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Walker celebrates diversity, community

Leech Lake Tribal Chairman Archie LaRose, left, shares a moment with Ed Robinson at Monday night's "On Eagle's Wings" celebration in Walker. An organizer of the event, Robinson commissioned a black walnut carving of an "Eagle Catcher," with the unveiling capping the evening. Pioneer Photo/Brad Swenson1 / 2
A Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe warrior with eagle staff leads a procession of Leech Lakers in regalia in a demonstration powwow during Monday night's "On Eagle's Wings" diversity celebration at the Walker Community Center. The event drew 350 people to a free dinner of walleye, wild rice and fry bread. Pioneer Photo/Brad Swenson2 / 2

WALKER -- Ed Robinson used a fallen black walnut on his Nebraska farm to bring the Walker community together.

Monday night, 350 people gathered here for a walleye-wild rice dinner and to learn more about the cultural diversity that is the Leech Lake Reservation community.

"These are challenging times in our nation and in our communities," Walker Mayor Brad Walhof said to open the "On Eagle's Wings" celebration at the Walker Community Center, "focusing on cooperation and mutual support."

A host of local government and tribal officials spoke, as well as presentations made on Walker's effort to restore Leech Lake as a premier walleye fishery, on the community center's new campaign to retire its building debt, on revitalizing the Boys & Girls Club at various Leech Lake Reservation sites and to learn more about Leech Lake Reservation culture through a demonstration powwow.

The event was designed to bring together all communities of the reservation -- Indian and non-Indian.

"Tonight we're talking about community -- many communities working as one," Walhof said. "It's time to break down the barriers that separate us. Quite frankly, we need each other. It's time to start working together for common goals. It's time to work collectively."

Those thoughts were echoed by a host of speakers from tribal and non-tribal officials, as the Walker area seeks to pull together as a lobbying force for the common good.

"All of us coming together as one as a people" was signified by Monday's gathering, said Leech Lake Tribal Chairman Archie LaRose. "We are a different race, but we always have to remember that the Creator created all of us. He may have created us in different colors, different races, different religions, but we all have one thing in common -- we all have red blood."

Robinson, patriarch of the family-owned J.C. Robinson Seed Co. of Waterloo, Neb., has summered in the Walker community for 84 years. Sitting around the kitchen table with Melvin Losh and Gloria Wright, and later Nadine Chase, got Robinson the idea of a community celebration.

Robinson commissioned Akeley artisan Paul Albright to carve a depiction, "Eagle Catcher," out of a 5,000-pound black walnut tree that had served generations of Robinsons on their Nebraska farm before a severe storm felled it in June 2008.

He hauled the tree to Akeley, asking Albright to carve it.

"As it developed and as we began to take people down to see it, the idea sort of began to take form," Robinson said in an interview. The idea of a community celebration surrounding the wood sculpture "really began to blossom as a way to get people together to work on items of common interest" when Chase and Wright saw the work in p[progress.

"The leadership of both cultures are now attuned so they can get together and work together," Robinson said. "A good example is the stocking of Leech Lake, to get it up to its former world dominance in the walleye world."

The improvement of the walleye fishery also aided the local economy, he said. "There's much better tourist participation here, the Indian casinos flourished with that, and so did the merchants, the restaurants, the gas stations."

Similar cooperation can work in other areas, he said, such as making the Boys & Girls Club viable in several communities, as the Cass Lake and Deer River clubs were recently closed but expect to reopen.

"As long as there are items where both groups benefit, I think that the channels are wide open," Robinson said. "This is just a very bare start."

The 3½-hour evening culminated in unveiling the "Eagle Catcher" sculpture, which will be permanently displayed at Robinson's Walker home.

"A lot of people don't understand the eagle catcher," he said. "The eagle catcher, after much ceremony, hid in the ground and would grab it. He had to be a very brave person ... most got savaged and the eagle flew off."

Eagles were caught for their ceremonial feathers and was done with great respect for the eagle, he said. "Different cultures across the Great Plains did it different ways in different slices of time."

That same respect ought to carry over in relations today among the cultures, Robinson said.

The large crowed Monday night "says to me this is something that was sorely needed," he said. "This coming together of two cultures is something, if it works out, that is a wonderful thing."

Albright spent more than a year working on the black walnut sculpture.

He said Robinson's home "is like a native American gallery of sorts with beautiful, contemporary native American works," Albright said. "I feel real honored to have mine placed in addition to their works there."

It was at Robinson's home that Albright met Losh, who also unveiled a new piece of framed quill work Monday night. "He also knows a whole lot about eagles," he said, as Losh helped with research.

Heavy equipment had to be used to lift the black walnut tree off a flatbed truck, Albright said, adding that a natural fork in the tree become the eagle's wings. "Everything was there, and it really challenged by abilities to have it come out. Once I had visualized it and took the steps to make it happen, it was still very physically demanding."

To help, Albright said he would "imagine this native American in a hole for perhaps days waiting for his opportunity to capture the coveted eagle feather."

Speakers from both cultures opened the event, which included an appeal to help pay off the Walker Community Center debt, a project seeking $1 million in pledges over three years.

Claudette Holly of the center board said the center has enough activities to show a surplus in operational funding, but a deficit looms when debt repayment is included.

"We don't want to lose this wonderful facility because we couldn't finance the debt," she said of the $4.26 million center that saw more than 22,000 youth visits the past year for programming, including the Walker Boys & Girls Club.

Jim Chase also told of help needed to reopen the Leech Lake tribe's Boys & Girls Clubs at Deer River and Cass Lake, which has seen funding shortfalls but are scheduled to reopen in September.

Mike Bongo, Leech Lake tribal secretary-treasurer, told of possible joint ventures, such as Walker and the tribe submitting a joint grant application for fire-fighting equipment.

Working together he said, "if you can help the Leech Lake Reservation, in return we can help you," Bongo said. "Working together, our chances of being successful are much greater than individually."

Bongo asked for help to prevent legislative action to expand gaming off-reservation. "Our voices collectively will carry much more weight in partnership than they will individually ... Expansion of gaming would be disastrous to the Leech Lake Reservation."

Gaming creates a lot jobs in the community, he said, as well as good health benefits.

Cass County Commissioner Dick Downham said the County Board and Tribal Council have met several times and established good working relationships.

"A crowd of this size tells me of the commitment you want to make with our neighbors is important to you," he said. "It's also important to the County Board."

"This wonderful event is a hope for all of us to put our differences aside, look at one another as individuals, as equals, and help one another as a people," LaRose said.