The comment seems ironic. Although Leaford Bearskin was born a Wyandotte Indian, he spent much of his life away from Indian country, surrounded by whites. Bearskin's achievements in the armed forces reveal a life of happy assimilation. If anything, triumph in the Pacific Theater might more readily suggest the patronage of the Judeo-Christian God -- or the supremacy of American military might -- than protection from the Great Spirit.
But flying bombers during the war was just one of Bearskin's many lives. Now, at 81 the chief of the Wyandotte tribe of Oklahoma, he's on what's probably his last life. Having helped save the world as a young man, he's on one final mission to save his tribe.
He's using everything he learned from decades in the military -- leadership, management, vision and backbone. Yet he's alienated his cousins, the Wyandot Nation of Kansas, and he's dragged thousands of people in Wyandotte County who'd harbored no ill will against his tribe into a paralyzing legal battle.
Bearskin has tried to drop a casino right in the middle of downtown Kansas City, Kansas, next to an old cemetery that belongs to his tribe. And he's audaciously sued Wyandotte County's Unified Government, along with major companies operating in the Fairfax District (such as International Paper and General Motors) and 1,000 homeowners, for 1,900 acres of land.
To his tribe, he is a revered figure who has turned around his people's fortunes and is poised to deliver an unprecedented surge of prosperity. To tribes in northeastern Kansas, he is an interloper with a tenuous historic claim, a man of great ego who's most interested in his own legacy.
It was such a simple idea. Build a casino and use the profits to improve the welfare of the more than 4,000 Wyandottes across the country. By tribal estimates, a casino would draw about $100 million a year.The only problem was, the tribe members wanted to build where they didn't live.
Inside the tribal offices in Wyandotte, Oklahoma, a map of the United States shows the migration of some of the most-traveled Indians in North America.
According to a tribal history, the Wyandots, as they were then known, originated around Quebec. In 1535, conflict with the Senecas pushed them south to Niagra Falls, then around the western curve of Lake Ontario to the present site of Toronto. The Wyandots later moved north to the small isthmus between Lake Simcoe and the Georgian Bay, a large body of water to the east of Lake Huron. This was Huron country, and the tribe became a part of the Huron Confederacy.
A century later, in 1649, the Hurons were defeated in a war with the Iroquois Confederacy, and the Iroquois hounded the losers, including the Wyandots, to tiny Mackinac Island, between the upper and lower peninsulas of Michigan. The relentless Iroquois chased the tribe to Wisconsin, then to Illinois, where the tribe met another strong opponent, the Sioux, near the Mississippi. The Wyandots turned north to the Apostle Islands, off the northern coast of Wisconsin. In 1671, the Sioux chased the Wyandots back to Mackinac Island.
Caught between the Iroquois on the east and the Sioux on the west, the Wyandots moved south, and by the 1740s they had settled in Ohio. But by the close of the eighteenth century, the Wyandots had signed the first of nineteen treaties with the United States, gradually giving up their land in Ohio for white settlement. Though they had assimilated easily and many had become Methodists, by the 1830s the U.S. government had pressured the indigenous tribes to move farther west to unsettled areas. In 1839, the tribe sent two expeditions to what is now eastern Kansas to scout for a new home.
In 1842, the tribe signed another treaty, giving up all its land in Ohio and Michigan in exchange for 148,000 acres west of the Mississippi, an annuity of $17,500 and relocation costs and money to start a school. The tribe moved out, traveling to Cincinnati and then boarding two steamboats for Kansas City. The Wyandots were the last tribe to leave Ohio.
They arrived in what is now Kansas City, Kansas, in July 1843. Court records show that the government failed to provide the land it had promised, then offered land that the tribe rejected because it was too far from civilization. Because the Wyandots had once given the Delaware tribe a place to stay in Ohio when that tribe had been displaced from the East Coast, the Delaware returned the favor in Kansas, selling 36 parcels to the Wyandots. They built homes in the lowlands near the junction of the Missouri and Kansas Rivers and within the year had established a Methodist church.
For today's residents of Kansas City, Kansas -- more than 1,000 homeowners and the employees of the companies being sued; city residents who might find jobs or win money at a casino; even nongamblers whose sidewalks might be fixed with the county's portion of gaming revenues -- the future depends on the legal interpretation of a treaty signed by the Wyandots and the United States in January 1855.
The tribe gave up the land it had purchased from the Delaware, except for a few pieces that would be held in trust by the federal government. In exchange, the Wyandots became U.S. citizens. The tribe was dissolved, and its land was sold at auction, with the proceeds going to the now-former members of the tribe.
Part of the land that remained in the trust was the Huron Indian Cemetery in downtown Kansas City, Kansas. Wyandots were buried there, along with Union soldiers, and the plot was set aside permanently for use as a "public burying ground."
But many members of the tribe had difficulty adjusting to their new way of life, and in 1857 Wyandot Chief Matthew Mudeater led a group of 200 disillusioned Wyandots to Oklahoma, where, two years later, the Seneca gave them 20,000 acres. The Wyandots who moved to Oklahoma became the Wyandotte tribe of Oklahoma in 1937.
And the Wyandottes and the Wyandots started battling over the cemetery.
Leaford Bearskin grew up just outside the reservation in Wyandotte, Oklahoma, a small town about 30 miles southwest of Joplin, Missouri. Today it's a one-street town, four or five blocks long, its biggest building the local high school.
Bearskin's parents were both farmers. His father was Wyandotte, his mother German Irish. He went to pow wows growing up, and he remembers his father telling old tales and passing on a few words of the native language.
But his father died when Bearskin was only seven, and Bearskin lost his main connection to his native heritage. Bearskin never rejected his Indian identity, but he tells the Pitch he didn't think much about it, either.
What he wanted to do was fly. Ever since he was a boy, hunting rabbits and squirrels with a single-shot .22, he had watched planes zoom overhead. After finishing high school in 1939, he enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps and trained at its base in Riverside, California. He finished flight school in 1943 and was sent to Tucson, Arizona, where he hoped to fly the Air Force's premier fighter, the P-38 Lightning, a twin-tailed aircraft known as the fork-tailed devil.
"[It was] the hottest plane in the air," Bearskin remembers. "I wanted to fly it so bad I could taste it." But there were nothing but big bombers in Tucson, and after an unsuccessful appeal to the base commander for a transfer, Bearskin accepted his fate and began training to deliver the big plane's payload.
When he finished, his superiors asked him to stay on as an instructor, but he says the warpath called. Bearskin jokes about the decision. "The damn Zeros were firing real bullets. I could have been back in Arizona, chasing pretty girls around the pool."
Instead, Bearskin distinguished himself during the war, trained other heavy-bomber crews and helped with airlifts during the 1948 blockade of Berlin. He retired from the Air Force in 1960 as a lieutenant colonel, then began a second career in the civil service at Vandenburg Air Force Base in California, testing missile-handling equipment.
Bearskin says he's never suffered discrimination. "Not personally," he says. "Not against me, Bearskin." As an Indian, being the odd man out in mainstream America provided as much pleasure as it did discomfort. "I knew I was in the limelight. I wanted to do everything better than anyone else."
In 1979 Bearskin retired for the second time and left California, ready to enjoy the slower pace of his native Oklahoma with his second wife, an Irishwoman named Barbara.
With only one two-lane road passing through town, Wyandotte is a peaceful piece of country, set among low green hills, the grass loud with insects' summer buzzing. But in such an environment, it was hard for Bearskin to sit still. He played a little guitar, searched for buried coins with a metal detector and sometimes took a boat on the swampy Grand Lake of the Cherokees.
But he was troubled by what he saw at the Wyandottes' nearby reservation. Over many decades, the tribe's holdings in Oklahoma had shriveled from 22,000 acres to a mere 287. The reservation is not a place where Wyandottes live. Instead, it looks like a strip mall, filled with neat one-story brown wood office buildings, beside a community cemetery.
Bearskin's tribe was poorly organized. The Wyandottes had no jobs. An administration building put up in the '70s was empty. He concluded that the two federal agencies charged with overseeing Indian welfare, Indian Health Services and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, were doing a poor job.
Bearskin puttered around his house for a few years, retired and bored, before he decided he could do better.
The tribe elected him chief in 1983.
Under Bearskin's leadership, the tribe revised its constitution for the first time since 1937. It pressed for and received a $5.5 million payment from the United States for land the government took.
The tribe took over five small technical colleges that had been facing bankruptcy, including one in Kansas City, Kansas, and transformed them into the Wyandotte Collegiate Systems. At these schools, about 430 tribe members learn skills such as court reporting and medical recordkeeping. A company owned by the Wyandottes also received an unprecedented $100 million contract from the Department of Interior to supply office and communications equipment. (The tribe serves as a middleman, locating firms that stock what the department needs and taking a small percentage of proceeds from the sales.)
The formerly unused administration building began living up to its purpose, becoming the tribal headquarters. In 1983, the tribe employed five people; now it provides jobs for 92. Over the years, the tribe has erected new buildings, including an award-winning preschool, a community library with more than 10,000 books and a cafeteria for senior citizens. In the many offices are plaques dedicated to Bearskin and the tribe, photographs of Little League teams and an actual bearskin pinned to the wall.
Across the street from the tribal offices, on top of a hill, stands a new wellness center that the Wyandottes built with the nearby Shawnee tribe. The building has a medical lab, X-ray machines and exam rooms as well as a running track and fully loaded rooms for aerobics and weight training. A painting of an impossibly ripped bear flexing its muscles graces one wall of the weight room, which is called "The Bears' Den."
Bearskin's name is everywhere. It's on the Bearskin Health and Education Center. It's on the Bearskin Health and Wellness Center. It's embedded in a stone podium in front of the tribal offices. The local high-school team is the Bears -- though Bearskin says that's just a coincidence.
These days, Bearskin wears a hearing aid, black-and-gray glasses, slacks and black sneakers. With his white hair like neat, smooth strands of silk, he still looks good. Mistaken for being 79, Bearskin admits he's a hearty 81 -- though now that he's into his eighties, he says, his sex life has slowed to only "two or three times a week."
"You say his name is on a lot of things," says Ellis Enyart, who oversees the tribe's stalled gaming operations in Kansas City, Kansas. "That's right. He's done a lot for the community."
"That's what might be pushing [Bearskin's casino effort] -- the legacy thing," says Holly Zane, a member of and lawyer for the Wyandot Nation of Kansas, which descends from the same ancestors as Bearskin's tribe. "He's incredibly driven to improvement of his tribe and leaving a legacy. If they're able to get a major economic development package, they won't be in the same indigent state they were when he took over. He's an extremely proud person.
"Out of the 4,332 Wyandottes nationwide, 400 live in and around the town of Wyandotte, Oklahoma. An additional 800 are scattered across that state; the rest are dispersed nationwide. Annual money that comes in from the Bureau of Indian Affairs can provide only for the 400 Wyandottes who live near the reservation.
Bearskin wants to take care of all of the Wyandottes across the country. In the late '80s, he tried to open a bingo hall in downtown Kansas City, Kansas, but was unable to get city approval. At the time, Indian gaming in Kansas City, Kansas, "was all new," says Hal Walker, the Unified Government's attorney. "Nobody knew what the hell it was all about, and they turned it down."
In 1994, Bearskin decided to pursue opening a casino. Since the 1980s, the federal government has pushed casinos as the major economic development tool for Native American tribes, and with federal funding for tribes decreasing every year since the Carter administration, many tribes have had no choice but to get on board, says Russel Barsh, a law professor at New York University who follows Indian gaming. Figures from the National Indian Gaming Commission in Washington, D.C., show that roughly 320 Indian gaming operations generated $12.7 billion last year. (Two-thirds of that income was generated by just 39 casinos, however.)
Bearskin had no experience in this area, but a friend put him in touch with a Florida businessman named Alan Ginsburg, who came to visit Bearskin in Oklahoma. The two struck up a partnership. Ginsburg would finance a casino project for the Wyandottes in exchange for 30 percent of the casino's revenue.
Ginsburg is a real estate developer who's built thousands of units of affordable housing throughout Florida. He did not return phone calls from the Pitch seeking comment for this story, but according to Florida newspaper articles, Ginsburg's other casino interests include at least one with the Seminole Tribe in Coconut Creek, Florida, near Ft. Lauderdale.
The Seminoles have been under federal investigation for corruption. They've also been fined more than $6 million in two separate instances for failing to gain regulatory approval from the National Indian Gaming Commission before opening other casinos in Florida. Ginsburg is the "general partner" in a deal with the Seminoles, leasing the Coconut Creek gambling hall to the tribe at an estimated $18 million a year, according to the St. Petersburg Times.
Coconut Creek's city manager, John Kelly, says that Ginsburg was the man who made the deal between the tribe and the casino possible and describes him as "squeaky clean."
Whether the casino is legal is a matter of dispute. Florida does not permit tribal-state compacts, which may mean that casinos such as Coconut Creek's are illegal. The Florida Attorney General's office has filed suit against the tribe, but the case remains tied up in court over several technicalities. Kelly, whose town of 46,000 enjoys $1 million in annual revenues from the casino, says the city is content to let the courts decide.
It's Ginsburg's deep pockets that have given Bearskin the leverage to press forward in court. His firm, North American Sports Management, has promised to bankroll the Wyandottes' litigation through to completion.
The tribe has always wanted to develop a casino at the Woodlands racetrack. In the mid-'90s the Wyandottes tried to buy the Woodlands after it went into bankruptcy, but that effort failed. Despite the setback, in March 1998 Wyandotte County's Unified Government signed a memorandum of understanding with Bearskin's tribe, with both parties agreeing that developing a casino in the county was a good idea. The tribe promised to pay the government 5.9 percent of gross revenues.
But even as they were hoping some land near the Woodlands would become available, Bearskin and Ginsburg turned their attention to the Huron Indian Cemetery downtown, which had been held in trust for the tribe for 150 years. In 1996, the Wyandottes purchased the Masonic Temple, a historic building next door to the cemetery.
For a tribe that wanted to build a casino at the Woodlands, the Wyandottes went out of their way to pursue projects elsewhere.
The U.S. government has specific rules about how tribes can acquire land for gaming. If they bought land before 1988, the Bureau of Indian Affairs can hold it in trust for gaming purposes. But if a tribe purchased land after 1988, the BIA can take it into trust only if a state's governor approves the transaction, if the land is next to a reservation the tribe already owns or if the purchase money came from settlement claims with the federal government.
The Wyandotte tribe contended that because the Huron cemetery was its land -- was a reservation -- the BIA could take the land next door into trust. The BIA agreed and did so.
The Huron Cemetery rests on a man-made hill in the center of downtown Kansas City, Kansas, next door to the city's library and adjacent to a small city park. From the library side, a wooden flight of steps rises up into the heart of the tranquil but littered cemetery. It's walled in from the west by several small buildings.
The Masonic Temple would make a terrible casino -- it's not very big inside, and parking in downtown Kansas City, Kansas, would be a significant headache. More problematic for Bearskin was that he didn't have the city's support. But he wanted to get some kind of casino up and running, and he thought the threat of opening a casino where no one wanted one would increase his chances for a casino in western Wyandotte County.
What Bearskin didn't count on was a long legal fight over whether he had the right to open a temporary casino. First, three other northeastern Kansas tribes filed a motion for a temporary restraining order: the Sac and Fox (which has a casino in Powhattan, west of Horton), the Iowa (which has a casino in White Cloud, at the northeastern tip of Kansas) and the Potowatomi, whose Harrah's Prairie Band Casino is just 15 miles north of Topeka.
"The other tribes don't want him at all," Zane says.
The tribes found an ally in Governor Bill Graves, who refused to support any out-of-state tribes wanting to build a casino in Kansas.
"We have four tribes who reside here," says Natalie Haag, Graves' chief of staff. "The purpose of the Indian Gaming Act was to provide economic opportunities for the members of a tribe. We're trying to protect those tribes." She says the state opposes the Wyandotte's earning revenue in Kansas, then taking it out of state. She adds that any of more than a dozen other tribes with a historical connection to Kansas could make a claim similar to Bearskin's if he succeeds.
Although the federal court in Topeka granted the restraining order, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver swiftly overruled the Topeka court.
The decision boiled down to this: Whining about the adverse effects of competition doesn't impress a judge. "Our economy is based on competition. Those are weak arguments," says Mario Gonzalez, who served as attorney for the Kickapoo tribe in Horton, Kansas.
The Kickapoo took part in a second, more successful lawsuit against Bearskin's tribe, in which it was joined by the Wyandot tribe. Instead of opposing Bearskin on the grounds of competition, they claimed that placing a casino next to sacred land such as the cemetery would desecrate the site. Though the Kickapoo had no historical connection to the cemetery -- and also ran a casino that would have to compete with Bearskin's -- the tribe hoped the desecration argument would be more convincing.
But the Kansas Wyandots had been burying their dead at the cemetery for 150 years. They say their cousins in Oklahoma have had designs on the cemetery for years. "If you understand the history, the local Wyandot Nation of Kansas has always felt strongly about protecting the cemetery," Gonzalez says. "On the other hand, the Oklahoma tribe doesn't have the closeness. Most of their deceased relatives were buried in Oklahoma. On numerous occasions, they have attempted to sell the cemetery."
The Kansas Wyandots number less than 600 nationwide, but with several hundred members living in the Kansas City area, the tribe is collegial and close-knit. The members don't own a reservation, a common tribal office or a cultural center, so the cemetery has become the heart of their community. Several times a year, the tribe gathers there for religious ceremonies, where its members educate the young as well as clean up the beer bottles, condoms and other debris that litter the place.
Bearskin first started rumbling about the cemetery in 1994 and put the Wyandots on alert by putting his foot in his mouth. Holly Zane had led a delegation of Kansas Wyandots to see Bearskin and to express the Wyandots' hope that he would leave the cemetery alone. Bearskin instead promised he would do whatever it took to build a casino on the site, even if it meant putting one on stilts over the cemetery itself.
"His tone was booming," Zane says. "He's a very strong presence." Zane recalls her sister asking if Bearskin would put bingo lines on the glass floor -- perhaps lining up over the graves. He returned a steely look, she recalls, and the Kansas Wyandots ended up walking out.
"We never intended to build a casino over the cemetery," Bearskin now says about what would have been not only a logistical and engineering nightmare but also a political one.
But everyone took him at his word. "He said if the cemetery came between his casino, he'd take a shovel and dig up the bodies himself," says Zane, who adds that the Kansas Wyandots didn't even want a casino next to the cemetery.
Gonzalez carefully points out that Bearskin is highly respected in Oklahoma, that he has an admirable military background and is a "very nice person." Still, Gonzalez can't help characterizing Bearskin as an insensitive despoiler of Wyandot heritage. "I don't know what would motivate him to put a casino above a cemetery. If it's a holy site, you have to keep it holy. That's repugnant to almost every tribe across the country."
"We're just as interested in our past as most tribes in the United States," Bearskin counters.
Bearskin eventually reached a settlement with his Kansas cousins, promising that the Wyandottes would never build anything on top of the cemetery. Further, if Bearskin ever developed a casino anywhere else, his tribe would donate $250,000 to turn the Masonic Temple into an Indian center.
Having secured protection for the cemetery, the Kansas Wyandots dropped out of the suit and refused to take a stand on whether Bearskin should be allowed to open a casino somewhere else in the county. "I'm not a real particular proponent of gaming," Zane says. "I think it appeals to the worst part of society. With respect to the other tribes, they're on their own on this issue. We're just not supporting gaming."
Though the Wyandot tribe was no longer participating, the other three tribes joined the second suit. The main question dominating the litigation was whether the Huron Indian Cemetery in downtown Kansas City, Kansas, actually was a reservation. While Bearskin maintained that any land being held in trust for a tribe by the government was a reservation -- regardless of what the land was being used for -- in 2001, the 10th Circuit ruled that the cemetery was a cemetery and not a reservation.
But the Wyandottes could make one other claim. In 1996, when the tribe had purchased the temple, it had done so with $100,000 from a 1984 settlement with the federal government. That money could be used to purchase land for gaming. Both sides are disputing whether the temple was purchased solely with that money -- which the tribe claims -- or whether the tribe purchased the temple with money that didn't come from the settlement -- which is what the state claims. The courts have ordered the BIA to reevaluate its decision claiming that the Wyandotte's purchase was legitimate.
"This is all uncharted territory," says Tom Weathers, an attorney for the Sac and Fox tribe.
In June 2001, after five years of litigation, the Wyandottes threw down their ace: a lawsuit claiming that the tribe owns the land in one of the city's biggest money-making areas, the Fairfax Industrial District, a belt of manufacturing plants north of downtown Kansas City at the junction of the Kansas and Missouri rivers. The district accounts for $24 million of the $137 million the county generated in tax revenue last year.
The Wyandottes claim that, in the Treaty of 1855, they never ceded three parcels of land given to them by the Delaware -- the Wyandottes say they still own them. The state argues that the 1855 treaty transferred all the Wyandotte land to the U.S., and that when the Wyandot tribe voluntarily dissolved itself, the ceded lands were surveyed into sections and given to former Wyandot tribe members.
The court files contain a photocopy of the five-page 1855 Treaty -- and there is no mention of the gifted lands being ceded.
But it's not just the Unified Government and major companies such as International Paper and GM that are defendants. More than 1,300 property owners live or run businesses on the now-disputed land. Bearskin hopes that the public outcry in response to his daring suit forces the state's hand.
Though the Wyandottes have said they have no interest in taking anyone's home away, the suit means that the titles to all these homes are now in question. Homeowners will have more difficulty selling their homes, and they may have a tougher time refinancing their mortgages.
Wyandotte County homeowners can partly thank Florida businessman Ginsburg for their current anxiety. "We've known [we owned this land] for a long, long time, but we didn't have enough money to take it to court," says Bearskin.
"It is bold. It also is a product of their frustration," says Walker, the Unified Government's attorney. "There's no blame here. The tribe is frustrated."
Bearskin isn't the only one with a claim to the land. Barbara Bailey's family has lived in a handsome one-story house on Stewart Street since her mother was six -- back in the 1920s. Bailey owns the home now, and her niece lives there. Twice this summer, she and half a dozen other homeowners have met to discuss the lawsuit. "There's so many people involved in this, so many big companies involved, I don't think it's going to get to where I'm worried about losing my property," she says. But Bailey and her fellow homeowners aren't taking any chances. Last month, they wrote a letter to the Unified Government urging it to defend all the homeowners in a class-action suit.
Bailey says a casino would be good for the county, but she's not sure the tribe's approach is the best one. "The more I find out about the problem, I can understand why they're doing it. I don't agree with it, because I'm affected by it."
The Reverend C.L. Bachus of Mt. Zion Baptist Church, who has spoken publicly against the suit, wonders what the Wyandottes hope to gain. Right now, he says, the community is taking a wait-and-see attitude -- they know it could take years before this lawsuit runs its course. "The people who are victims of those sections of land shouldn't have to be responsible for straightening that out. I don't think a suit like that, in the final analysis, can go anywhere. I don't think they have a good leg to stand on."
But Bearskin soldiers on.
"The chief is at this when he should be retired and enjoying his grandkids," Walker says. He describes Bearskin -- like virtually everyone does -- as a man of conviction and integrity who's truly trying to take care of his people. Still, "They've inflicted some pain and anguish on some people who don't deserve it," Walker says.
"The best ally the Wyandottes have had in this process has been us," he adds. "Yet we're the ones looking down the barrel of an expensive piece of litigation.
"With this much opposition from parties who had been helping him, Bearskin might have relented a little and given up on the Masonic project. After all, he said he didn't want to be there.But he pressed ahead. Tribal members began rehabbing the building, and when the court issued an injunction stopping them from making changes to the historic structure, they built a long, modular shed next door to the temple.
Inside, the carpet is festive with colorful swirls and triangles and circles. A few security cameras hide behind black domes in the ceiling, and a row of electrical outlets rises out of the floor. In the back is a bar edged in leather where the Jenny Jones show plays.
The modular annex is a temporary casino site -- an alternative to the Masonic Temple, which itself would be a temporary site, until the tribe finds some other place for its casino.
This spring, Bearskin had 200 slot machines shipped from California to his shed, but he had to ship them back a few weeks later because the tribe had violated federal regulations that require the Justice Department to approve the ownership and transport of slot machines.
"We have to comply with federal law," Bearskin says. "We've complied with every federal law they've thrown at us."
While Bearskin keeps playing against the house, the Sac and Fox and Kickapoo are in "ongoing discussions" with the state to jointly open a casino in Wyandotte County. And the Potowatomi tribe recently announced a $55 million expansion of its casino, run by Harrah's, north of Topeka.
Bearskin remains undeterred in trying to return to a county that is named for his people.
"I know we're right," he says. "I want everyone else to know I'm right."