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Moving forward: Leech Lake Band chairwoman highlights productiive year

MOLLY MIRON SPECIAL TO THE PIONEER Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe Chairwoman Carri Jones describes the successes band members can celebrate this year at her State of the Band address Thursday in Walker, Minn.

WALKER — The Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe operated at $3.6 million under budget this year. But those savings in no way interfered with infrastructure improvements and program enhancements, said Leech Lake Chairwoman Carri Jones in her 2013 State of the Band address Thursday morning at the Northern Lights Event Center in Walker.

Her presentation was the first Leech Lake State of the Band report in five years.

"It's a pleasure to work with each of you," Jones said in her introduction to the list of accomplishments she urged band members to celebrate.

In relation to building expansion in Cass Lake, she cited the groundbreaking for the new Leech Lake Tribal College library, learning center and smart classroom. The band also opened a new behavioral health center near the Indian Health Service hospital. This fall, Jones said, the band will begin construction of a new 32-unit assisted living center, and will break ground in spring on a new 25,000 square-foot hospital expansion. The hospital addition will house podiatry, physical therapy, a pharmacy and an urgent care center.

Because "education is important for our sovereignty," Jones also outlined advancement in that area, as well.

She said 32 students graduated from the Leech Lake Tribal College in May. And in 2012, a new head start opened in the Sugar Point Community Center to serve 20 children. The addition of the program in Sugar Point means Leech Lake operates seven head starts and four early head starts, which serve 317 children. Other successes in education are the new partnership between Leech Lake Tribal College and Red Lake Nation College. Red Lake students can now earn accredited credits and degrees through Leech Lake Tribal College. And the Leech Lake Band and the Boys and Girls Club of Leech Lake have partnered to offer programs for youth without duplicating efforts.

"Youth development is a priority," Jones said.

The government-to-government memorandum of understanding between the band's Division of Resource Management and the Chippewa National Forest to protect forest resources and treaty gathering rights, is another plus for the band, Jones said. The DRM stopped the cutting of 3,800 acres of mature trees by the Chippewa National Forest, Jones said, and purchased more than 300 acres to add to the Leech Lake Band's land holdings. Another effort of the division the past year has been the stocking of more than 70,000 whitefish, 10 million walleye fry and 50,000 walleye fingerlings.

Gaming is important to the band with the casinos paying out $35 million in wages and benefits, Jones said, and employing 1,200 people. The goal of the gaming is to provide a positive source of revenue for the band, she said.

Beside these successes, Jones said there are plenty of other goals to aim for — eliminating substance abuse, combating the decline in Ojibwemowin language fluency, acquiring more land, funding construction of a new Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig High School and giving graduates incentives to return to their homeland.

"I'm really proud of our Tribal Council today," said Master of Ceremonies Jody DeVault. "This is one of the first Tribal Councils we have voted in who are working together."

Spiritual Leader Larry Aitken opened the gathering with prayers amid blessings for all those attending and their families. The Big Red drum group provided the honor and warrior songs. And Sen. Tom Saxhaug, DFL-Grand Rapids, listed some state government action that directly benefits the Leech Lake Band. These include $1.9 million from the Legacy Amendment for indigenous language programs, waiving ATV license fees on reservations and $150,000 to the Leech Lake Tribal College to open the doors to non-American Indian students. Saxhaug also commended band members in their efforts that helped defeat the voter ID amendment.

"It would have been a tragedy for rural Minnesota if the voter ID amendment had passed," he said.