Fred Dakota, tribal leader and gambling pioneer in UP, dies

IN A JUNE 8, 2006, file photo, Fred Dakota looks at the garage in Zeba where he started the first tribal casino in 1983, earning him the nickname, “The father of Indian gaming.” Dakota died Sept. 13 at his home in Baraga at age 84. (Courtesy photo)

BARAGA — Fred Dakota, whose garage casino in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula in 1983 was a milestone for Native American gambling, has died at age 84.

Keweenaw Bay Indian Community tribal offices were closed Friday, the day of Dakota’s funeral, along with Keweenaw Bay Ojibwa Community College. Ojibwa Casino locations in Baraga and Marquette were closed for much of the afternoon as well.

Dakota, a former tribal president known as the “father of Indian gaming.” died unexpectedly at his home Sept. 13.

In a release, the KBIC described Dakota as a “true visionary” who helped guide the development and evolution of the KBIC. He served on the tribal council for 33 years between 1968 and 2016, 20 of those as chairman.

“It was an honor and a privilege to stand shoulder to shoulder with one of the greatest leaders in Indian Country,” Tribal President Warren “Chris” Swartz Jr. said in a statement. “Fred impacted not only KBIC, but many tribal communities with his leadership abilities. I, for one, am grateful for what he has done for me personally and professionally. I will miss his visits and his leadership qualities.”

FRED DAKOTA (AP Photo, file/George Gryzenia, June 1997)

The KBIC remembered Dakota for his willingness to take risks and his firm beliefs in tribal sovereignty.

“He made sure that KBIC was in the forefront from everything to treaty rights, to negotiations with other sovereigns, to self-governance,” the KBIC said in a statement.

The tribe remembered his mentorship as well as his service to the country in the U.S. Marine Corps. Baraga County veterans provided graveside military honors during his funeral Friday.

The billion-dollar Indian gaming industry can be traced back to the small casino Dakota opened on New Year’s Eve 1983 in a two-car garage in Zeba. It had a single blackjack table. A shot of whiskey was 70 cents; better stuff was 20 cents more.

“We gave the government vast tracts of land in Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota when we signed that treaty in 1854,” Dakota told The New York Times in 1984. “And what did we get in return? We got the government to agree not to kill us. Well, now it’s time we got something more. Gambling is going to make a lot of Indians rich.”

The garage casino led to construction of a larger casino, but decisions by federal courts shut it down. Dakota said he couldn’t afford more appeals.

But by 1987, the U.S. Supreme Court used a California case to ease restrictions on gambling on tribal land, a turning point for Native American casinos. It paved the way for the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988, which allowed tribes to negotiate compacts with states to open casinos.

“The other tribes had been watching me and they said, ‘We’re going to open up,'” he said in a 2006 Daily Mining Gazette interview. “The (government) tried to stop them, too, and that was the beginning.”


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