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Despite casinos, reservations still plagued by high unemployment

Second of five installments. You can read the whole series here.

It is easy to understand why so many workers at the Mystic Lake Casino and Hotel complex are non-Indian. If you were a multi-millionaire – as many of the casino’s owners reportedly are – would you wait tables? Push a broom? Clean hotel rooms?

In fact, the Indian tribe that owns the casino, the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community, is so small that its members couldn’t fill all of the jobs at the sprawling entertainment complex even if every man, woman and child wanted to work there.

With an annual payroll exceeding $110 million, the tribe calls itself the largest employer in Scott County, providing jobs for about 1,000 more workers than the next four employers combined. (The tribe doesn’t reveal its own membership numbers, but by most estimates it’s close to 500.)

The tribe’s late chairman, Stanley R. Crooks, told the New York Times that the tribe has a “99.2 percent unemployment rate . . . entirely voluntary.”

OK. That explains the job situation at Mystic Lake and a few other tribal-run casinos near the Twin Cities.

Up north, though, where you find the state’s most populous reservations, thousands of Indians remain unemployed even while their tribes run casinos. And they do not have the luxury of hefty casino payments to justify staying home from work. Many of their families still are desperately poor. 

How does that square with a key argument made 20 years ago for establishing casinos in the first place? They were to spur economic development on and near reservations. By extension, they were to grow jobs where they were sorely needed. A related goal was to help Indians become more self-sufficient.

Did the strategy fail?

Initial scouting told my colleague Steve Date and me that the answer was not going to be a clear yes or no. What’s more, we would have to search for the answer in a veritable fog of different data sets, conflicting views and explanations we hadn’t understood until we started asking the questions.

Isolation and family duty

At the White Earth Nation in northwestern Minnesota, tribal members live in rural isolation, even from each other and from their Shooting Star Casino. It’s a 75-mile round trip drive from some reservation villages to the casino, White Earth Tribal Council Member Terry Tibbetts told Steve. Not so bad in summer months, maybe. But it’s a daunting commute in winter when tree-lined roads are icy. And it isn’t unusual to see temperatures fall deep into sub-zero territory.

The best way to appreciate Tibbetts’ full explanation is to catch it here in Steve’s video: 

Meanwhile, I’ll take a stab at summarizing it.

Keep the distance factor in mind while you consider another reality at White Earth and, for that matter, in Minnesota’s non-Indian communities as well: Single parents head a good share of the families.

“By the time you pay a babysitter, put $25 worth of gas in your car and you get your insurance paid for ... you’re probably making $5,” Tibbetts said.

Casinos on Minnesota ReservationsThe casino pays competitive wages for the region, Tibbetts said. On average, workers get $10.83 an hour.

Even so, he said, “It’s very hard to keep our people employed.”

He estimated that just over half of the casino’s 1,200 employees are Native American. In some other Minnesota casinos, a far smaller portion of the jobs are held by Indians.

A darker factor: addiction

Chemical dependency problems pose yet another reason Indians don’t hold more of the casino jobs.

“Drug testing is a huge one,” Tibbetts said.

A job applicant who scores positive on a urine test must stay clean for 30 days and test again, he said. And one positive test result sets an employee up for mandatory repeated testing during a year.

“No way are we encouraging or condoning drug use among our employees,” he said. “They have got to learn to lay off this stuff and be family people working for their own living.”

New work ethic

Robert Shimek, a White Earth community member, stressed that addiction problems should be considered separately from the evaluation of casinos as job creators.

“We can talk about drugs, we can talk about all of that,” Shimek said. “Those things were very much here before the casino happened. And I can guarantee you that if the casino closed today – lock the doors, send everybody home – we would still have those problems tomorrow and five years from now.”

Not only have casinos created jobs, Shimek said, but also fostered a new work ethic in people on the reservation.

“They have learned how to go to a job, keep a job, thrive in a job, grow in a job and set some goals for the future,” he said. “We cannot discount that.”

Many entry-level casino employees have gone on to better jobs working in tribal or county administration, he said.

“A lot of them take their work ethic back to starting a job at the casino,” he said. “Many of them had to go through it two or three times or four times or more. But at the end of the day we are a lot better off.”

Terry Tibbetts
MinnPost photo by Steve DateWhite Earth Tribal Council Member Terry Tibbetts credits casinos as the best job creators tribes have invented so far.

Putting everything together, here is the upshot: White Earth’s unemployment rate runs about 43 percent, he said, even while the tribe creates jobs and runs aggressive education and job-training programs.

Indeed, White Earth isn’t giving up on people who’ve lost five or more casino jobs.

They get another chance through the Shooting Star Re-Entry Program. Robert Goodwin coordinates the program with support from casino revenues and a commission created to help those fallen employees known as “R5 people.”

Goodwin told Steve that the commission screens applicants, looking at factors such as child welfare, public assistance and life stability. Those who pass the screening get new jobs where they are shadowed on the casino floor by commission members for a probationary period.

“Why do people still want these jobs after failing five times?” Steve asked.

"Actually, there isn't much else up here for jobs," Goodwin replied.

Most don’t want to look for off-reservation jobs because they don’t feel comfortable leaving, he said. On the reservation, though, they’re under a lot of peer pressure to work at something.

Unemployment and jobs too

Despite the high unemployment rate, Tibbetts credits casinos as the best job creators tribes have invented so far. Pre-casino unemployment on the reservation ran higher than 70 percent, he said, so the rate has been cut nearly in half.

A cut of that magnitude doesn’t come easily in communities where some families have existed for generations without steady work but survived instead with steady dependence on government programs.

It means many individuals had to learn from scratch the complex skills of applying for a job and then holding it. They had to master the habits of reporting for work on time and doing so every day, staying clean and sober and keeping a civil demeanor even toward supervisors and colleagues they dislike. They had to manage a paycheck and a household budget.

Red Lake shore
MinnPost photo by Steve DateOn the Red Lake reservation, one of the state's largest, the unemployment rate was a discouraging 21.9 percent.

In other words, the White Earth Nation may not be a land of millionaires, but it does have several hundred more good, steady jobs than it had 20 years ago – thanks to the casino. Above all, it has fostered hundreds more employable and responsible members. The same is true on most other Minnesota reservations; unemployment remains too high, but it generally is lower than in pre-casino days. 

We warned you that this would not be a simple analysis with straightforward yes or no findings!

Dizzying data

Indian unemployment rates are gathered and reported with a dizzying array of approaches. And all of them have to be taken with a degree of skepticism. Beyond the fact that a few hundred casino-wealthy Indians are voluntarily “unemployed,” thousands of others have given up on the work force and dropped out. Still others make do in local economies where labor could be traded for basic necessities.

While Steve crisscrossed the state talking with tribal leaders and members, I sat down to dig through reports from three different federal agencies.

Here’s what I found in the U.S. Census numbers for Minnesota: The unemployment rate was 10.7 percent for American Indian adults, compared with 6.4 percent for all Minnesota adults, according to surveys conducted between 2006 and 2010. On the Red Lake reservation, one of the state’s largest, the rate was a discouraging 21.9 percent.

What’s more, 37 percent of the state’s Indians were not in the labor force at all, compared with 29 percent of all Minnesotans.


Employment on Minnesota's largest reservations

Tribe

 

(Populations 16 and over)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Percent Unemployed

Percent not in the labor force

Bois Forte

 

24.5

 

37.4

 

 

Fond du Lac

 

14.1

 

37.2

 

 

Leech Lake

 

10.7

 

42.6

 

 

Mille Lacs

 

14.3

 

26.1

 

 

Red Lake

 

21.9

 

37.4

 

 

White Earth

14.5

 

35

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

All Minnesotans

6.4

 

29

 

 

Source: U.S. Census Bureau American Community Survey 2006-2010


To double-check that finding, I combed through estimates reported by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The BIA’s numbers didn’t match the Census numbers, but they pointed in the same direction. If anything, the BIA painted a bleaker picture, reporting higher unemployment rates on some reservations.

Next, I clicked through the most recent reports from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. There, I learned that every county in what is considered Minnesota’s Indian Country – the counties including the big reservations of White Earth, Mille Lacs, Red Lake, Fond du Lac and Leech Lake – suffered deeper unemployment through the Great Recession than the state as a whole. And unemployment remained higher in those counties as recently as June this year.

Different data sets. Similar conclusions: Even after 20 years of hiring at tribal-run casinos, an American Indian in Minnesota is far more likely to go jobless than a non-Indian.

Could have been worse

Data analysis only goes so far, though.

Steve went out of his way to talk with Indians who were tough-minded casino observers, beginning with Anton Treuer, a professor of Ojibwe language at Bemidji State University and a noted author of books on Ojibwe history and language.

Treuer is highly critical of some aspects of casino gambling. But he joined others in applauding casinos for reducing the ranks of the unemployed on reservations.

“There is no doubt that casinos have created jobs in Indian Country and done something to help mitigate the depth and breadth of poverty,” Treuer said.

(Treuer had more to say on the subject, and you can catch it all here in Steve’s video clip:)

So unemployment persists, as does poverty, at levels most of us would agree are too high.

But both almost surely would have been much worse without casinos.

Cracking hard-core unemployment

Just south of Cass Lake, Steve stopped to see Gary Frazer. He’s the executive director of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe, which consists of six of the state’s largest Indian bands. The log headquarters building couldn’t be more emblematic of Minnesota’s northern woods. And it sits in the heart of Indian Country.

“His office view is of the forest, and the interior of his office has a north woods cabin kind of theme — wildlife art, with a heavy emphasis on duck hunting,” Steve told me.

Frazer has held his leadership post since 1988. He also grew up in Cass Lake, so he understands the area and the historic relationships between Indians and non-Indians.

Frazer wore a golf shirt and khaki shorts for his meeting with Steve, looking as much like a resort-town Kiwanis or Chamber of Commerce member as the chief executive of an organization representing tens of thousands of Indians with sometimes competing interests. The giveaway for Steve, though, was Frazer’s bent for diplomacy.

“He speaks in a measured, diplomatic manner, avoiding criticism or comparisons of individual tribal governments,” Steve said.

(You can see it for yourself here in Steve’s video:)

Casinos are by far the biggest employer on every reservation, Frazer told Steve.

To appreciate their impact, you have to look beyond the unemployment rates and see who is reporting for work.

Frazer knows a lot of the faces very well. He grew up with them. He also knows that many of them would have been jobless in the pre-casino days.

“What gaming has done for the economies is helped a lot of people get jobs that normally wouldn’t have jobs,” Frazer said. “I grew up on the Leech Lake reservation, went to school in Cass Lake, and a lot of the guys that I went to school with never got jobs. They hung around. They worked part-time in the woods. They picked wild rice, pine cones whatever they could.”

Gary Frazer
MinnPost photo by Steve DateGary Frazer

Not only are those old classmates now clocking in for eight-hour shifts. Some even are advancing into management positions, Frazer said.

But how could he explain the many tribal members who didn’t land casino jobs?

For that question, Frazer drew examples from his own family.

“A lot of people just aren’t cut out for those casino jobs,” he said. “My dad was a ... carpenter. My brother is a carpenter. That is the job they’ve done all of their lives. They are not prepared to go sit in a casino atmosphere for eight to 10 hours a day.”

We all know that the burst of the housing bubble in 2008 threw a lot of carpenters and other construction workers out of their jobs. That was true both on and off the reservations.

The biggest reason non-Indians found casino jobs while unemployment rates remain high on reservations, Frazer said, “is the fact that a lot of people just don’t work those jobs or can’t work those jobs.”

The view across generations

For the sake of thoroughness, Steve pressed further east to talk with Karen Diver, chairwoman of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. That band’s reservation is near Duluth. It operates the Fond du Luth Casino as well as the Black Bear Casino Resort and Golf Course on I-35 near Cloquet.

Twenty years of casino ownership might seem like a long time – indeed, time enough for a new generation to emerge with new ambitious and dreams.

Think about it though. Social change rarely happens fast or easy.

“Having access to a job doesn’t necessarily cure those things that are keeping people from their own self-determination,” Diver said. “When you have multiple generations in one family who have suffered hardship and all of the resulting social ills that come from poverty and oppression, it is really going to take more than one generation to make them better.”

Diver had more to say about growing up Indian in an earlier Minnesota, about oppression in the public schools and the hurt that was internalized and passed along the generations with devastating effect. You really need to hear that piece in her words. And you can, by watching Steve’s video:

Formerly jobless; now writing the paychecks

Now, though, the job tables have turned. And white people are going to Indians to seek paychecks. Diver talked about that remarkable experience with considerable pride.

With 2,200 employees, the formerly impoverished Fond du Lac Band now is one of the largest employers in St. Louis County.

“We are bigger than Minnesota Power, than any of the paper plants, than the University of Minnesota [Duluth], than St. Louis County [administration and services],” Diver said. “Not only are we a major regional employer. We provide a lot of payroll revenue in Northeastern Minnesota.”

The pride in that new standing is echoed from reservation to reservation.

Collectively, tribal gaming and tribal governments employed 20,550 workers statewide in 2007 and maintained a $576 million payroll, according to the Minnesota Indian Gaming Association. Of those employees, 27 percent are Native American, according to a study done for the Gaming Association.

The tribes also purchased $539 million in goods and services and invested $329 million in capital projects that created even more jobs.

More than three-fourths of the new jobs were in rural Minnesota where they were sorely needed.

Further, casino workers in Minnesota were more likely to get health-care benefits, retirement plans, sick leave, educational assistance, child care support and life and disability insurance, the association reported.

This dramatic development leads to other, related dimensions of the casino story in Minnesota: Indian tribes leveraging casino profits not only into jobs but also into prospects for the future beginning with education. Are tribes making use of their new – and, possibly fleeting -- opportunities to secure their children’s future by advancing their educations?

You can explore that question when MinnPost publishes the next installment in this series.

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Comments (13)

Thank You

For the depth and breadth of this series. It is so easy for those of us who have not grown up under the circumstances of our Native American brothers and sisters (or an other disadvantaged groups) to think to ourselves that, if those people would just think and behave as we, ourselves, do they wouldn't have the problems they have.

Series such as this one help us to recognize the truth of the old aphorism, "There but for the grace of God, go I."

Which is not to say that God's grace is not present in Indian Country. Indeed, for those of us who find God's presence in pristine natural surroundings, God is far more present in much of Indian Country than in the other places where we spend most of our time.

Perhaps, as we come to appreciate and understand the lives and circumstances of our Native American brothers and sisters, we can then broaden our perspectives to include the lives of the many disadvantaged folks living in the inner cities and inner ring suburbs of our metro areas, and the other impoverished and disadvantaged places scattered throughout Minnesota.

Then, after we have learned to "walk a mile in their shoes" (at last mentally and emotionally) we'll be able to understand better how we might assist them in building better, more functional, more sustainable lives suited to their own environments and circumstances,...

and stop trying to tell each other that the only problem with "those people" is that they stubbornly keep refusing to be like us while ignoring that we would fail, utterly, to survive if we stepped into their lives and circumstances.

Good job

A very good discussion of the issues. You were given more than just the PR story and received some good information that was very candid.

Greg's words also ring true.

Tribal members understand the white culture, they have had to adapt to it for years in order to survive and they know how their culture is different. Their choices are conscious.

Try rethinking your life if instead of white priority of Individual, Family, Community was replaced with the Ojibwe priority of Family(a very broad definition), Community, Individual. How would you rethink what you do and how you make decisions. Then ponder which priority is better.

Frustrating

It's frustrating reading stories like this. The jist of it is that many Native Americans can't hold a job, even if they have a casino in the neighborhood willing to provide them with many. And I live next to Mystic Lake, where 99.2% of the tribe don't work. And why should they? They're all multi-millionaries. Most haven't earned a dime in their life. And yes, these casinos provide a lot of employment, but at what cost? Overall, they're a terrible strain on our state as billions of dollars have left Minnesota and is given to these reservations through gambling. Are taxes paid on those losses? Nope.

Looking forward to the day when everyone within the borders of Minnesota are given equal opportunity. No extra benefits for those with a certain skin color, or having particular ancestors who suffered 150 years ago. If one group can build a casino, then all groups should have that liberty. Same goes for taxes. Same goes for everything else. There is no such thing as the white-privilege anymore in 2012. I'm glad Native Americans celebrate their ancient culture; I hope that's never lost. My family celebrates our Swedish culture too. But we pay taxes on our land and cannot build casinos on land we buy. If we could, I certainly would and make millions too.

It's Not FAIR!!

To quote from an old movie ("Princess Bride") life ISN'T fair, princess, and anyone who tries to tell you otherwise is trying to sell you something.

Each of us grows up in a particular time and place surrounded by particular people and circumstances. It's up to us to make the most of who and where we are, or to move to better surroundings if that's a useful choice - to "brighten the corner where we are" as the old song says.

If we were to seek to level the playing field, as you suggest, there would be no way for anyone's initiative to produce a better life for him or herself.

As to the advantages of Native American tribes, I figure they have about 150 years of exclusive rights to casinos in Minnesota before we come anywhere close to compensating them for what they and their ancestors have suffered at the hands of the rest of us over the years.

But again, if you want to equalize things, how about I (who own no property) take your land away from you? I'm sure I could do far better with it that you are doing. This is a perfect parallel to what you suggest with Native Americans.

Actually, though, I wouldn't want to take your land, but perhaps you'd like to consider doing more worthwhile things with it and with your time and effort so that you'd have something to be proud of instead of wasting your time resenting and coveting what you think others have that you lack.

If you lack anything, it's far more likely to be found within your psyche and soul than in the material goods with which you surround yourself (as is also the case with many other people).

If you really believe

there is "no such thing as white privilege" than you are a spectacularly unobservant person....

In any case, it's pretty silly for the US to tell entire cultural groups to live far from urban centers or arable land, to make little or no effort to integrate these areas to the business centers, and then to tell them they're lazy for not driving 75 miles to serve drinks in a casino for ten dollars an hour. If you think it's such a great deal, call up the White Earth folks and let them know you want in on it. I'm sure someone up there could use a good laugh.

Land ownership, taxes, and rationality

Tribes don't one the land they build casinos on the Federal Government does and holds it in trust for the benefit of the tribes, and governments don't tax other governments. It isn't because it is tribal land it is because it is Federal Government land. The income is from the casinos is also not taxed for the same reason. It would be like the Federal Government taxing Minnesota on their state tax collections the lottery proceeds.

If you lived on the same kind of land you would have difficulty with what we consider simple things like getting a mortgage. Without being able to build on your land you would have a tough time as an individual accumulating one of the most common forms of wealth. Those multimillion dollar homes you see can in all likelihood only be sold to other tribe members.

For many tribal members the choice not to work is economically rational. Would you work if you had a million dollar guaranteed income? Would you work if it cost you more to go to work in transportation and child care than you would earn at $10+dollars and hour, particularly if you had more than one child that needed care.

It seems to me people should stop coveting your neighbors good fortune and make the best of their own.

Important article...

and one worthy of more discussion. Though the Mdewankanton tout the contributions they make to other tribes, it is a pittance, and the mal-distribution of wealth among Indian tribes is likely even worse than the general public. Though gambling is not the most desirable way to raise revenue, perhaps if the Indian monopoly were broken, and the tax funds from non-Indian casinos were dedicated to assisting other tribes in education, infrastructure, and training -- then more money would reach other tribes in a more useful and effective manner?

I think the white community has helped them enough already

At least this way they don't have to listen to the folks being resentful of their "government hand outs".

Rez life

For a good portion of my life I grew up on the Fond du Lac reservation. I can attest to the massive difference that having a casino has been to the reservation and its people. I was there as the casino moved from a tiny room off a school gym, to a slightly larger remodeled room, to what is now Black Bear Casino. In this time I worked casino jobs from security, accounting, black jack dealer, pull tab sales, and mostly my primary job was in the bingo hall.

Pretty much all of this article jives with my experience.

That said, while the Fond du Lac reservation makes a lot of money from it's casino. There is a general consensus on the reservation that very little of that wealth is distributed back to the people. Additionally, the reservation isn't necessarily the best employer. On the reservation everything is run by families and it's very political. This can cause work issues as the reservation is exempt from many of the legal employment protections.

Personally I do not like gambling and dislike the environment in casinos so despite being in a position where I made a lot of money, much higher than the average wage, and was on a management track I chose to finish school and work in a different industry.

I've seen the sadness of gambling addiction and I've seen the joy of the social aspect (grandmas at biingo) and I wish there were better options to bring money to the reservation, but sometimes you have to take what you can get. Many reservations do have other employment: construction, housing, medical, accounting, and police to name a few -- but the bulk of money comes from the casinos.

As for Mac being frustrated, there are places in this country where anyone can own a casino. If you believe it's so easy to become a millionaire you should move to one then move back when you're wealthy. Personally, I've been to some of those places and the people running slot machines from their diner in Montana didn't seem like millionaires. but maybe they're just the humble sort.

There certainly is a lot to celebrate about the Swedish culture, but before poking holes in cultures you don't understand remember there is a lot about the Swedish culture that has issue too. I hear racism and xenophobia play big parts.

Additionally your comment is full of factual errors. Native Americans pay many taxes including sales tax and federal. As for the losses you talk about, the money doesn't just disappear, the money has not "left the state" much of it it spent in Mn off-reservation and provides jobs for people that are not Native America. (they pay state and federal wage tax)

Did you read the article?

Additionally, whether you or I like it, gambling is a form of entertainment. Do you rail so intensely against other entertainment dollars that are spent? Do you have numbers to reflect your assertion that "billions upon billions" of dollars are lost to the state?

One last thing, there are plenty of businesses in Minnesota that are hugely successful that anyone can open as a competitor. By your logic I assume that you've done so and are quite wealthy. Kudos to you, I hope you're not using too many tax deductions and loop holes or sending any of the money outside of Minnesota. I'd hate to think that a fine Swede descendant such as yourself would put such a terrible strain on our fine state.

Having grown up in Cass Lake

Let me assure you there was/is white privilege. Also, don't dismiss the inequities of opportunity that exist all across the rural portions of our state.

Plus, here is a shout out to my good friend, Gary Fraser.

Why?

I also think it's important to remember why this situation with casinos is the case.It's not about someone getting more rights than someone else based on skin color.

Often both sides of the "rights" issue tend to represent this as Native Americans are getting some sort of privilege or benefits because of how Native Americans have been treated historically. This is not the case. It's not a system of reparations and thankfully so, no amount of money can account for atrocity.

The reasons that Native Americans can do things like have a casino is because of autonomous nation status, technically "domestic dependent nations", this designation was set by a series of treaties, legal decisions, and laws.

I suggest reading about Tribal Sovereignty

Regards.

A heart breaking story...

And my thanks to Sharon Schmickle and Steve Date for their even-handed story and others related to this one on MinnPost.

I've wondered/worried about what I have seen in Minnesota with respect to Native Americans for the forty some years I have been here.

Some random, but not unrelated, observations:

From some time in the eighties: inebriated Native Americans unsafely trying to cross the street on Washington Avenue.

My gratitude toward the casino in Prior Lake for employing my son in the casino which helped him afford college.

The extremely high incidence - genetic - of Native American diabetics requiring kidney dialysis at one of the largest kidney dialysis centers in the upper mid-west, Hennepin County Medical Center.

Working in the kitchen at the Thanksgiving Dinner at the American Indian Center on Franklin Avenue where the poverty of many was obvious.

Yet another inebriated American Indian attempting to cross West River Road and stumbling, falling in the middle of the street. Ignored by almost everyone.

The Shakopee Mdewakenton Sioux donating ten million dollars to the U of M for Twin City Federal Stadium. The university matched an additional $2.5 million to create a $5 million endowment for scholarships for Native American and low-income students.

I mean no disrespect to anyone by mentioning these things. But it has always troubled me to juxtapose the poverty and problems of some in the Native American community with the apparent wealth of others.

As pointed out by other commenters, these problems cannot be simply put at the feet of the Native American community. All of us should be concerned and work toward improving things.

But it would be useful to have some suggestions about what we must all do to help fix these problems.

Characterizations

You say: "And they do not have the luxury of hefty casino payments to justify staying home from work." Where do you get this outrageous opinion from? Wealthy individuals whose income comes primarily from earned income and whose management of their earnings is their primary or only work activity are not characterized as "staying home from work." John D. Rockefeller would not have been so characterized. Yet you expect wealthy Shakopee Mdewakantons to be employed somewhere? Don't you find that odd?

In fact, several do own companies and run them, working as hard as any CEO.

If you think of yourself as an award winning journalist, I suggest you take another look at how carelessly you threw some of your words around in this piece.