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Looking ahead: Tribal health, opioid crisis take center stage in Leech Lake ‘State of the Band’ address

Leech Lake Tribal Chairman Faron Jackson, Sr. presents the state of the band address on Friday at the Northern Lights Casino, Hotel and Event Center in Walker. (Jordan Shearer | Bemidji Pioneer)1 / 3
Leech Lake band member Lenny Fineday speeks about the "culture of dependence" on Friday prior to the state of the band address at the Northern Lights Casino, Hotel and Event Center in Walker. (Jordan Shearer | Bemidji Pioneer)2 / 3
Gordon Fineday performs in a drum circle on Friday at Northern Lights Casino, Hotel and Event Center in Walker. (Jordan Shearer | Bemidji Pioneer)3 / 3

WALKER -- Though the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe made significant strides in 2017, Tribal Chairman Faron Jackson, Sr. spent much of his first-ever “State of the Band” address looking ahead to potential 2018 projects and challenges.

In his speech, Jackson heavily emphasized the need for more federal funding to keep reservation programs afloat, and updated band members on this year’s projects and initiatives.

Jackson also emphasized the importance of unity in the coming year, and encouraged tribal members to work together to face the challenges facing the band.

“It comes back to that inclusiveness,” Jackson said. “If I’m living a good life and I’m eating pork chops, I want my neighbors to be living the same lifestyle. I want to be able to make sure that their families and their elders are being cared for.”

The tribe made progress on multiple projects in 2017, some of which will be completed this year. Construction of the new Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig School -- which began in the summer of the 2016 -- was at the halfway point in September, and is set to be completed in 2018.

Gordon Fineday performs in a drum circle on Friday at Northern Lights Casino, Hotel and Event Center in Walker.Leech Lake officials also broke ground at the site of a new casino in Cass Lake in early December. The new casino, hotel and event center is set to open during the summer of 2019.

“We’re really excited about our Palace and the opportunities that it’s going to bring to us,” Jackson said. “It’s not the final solution to anything, but we utilize what we have now, and at the same time we’re thinking about the future.”

The band’s 2017 achievements also included a lawsuit filed against multiple pharmaceutical companies that manufacture and distribute opioids. The suit blames the companies for the addiction epidemic sweeping Leech Lake and other reservations across the country and, Jackson said, was a long time coming.

“That’s something that should have been done before, but I’m glad we did it,” Jackson said. “It shows how we really feel about a lot of these demons that we’re dealing with.”

Leech Lake leaders also hope to combat the epidemic by opening a new drug treatment facility that would offer detox services, and by maintaining the reservation’s treatment program for youth. Leech Lake also received a $528,000 grant from the state to help pregnant women addicted to opioids.

“We want our kids back, we want our community people back, we want our relatives back,” Jackson said. “We want you the way you were.”

Jackson also made the health of tribal members a priority in 2018. During 2017, the band started a number of projects that leaders hope will lead to better health. These projects include:

  • A mobile teaching kitchen paid for by a $100,000 grant from the Minnesota Super Bowl Host Committee Legacy Fund.
  • The purchase of two ice rinks, which will encourage Leech Lake kids to participate in healthy outdoor activities.
  • Training tribal members to use Narcan, a drug that can reverse an opioid overdose.

This year, the tribe also hopes to create a mobile health clinic that would travel to reservation communities and provide medical services.

Jackson covered a number of other initiatives during his speech, including improvements to the tribe’s halfway houses, a Head Start initiative that would teach children the Ojibwe language from a young age, multiple programs that provide money to elders, veterans and people who need to travel for medical care, and efforts to take back land and designate the reservation as a separate wildlife management zone.

“This will give us a stronger voice in in management decisions regarding natural resources within our boundaries,” Jackson said. “To me, it’s about our sovereign rights.”

Jackson’s address was followed by a quarterly meeting, which all tribal members were encouraged to attend.

“We need you to be involved with us, be supportive and give us a little push,” Jackson said. “If you can think of some solutions or better ways to do it, bring them forward as well.”

Grace Pastoor

Grace Pastoor covers crime, courts and social issues for the Bemidji Pioneer. Contact her at (218) 333-9796 or gpastoor@bemidjipioneer.com

(218) 333-9796
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