Fred Dakota Founded Native American Casinos—In A U.P. Garage

Classic read, from the archive of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine. With his unemployment about to run out and five kids to feed, Fred Dakota had to make something happen. Hmm … He knew where to get a casino license … and his brother-in-law had a two-car garage … As tribes celebrate the 25th year of casino gaming in Michigan, we share the story of how a tenacious Michigan man who never made it past the eighth grade landed the first full-scale Native American casino license in America and helped create an industry that reshaped Indian Country.

When Fred Dakota thinks back on his garage casino, and how it helped propel Native American gaming to the nearly $30 billion a year industry it is today, he thinks back to a moment during a tribal council meeting of the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community that happened some time about 1980. The council was meeting to write rules for high-stakes bingo because the tribe, based in Baraga, a tiny Upper Peninsula village on the shores of Keweenaw Bay, needed money to finish a housing construction project that had run out of federal grants.

The meeting was important, so most, if not all, of the dozen council members were there in the tribal headquarters, a rambling, old brick building that had been a Catholic orphanage for Indians. On this particular night of talking bingo rules, elder Helene Walsh said in a casual way, why don’t we add casino gambling into the code too?

At the time, tribal members probably did not have a complete understanding of the implications of their decision to act on Walsh’s suggestion, but they went ahead and added rules that would regulate casino gaming on their reservation and in spring of 1981 submitted the document to the Bureau of Indian Affairs office in Sault Ste. Marie.

“Back then, we used to joke that when something landed in a BIA in-box, it stayed in the in-box,” says Dakota, who wasadministrator of the tribe at the time. To avoid BIA delays, the tribe had included in its constitution a provision that said if the BIA doesn’t act upon something within two weeks, the request was automatically approved.

“So that’s what happened, no hearings, nothing. It got approved because there was zero action,” Dakota says.

One could argue that inaction on the casino rules proved to be one of the great non-acts of modern American Indian history. At the time, the tribe was not allowed to advertise bingo on television, so tribal members printed up flyers and pinned them on grocery store bulletin boards and elsewhere in towns within about a 30-mile radius of Baraga.

“The day we were going to have our very first bingo game, the state bingo commissioner and the lieutenant from the state police post knocked on my door at the tribal office,” Dakota says. Their message: the tribe’s bingo plan was against the law.

Article Comments

  • Della Jestila

    Wonderful Fred I remember it all and you are a most intelligent individual with foresight and commitment… Best to you