CASS LAKE -- Though the day was chilly, excitement filled the air as more than 100 Leech Lake Tribal Council and community members took part in a ribbon cutting ceremony for the newly acquired Leech Lake Market, formerly Teal’s Market, on Thursday afternoon.

“This is the day the Leech Lake Band takes ownership of its food sovereignty and security,” Leech Lake Gaming Division Director and emcee Michael Auger said ahead of the event.

Following food sovereignty discussions starting around 2007, the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe gained ownership of the market from longtime owner Roger Teal, whose family has operated grocery stores since 1942.

Seventy-nine years ago members of the Teal family opened what was originally known as the Red Owl grocery store in Cass Lake, and now the Leech Lake Band is setting out to accomplish its vision of attaining increased food security and sovereignty.

“It’s bittersweet, but I think passing the torch to the Leech Lake Band is a natural fit,” Teal said during the ceremony. “Our customers are well-deserving of this. I want to welcome (the Leech Lake Band) and I’m sure you guys will do it proud.”

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Roger Teal, longtime owner of Teal’s Market, speaks about Leech Lake’s recent acquisition of the store, rebranding as Leech Lake Market, ahead of a ribbon cutting on Thursday, Oct. 21, 2021, in Cass Lake.  (Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer)
Roger Teal, longtime owner of Teal’s Market, speaks about Leech Lake’s recent acquisition of the store, rebranding as Leech Lake Market, ahead of a ribbon cutting on Thursday, Oct. 21, 2021, in Cass Lake. (Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer)

RELATED: Leech Lake Nation acquires Teal’s Market in Cass Lake

The Teal family, made up of Roger, wife Cheryl and daughters Andrea, Jennifer, Cassandra and Amber, has partnered with the council for previous projects. These include an $80,000 investment of the Leech Lake Tribal College library a few years ago and assisting the council with bulk food purchases when the coronavirus pandemic struck last year.

“My main excitement is taking our first steps in creating our own food systems,” said Leech Lake Tribal Council District 3 Rep. LeRoy Staples Fairbanks III. “We need to be profitable, but it doesn’t need to be because we sold the most pop, chips and candy. We need to understand what we are marketing to our consumers. The real profit margin will be when we are getting the community to buy more healthy options, and figuring out how to make that accessible for any income-level family.”

Leech Lake Tribal Council District 3 Rep. LeRoy Staples Fairbanks III speaks on Thursday, Oct. 21, 2021, during a ribbon cutting ceremony for the Leech Lake Market in Cass Lake. (Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer)
Leech Lake Tribal Council District 3 Rep. LeRoy Staples Fairbanks III speaks on Thursday, Oct. 21, 2021, during a ribbon cutting ceremony for the Leech Lake Market in Cass Lake. (Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer)

Gaining tribal control over food production and distribution and healthy alternatives were common threads of discussion throughout most of the speeches during the event.

“We have more resources, more opportunity, more amazing things we can do,” National Indian Gaming Association Chairman Ernie Stevens, Jr. said. “But, we are not going to be healthy until we take this stand and (the food sovereignty movement) seriously to create a better tomorrow. To get rid of diabetes, cancer -- these evils that have taken so many of our loved ones.”

Stevens then detailed how several Indigenous nations contributed to being the 11th biggest employer in the United States pre-pandemic, being up there with the likes of Walmart and Amazon.

“Between direct gaming jobs and indirect gaming jobs, we had over 600,000 jobs,” Stevens said. “When (post-pandemic employment) numbers came out, it was projected we’d be down 50%. When our numbers came out, they were actually down 20%. That is almost a miracle when you consider what we’ve been through.”

Stevens also mentioned how Leech Lake, Red Lake and other tribal nations helped throughout the pandemic including delivering masks and assisting with vaccinations, further illustrating a commitment to health and safety.

National Indian Gaming Association Chairman Ernie Stevens Jr. speaks about food sovereignty on Thursday, Oct. 21, 2021, during a ribbon cutting ceremony for the Leech Lake Market in Cass Lake. (Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer)
National Indian Gaming Association Chairman Ernie Stevens Jr. speaks about food sovereignty on Thursday, Oct. 21, 2021, during a ribbon cutting ceremony for the Leech Lake Market in Cass Lake. (Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer)

“Today, we’re taking a big step forward not just in economic development or gaming, but in safety, health and creating a better tomorrow for all of Indian Country,” Stevens said in closing.

With possession of the now Leech Lake Market, the council met with all 80 employees who have happily kept their jobs during the transition.

“They’re a part of our team, and we welcome them with the idea that they will still be working here with us,” Leech Lake Tribal Chairman Faron Jackson said. “We always try to look at it as a circle, as we’re all inclusive here. We’re all in this together.”

Other speakers included the Leech Lake Secretary-Treasurer Archie LaRose and District 1 Rep. Robbie Howe.

According to NIGA Chairman Ernie Stevens Jr., one of the first things he heard when the community found out Leech Lake was acquiring Teal’s Market in Cass Lake was a request to “not change the donuts.” He assured those in attendance at the ribbon cutting ceremony on Thursday, Oct. 21, 2021, that the beloved donuts would be staying at the new Leech Lake Market. (Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer)
According to NIGA Chairman Ernie Stevens Jr., one of the first things he heard when the community found out Leech Lake was acquiring Teal’s Market in Cass Lake was a request to “not change the donuts.” He assured those in attendance at the ribbon cutting ceremony on Thursday, Oct. 21, 2021, that the beloved donuts would be staying at the new Leech Lake Market. (Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer)

Members of the Ojibwe Nation drum group play a song on Thursday, Oct. 21, 2021, ahead of a ribbon cutting ceremony for the Leech Lake Market in Cass Lake. (Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer)
Members of the Ojibwe Nation drum group play a song on Thursday, Oct. 21, 2021, ahead of a ribbon cutting ceremony for the Leech Lake Market in Cass Lake. (Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer)

Cutting the ribbon

A blessing and Ojibwe Nation drum song preceded the speeches, while the official ribbon cutting and tour of Leech Lake Market immediately followed.

“Let’s make this business official: Leech Lake Market,” Auger proclaimed as the ribbon was cut to the crowd’s applause and enthusiasm.

Leech Lake Honor Guard member Luann Frazer makes her way through the food line on Thursday, Oct. 21, 2021, following a ribbon cutting ceremony for the Leech Lake Market in Cass Lake. (Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer)
Leech Lake Honor Guard member Luann Frazer makes her way through the food line on Thursday, Oct. 21, 2021, following a ribbon cutting ceremony for the Leech Lake Market in Cass Lake. (Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer)

A meal was provided for all those in attendance to close out the event, and while the market was technically closed, attendees were eager to take a moment to tour the store and warm up for a bit before enjoying some lunch.

The name change is the only modification planned for the store. It will continue to operate under store manager Jay Hinkemeyer and assistant store manager Bruce Sondrol. The store will open as Leech Lake Market tomorrow, Oct. 22.

According to assistant store manager Bruce Sondrol, new signs displaying the name Leech Lake Market will be up in the store soon. But that will be the only major difference customers will see initially as the store transitions ownership this week. (Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer)
According to assistant store manager Bruce Sondrol, new signs displaying the name Leech Lake Market will be up in the store soon. But that will be the only major difference customers will see initially as the store transitions ownership this week. (Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer)

Along with Leech Lake Market, the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe also owns and operates Cedar Lakes Casino-Hotel and Leech Lake Supply Company in Cass Lake; Leech Lake Express in Cass Lake and Walker; Shingobee on the Bay and Northern Lights Casino, Hotel and Event Center in Walker; and White Oak Casino in Deer River.