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Chuck Haga, Forum Communications, Published September 24 2012

Many families optimistic about life at Spirit Lake

DEVILS LAKE, N.D. – Paul Matheny’s sons are talkers like their father, the affable general manager of the Spirit Lake Resort and Casino.

Ask Paul Jr., 15, a question about life on the Spirit Lake Reservation and settle in for a discourse delivered with confidence and intensity. Make eye contact with Victor, 7, and it’s as if you’ve handed the boy a microphone. He is what Regis Philbin must have been like as a child.

Paul Sr.’s daughters, Edna, 13, and Estreya, 8, are quieter. One imagines them saying, “Well, someone in this family has to be.”

But they all seem happy, well-adjusted and playful, with many friends on and off the reservation and an optimistic outlook on life. They are comfortable with their parents.

They are not afraid. And, Paul Sr. insists, they are not alone in that.

Lost in all the recent warnings and negative reports coming out of Spirit Lake, Matheny says, is another reality: Not every family there is dysfunctional, not every child at perilous risk.

“We are a strong family,” he said, as his wife, Gricelda, and the children gathered around him in their Devils Lake home. “And there are a lot of people out there who are like us.”

After a long stretch of public turmoil at Spirit Lake, the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs has decided to reassert direct authority over the tribe’s social services, including foster care and child protection. The tribe ran those programs with BIA funding since 2001. The BIA will take over on Oct. 1.

“You hear about it when you go to a meeting in Minneapolis,” Matheny said. “Someone says, ‘You’re from Spirit Lake? Is it really that bad there?’

“No, it isn’t.”

He doesn’t dismiss all criticism of the child protection system or deny the nagging social problems: alcoholism, teen suicide, drugs, poor housing, unemployment and, fueling it all, a grinding poverty.

But there is much more to Spirit Lake, he says, than stories of failure and portraits of despair.

“I was raised out there,” he said. “My father and mother were always there for me. I remember growing up and wanting to leave. I left, but I came back, and now I don’t want to ever leave.

“I love the place.”

A rocky start

Matheny, 43, is relatively prosperous, of course, as manager of the casino, which employs 423 people, more than three-quarters of whom are tribal members. A dozen or so are members of other tribes.

His start in the Indian gaming business was not so promising.

Matheny was born in San Diego, where his mother, an enrolled member of the Spirit Lake tribe, had relocated. His father is from Alabama and not Indian.

The family returned to Spirit Lake in the late 1970s. After graduating from high school, Paul Sr. “went to work in the tribal casino – before the casinos were legal.”

He was working craps tables, “making more in tips one night a week” than many adults took home in a full week, when the casino was raided by authorities.

“I was handcuffed, finger-printed and told I was going to jail for the rest of my life,” he said, smiling about it now.

It was a temporary setback. In that primitive operation, Matheny said he learned about slots and gaming tables and casino security. In 1997, he was offered a casino job in the Dominican Republic, and soon he was managing the place.

Next came consulting jobs with First Nations casinos in Canada. In 2000, Spirit Lake asked him to evaluate the gaming floor at its casino. It had opened four years earlier but wasn’t making the money the tribe had anticipated. He offered suggestions, and the tribe offered him a job.

While there has always been dispute within the tribe over how to use gaming revenues, “It’s been a very good thing for the tribe,” Matheny said. “In my generation, it took us from most people having nothing … to a better life for many, including newer vehicles, insurance, paying the light bill.”

‘No Indians …’

In the Dominican Republic, Matheny had met and married Gricelda, and in 1999 he brought her to Spirit Lake. Since 2005, they have lived in a house in Devils Lake.

“Available tribal housing is basically Devils Lake now,” he said. “It’s really hard to buy anything out there,” because of a long-standing housing shortage and rules governing the purchase of Indian trust land.

Gricelda had worked as a blackjack dealer at the casino. She now works in housekeeping at a Devils Lake motel. Paul Jr., attends Devils Lake High School, while the younger children attend elementary and middle schools near their home.

While racism and racist behavior have not disappeared, things are changing in Devils Lake, too, Matheny said.

“When I was growing up, Indian and white here was like black and white in the old South,” he said, and he tells of seeing a sign on a downtown store wall: “No Indians or dogs allowed.”

“But in the tribe and in town, we don’t see it now,” he said.

This is his home, he says, surveying the solidly middle-class neighborhood from his yard, filling with children even as he speaks.

“Everyone on this block is my friend,” he said.

Lessons learned

The home is often overrun by a rainbow of neighborhood kids, especially as Halloween approaches. Each year for the past six years, Matheny has built a “Nightmare on Third Street” display that consumes much of the sprawling yard. It has become a local favorite.

Paul Jr., his son by a previous relationship, helps with the haunted house. He also spends time on the reservation, as do the younger kids.

“In the winter, our grandmother takes us out and we play with our sleds on the ice,” Estreya said.

“It’s a lot of fun if you have an imagination,” Paul Jr. said of the reservation, a place of hills and fields, woods and lakes but few of the more typical diversions and gathering places for young people, such as movie theaters, malls and cafes. “We play in the woods and by the water,” he said. “I have quite a few friends there, and we like to go four-wheeling. I built a boat with my grandpa.

“I grew up there until I was 7 or 8 years old. It teaches you a lot of lessons – how to hunt and fish, how to fend for yourself in the wild. You can’t depend on video games all the time.”

“I think it’s a safe place, too. I’ve never been scared. There are negatives, but there are positives and negatives everywhere. I plan to live there after college, maybe opening my own auto body shop.”

His father is strict and not overwhelmingly so, he said. He sets standards and expects the children to meet them. When he spends time with his mother, who holds joint custody, he gains appreciation for her German heritage.

“He’s a great kid,” said Kris Wishinsky, Paul Jr.’s mother, who lives in Gardner, N.D. “He’s had his hiccups, like we’ve all had. But he loves his dad and he loves his mom.”

She and Matheny “were young” when they were together, she said, and while they had their disagreements and went their separate ways, she speaks well of him as a father. “He’s a good dad, a good provider,” she said. “He’s there for his kids.”

A former case worker herself in the tribe’s beleaguered social services department, she also shares Matheny’s concern that the drumbeat of negative news coming out of Spirit Lake may leave an unduly bleak image, within as well as without.

“I encountered a lot of great families who were able to overcome many obstacles,” she said.

“What’s been happening is heartbreaking to me. But I have a couple girls (from former client families) who are going to college now, girls who never thought that was something they could do. I would hate to see the progress that people have made – I would hate for that to seem as if it never happened.”

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Chuck Haga writes for the Grand Forks Herald