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VIDEO: Track to tract: Leech Lake band’s future plans look prosperous

Carri Jones, chairwoman of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, delivers the State of the Band address Thursday at Northern Lights Casino Hotel in Walker, Minn. (Maggi Stivers | Bemidji Pioneer)2 / 3
The Northland Eagles, youth hand drummers, perform a hand drum piece at the 2014 Leech Lake State of the Band address Thursday in Walker, Minn. (Maggi Stivers | Bemidji Pioneer)3 / 3

WALKER -- Hundreds of eyes were cast to the stage erected in the Northern Lights Casino Hotel Ballroom on Thursday morning to see what is in the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe’s future. In a word: progress.

Band members gathered to hear Chairwoman Carri Jones deliver the annual State of the Band address. Rep. Rick Nolan, D-Minn., was the guest speaker. Jones and Nolan spoke of the deteriorating Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig School, tribal land restoration and the Capitol Christmas Tree project.

Nolan said under the leadership of Jones, the Leech Lake Band has gained attention at the Capitol.

“It’s so important for anyone and everyone, but particularly the Leech Lake Band, to have good strong representation in Washington,” Nolan said. “Not just from your representatives in Congress, but from the leaders in your tribe. Carri Jones has just been one of the extraordinary leaders.”

Education first: Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig School

Jones emphasized the role of education on the Leech Lake Reservation. She commended the 41 Leech Lake Tribal College and 16 Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig students who graduated in 2014.

“Education is important to protecting our sovereignty,” Jones said. “Hard work and dedication equips our band members with the tools necessary for understanding the social, economic and political factors affecting the health of our community.”

During Nolan’s speech, he lead into discussion on the Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig school with mention of federal appropriations. Nolan said out of every dollar sent to Washington, D.C., Minnesota only sees a 65 cent return, whereas other states can see up to $4 or $5.

Jones said the Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig School was awarded a $600,000, 21st Century grant for achievement and after-school enrichment. The grant is to be used in the next three years with a potential for additional funding in another five years. Because of the 21st Century grant, Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig students who earn high marks will be able to see the Capitol Christmas Tree later this year in Washington.

“On Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and Assistant Secretary Kevin Washburn toured the Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig School grounds and saw the deterioration and safety concerns first-hand,” Jones said. “The site visit went extremely well, and we believe this visit will encourage the federal government to revise the funding formula for tribal schools.”

Nolan said Jewell’s visit to the Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig School was “fantastic.”

“She has been able to get very enthusiastic support for (Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig School) from

our great Sen. Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar. We’ve all been fighting to get funding for this school,” Nolan said. “The conditions of that school are unacceptable by any definition. It’s an old pole building for crying out loud.”

Architecturally distinctive schools deliver a subconscious message to students that their education is valued, Nolan said. He added that studies have shown students attending better built schools do better in class.

“It’s been a long journey, but we’re not getting off that trail until we get it done, a new Bug school,” Nolan said.

Gaming revenue to increase

Jones introduced a project to increase jobs and revenue for the band. Leech Lake has entered into a five-year simulcasting agreement with Canterbury Park. Once the agreement is finalized, patrons of the Northern Lights Casino will be able to watch and wager on nationwide horse racing via simulcasting.

“Leech Lake is the first sovereign nation in Minnesota to sign this simulcast agreement,” Jones said.

The band still needs to obtain approval from the National Indian and Gaming Commission and Minnesota Horse Racing Commission. Jones said finalizing the agreement will take some time, but once it is done, it will not compromise the band’s sovereignty.

Jones said gaming financials are on track to goal.

“On the government side, our spending came in at $598,000 under our budget projections,” Jones said. “We’ve been implementing more rigid policies when it comes to our budgets and spending and our staff has done a great job following them.”

Jones said approximately 30 percent of the government’s budget is made up of grants and contracts with federal and state agencies. Since 2012, the government has increased the band’s billing, Jones said, in order to increase the overall program budget.

Land purchase planned

Jones said the band is working with the Potlatch Corporation on a 1,824 acre land purchase that should be completed in 2019. “The band has purchased 532 acres so far,” Jones said.

Since 2012, the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe has purchased 809 acres of land.

Nolan said he was able to get a bill through the Congress this past year, which is not an easy feat with the current Congress, he indicated, that gave 3,000 acres back to tribes.

“Part of the Treaty of 1854 among other things, in establishing the number of reservations, the white settlers proceeded to take land away that had been negotiated on behalf of the Chippewa Nation,” Nolan said.

Jones’ also mentioned upcoming projects including continued construction on an expansion to the Leech Lake Tribal College library, expected to be completed in the spring, and expanding the fitness center and Indian Health Service. An opioid treatment center will be part of the IHS project, which is expected to be completed in 2016.

New construction endeavors include an elder assisted care living facility that will create 20 new jobs and a regional justice center. A $4 million federal Department of Justice grant will help with the justice center creation. A new community center and bike path in Bena are also planned.

Thursday’s events featured the traditional posting of the colors by Leech Lake Honor Guard and an invocation by Larry Aitken.

Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig students displayed a drum and dance performance. Niigaane students demonstrated skills learned at the immersion school in speeches. The Northland Eagles youth hand drum boys, wearing colors of yellow ribbon, entertained the audience. Following Jones’ address, band members had lunch featuring the customary walleye, wild rice and corn.

Crystal Dey
Crystal Dey covers crime, courts, tribal relations and social issues for The Bemidji Pioneer in Bemidji, Minnesota. Originally from Minnesota’s Iron Range, Dey has worked for the Echo Press in Alexandria, Minnesota, The Forum in Fargo, North Dakota, The Tampa Tribune in Tampa, Florida, the Hartford Courant in Hartford and West Hartford News in West Hartford, Connecticut. Dey studied Mass Communications at Minnesota State University Moorhead with an emphasis in Online Journalism. Follow Crystal Dey on Twitter @Crystal_Dey.
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