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Leech Lake’s State of the Band Address covers tribal milestones, COVID-19 impact, vaccine rollout and more

Challenges were addressed and achievements celebrated during the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe’s annual State of the Band Address, which took place virtually on Friday, March 26.

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LEECH LAKE -- Challenges were addressed and achievements celebrated during the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe’s annual State of the Band Address, which took place virtually on Friday, March 26.

The event served as a reflection of 2020, so naturally, looming large over the address was the tribe’s response to COVID-19, as well as business development, land restoration, treaty rights, housing issues, environmental protection, the status of Leech Lake gaming and education.

Kicking off the event were a number of special guests, including remarks from Minnesota’s Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon, and Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison.

Leech Lake Chairman Faron Jackson Sr. recalled the turbulent year and its impact on the band. After his address, various department heads from Leech Lake tribal-managed facilities and organizations gave updates related to their respective sectors.

“I appreciate the directors working with LLBO for giving some updates on their respective departments today as they share what's going on in their areas of expertise. It can be very difficult to keep track of everything that goes on here at Leech Lake, our many moving parts, and so many things to learn and understand,” he said. “It takes teamwork and communication.”

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Leech Lake Chairman Faron Jackson Sr. speaks during the virtual Leech Lake State of the Band Address on Friday, March 26, 2021. Facebook screenshot.

COVID-19 relief and response

“Just over a year ago, we held our last State of the Band Address at Northern Lights (Casino) in March of 2020. And at that time, COVID-19 was just starting to gain a foothold in the United States,” Jackson recalled, beginning his address. “Little did we know that would be our last normal event gathering for the foreseeable future. Our emergency manager had the foresight that week to suggest we cancel the event due to the danger of this new virus. At that time, it seemed like a very drastic measure. Things quickly changed in the next few months, from a handful of cases in the state to a full-blown worldwide pandemic. It caught us all by surprise.”

Jackson recalled that in the middle of last year’s State of the Band Address, news broke of the first COVID-19 case in Minnesota. Things continued to spiral from there.

“Things progressed very rapidly from that point, with the tribal council declaring a public health emergency just six days later,” he continued. “This forced us to change every aspect of our lives, both at home and work. It was a very challenging and scary time for all of us.”

He asked those in the room and the community watching at home to pause for a moment of silence to honor those who lost their lives in the pandemic.

“Isolation is very hard for us Anishinaabe people, our normal way of life came to a sudden stop. All of our normal routines and things we took for granted drastically changed, as members of our families became infected with the COVID-19 virus,” Jackson said. “I personally want to say ‘Chi Miigwech’ to each and every member of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe for doing your part in keeping our families and community safe. We have to continue to be extremely cautious. We cannot let our guard down just yet.”

Lauded vaccine distribution

Leech Lake Health Director Vince Rock gave an update on the tribe’s vaccination status as well as a history of vaccination efforts in general. He said as of March 26, Leech Lake had administered 7,908 total vaccines. That number includes second doses, so in total, 5,408 people have been vaccinated by Leech Lake so far. Of that total, 2,306 of the doses were given to Native Americans.

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Rock gave the public an explanation as to why the tribe is giving its vaccines to the non-Native community.

“We did this because we wanted to create a circle of protection because the virus does not discriminate by race,” he said.”We continue to hand out to surrounding communities and businesses and to protect ourselves. So we have a firewall against the virus, and we feel like we've been very effective against this. Being able to protect those that are closest to us, therefore protects us.”

Rock wrapped up his comments with a simple sentiment, “I want more people to take the vaccine.”

Chairman Jackson also pleaded with Leech Lakers to get the vaccine.

“We were proud to receive (some of) the first vaccines in the country (at Indian Health Service) here in Cass Lake and we continue to lead in this area. We are ahead of our friends at the state in much of the country with the progress we have made in our vaccine rollout. These vaccines have been proven to help, and will save lives,” he said. “Myself and my wife have been vaccinated. We tested positive for COVID-19 and felt very fortunate to get through it without any long-lasting effects, (but) we would not want to experience that again. Please give the vaccine some serious thought.”

RELATED: Cass Lake IHS health care workers among first in the state to receive COVID-19 vaccine, Sanford Bemidji receives vaccine shipment
Lt. Gov. Flanagan commended the band for being a vaccine leader in the state.

“We are filled with hope, as more and more Minnesotans become vaccinated. Each shot is a dose of hope,” Flanagan said. “I can tell you, no one has seemed to vaccinate more folks than Leech Lake. It's really been a tremendous thing to watch. So Chi Miigwech, thanks for being a leader in the vaccine rollout and for getting it done, protecting Native and non-Native folks in this state.”

Treaty rights and land restoration

Jackson and legislators again brought the groundbreaking Leech Lake Land Restoration Act to the public’s attention during the address.

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“We celebrated a major legislative victory this winter. Approximately 11,760 acres of land -- our land -- is being returned to its rightful owners, the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe,” Jackson said. “The land transfer bill passed both the House and the Senate with unanimous consent and was signed into law on Dec. 23, 2020. This was a historical day for Leech Lake and a culmination of years of effort by the tribal council, our community, and current and former employees of the band lobbying for the return of this land in (Washington D.C.).”

RELATED: 11,760 acres of land to be returned to Leech Lake after wrongful seizure
Rep. McCollum, who advocated for the measure, offered her congratulations to Leech Lake for the accomplishment.

“I am proud to say that the legislation we worked on together, the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe Reservation Restoration Act, was signed into law last year,” she said. “You know, this bill authorizes the return of 11,000 acres in the land of the Chippewa National Forest, back to your tribal nation. Congratulations for your many years of hard work, dedication and advocacy to make this happen.”

Lt. Gov. Flanagan also called its passage an, “incredible feat.”

Also during the event, Jackson, who serves as Vice President of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe, stated he hopes to work to revise the MCT’s Constitution, to change the language around tribal enrollment.

“This Constitution was written 87 years ago, not by Native people, but by the federal government. This definitely needs to be rewritten by us -- the Anishinaabe people,” he said. “We have continued to have an ongoing discussion with the other five MCT tribes regarding enrollment.

“We brought forward a resolution asking for Leech Lake to be able to distinguish and implement our own process on how we determine our membership. I spoke on our sovereign rights as a federally recognized tribe, which gives us exclusive self-autonomy and self-determination rights as a sovereign tribe in that we want to exercise that right when it comes to our enrollment process.”

Business planning and development

New things are in the works in Leech Lake. Jackson laid out a number of new building developments and infrastructure plans on the horizon.

  • A new convenience store and gas station with a car wash are being planned on the grounds of the Cedar Lakes Casino in Cass Lake.

  • A new community center in S. Lake will be opening this summer. “We are very excited,” Jackson said of this.

  • District 1, which includes the communities of Ball Club, Deer River, S. Lake, Winnie Dam and Inger, will be getting a new homeless shelter. Jackson said with this development, each of the three districts in Leech Lake will have a homeless shelter.

  • The tribe has been working with the Minnesota Department of Transportation on a number of projects, Jackson said. These include pedestrian crosswalks over U.S. Highway 2 in Cass Lake, working on addressing pedestrian safety concerns in Bena and creating biking and walking paths throughout Leech Lake.

  • The Northern Lights Casino Housing project is underway in the Prescott area, which will build 30 new homes. A new RV park was also recently established near Northern Lights Casino, Jackson said.

  • A Leech Lake Wellness Center, which has been a subject of discussion for some time, is in the works.

  • Jackson said a proposed 54-bed inpatient Opioid Recovery Center has been approved. “We have had a discussion on this for some time now, and made the decision. We want our people to begin healing at home here on Leech Lake,” he said. “This project is going to be up soon and will continue to update as the progress proceeds forward.”

“We are very excited about these upcoming projects, (but) lots of planning needs to happen before it's time to put a shovel in the ground,” he said. “But this council likes to see things happen, and that's very exciting.”

Other topics of discussion

During the event, directors also touched on topics of employment, tribal gaming, housing, mental health, education, environmental resources and law enforcement.

Gaming Human Resources Director Pete Paquette encouraged Leech Lakers to apply for open jobs within the Leech Lake Gaming System as restrictions continue to lift.

Education Director Laurie Harper reflected on the tumultuous last year for education and child care. She mentioned the installation of new outdoor learning spaces and the plans for a new child care setting adjacent to the Aabinoojii Oshkii Bimadiziiwin Center building.

Tribal Police Chief Ken Washington spoke about the year from a law enforcement perspective, mentioning efforts against the opioid crisis, coupled with a decrease in calls for service overall, likely due to the pandemic.

The recorded stream can be viewed on the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe Facebook page or website. The video feed begins at the 39-minute mark.

Hannah Olson is a multimedia reporter for the Pioneer covering education, Indigenous-centric stories and features.
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