- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 27, 2001

DENVER Throughout its 12-year history, the American Indian College Fund has depended on the kindness of strangers to keep its scholarship program alive, collecting donations from corporations and individuals but not from the Indian tribes.
The reason was obvious: With poverty ranking as the foremost social ill among most Indian nations, dedicating money to anything beyond basic tribal necessities was virtually impossible.
But those days may be drawing to an end. Last week, the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community in Prior Lake, Minn., donated $900,000 to the college fund, marking the first tribal donation in the fund's history.
"This gift is very significant in Indian history, because it marks the first time a tribe has committed to supporting scholarships for American Indian students across the country," said Richard Williams, the Denver-based fund's executive director. "We deeply appreciate the care and generosity of the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux to support education for all Indian people."
At the same time, the fund announced that it will now offer scholarships to Indian students attending any college, ending its practice of giving grants only to students who attend the nation's two dozen tribal colleges.
What makes the gift even more historic is the Shakopee community's history. Two decades ago, the tribe had been virtually "driven to extinction," said Mr. Williams, beset by soaring unemployment, chronic poverty and a dwindling membership.
Then the Shakopee did what many have done to save itself: open a casino. The Mystic Lake Casino and Hotel has since become a cash cow for the tribe and the state, reducing the public-assistance roles by giving jobs to previously unemployed Indians, boosting the rural economy and fattening the tribe's coffers.
Critics argue that the casino has contributed to addictions, including gambling and alcoholism, and made the community more inviting to crime. The tribe lost a squabble with the Internal Revenue Service earlier this month and was ordered by the U.S. Supreme Court to pay $174,000 in back taxes.
But its supporters contend that the benefits of the tribe's entry into gaming have far outweighed the costs. Over the past three years, the Shakopee community has contributed more than $12 million to other Indian tribes and to nonprofit organizations.
"This has turned the tribe around completely," said Mr. Williams. "If you had been here 25 years ago, you would have seen a whole different picture. All of America should be happy because, in a way, it's the American dream come true."
The college fund is using the Shakopee gift, to be given over three years, as the basis for a matching-fund challenge aimed at other gaming tribes. The fund hopes to raise $10 million for an endowed fund for "the best and brightest [Indian] students."
Extending the scholarships to students at all universities may weaken the struggling tribal-college system, but the fund's directors say it will ultimately strengthen the tribes. Before qualifying for a scholarship, students must state how they intend to use their education to help their people.
"If a student transfers to Harvard, we want them to come home, so one of the criteria will be to look at what they're going to do to help us rebuild," said Mr. Williams. "We're going to expect them to give back, to return and help their communities. We need those resources, whether they're teachers, lawyers or doctors."
The Shakopee gift will also help the tribal colleges. Thirty percent has been designated for students at tribal colleges, 30 percent for those at mainstream universities and 30 percent for students who receive their associate's degrees at tribal colleges but want to complete their education at nontribal universities.
The remaining 10 percent has been reserved for students pursuing graduate degrees. The tribal colleges offer only two-year degrees.

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