the Menominee feel their concerns are just as pressing.

"We have 145-family waiting list, which doesn't move a whole lot," says Shane Dixon Sr., the Tribal Housing Acting Director.

That waiting list theme is true for housing, too.

"People need immediate housing, and we just don't have it. (We're forced to tell them), we're sorry, we can't help you at this minute," Dixon says.

More money could also help the Menominee improve their worst-in-the-state health ranking.

"We can't give you all of the stuff you want," Waukau says of the care his clinic can give. "We'll give you life-threatening stuff, we'll give you maybe some testing, but it's not everything."

The majority of money for tribal programs now comes from the tribe's small-to-medium-size casino on their reservation in Keshena.

"We don't generate enough income, because we're a rural casino, to meet the tribal needs," says Jim Reiter, the General Manager of the Menominee Casino Resort.

The Menominee are in a tough spot.

It's a tough spot leaders at places like the daycare center, tribal housing, and the clinic think Kenosha casino money could help solve.

"Yes, at the end of the day, it comes down to funding," Boivin says.

"We need the casino," Besaw adds.

"Our people are hurting here," Waukau says. "I think our job as leaders is to take away the hurt."

The Menominee people hope the Governor will side with them.

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