Gaa-zagaskwaajimekaag / Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe
The Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe is a member of the greater Ojibwe or Anishinaabe Nation, which is the second largest in North America after the Navajo Nation. There is still retention of the original language, ceremonies, customs and beliefs while at the same time dealing with the modern issues. While historical intergenerational poverty, high unemployment, and other factors have birthed extraordinary adverse conditions, there remains an underlying optimism and resilience that clearly arises from the cultural strenghts people and families cling to.
The Leech Lake Reservation is in north-central Minnesota and covers parts of four counties: Beltrami, Cass, Itasca, and Hubbard, with the major portion located within Cass County. Situated 100 miles south of the Canadian border, 225 miles north of Minneapolis/St. Paul, 140 miles west of Duluth, and 155 miles east of Fargo.
Located along US Highway 2, the reservation is southeast of Bemidji with Walker just outside on the southwest corner. Cass Lake is the largest community within the reservation. Eleven communities make up the reservation. In addition to Cass Lake, there are Ball Club, Bena, Inger, Onigum, Mission, Pennington, Smokey Point, Sugar Point, Oak Point, and Squaw Lake. Oak Point had previously been known as Squaw Point, but was renamed in 1995.
In the 1600's, the Dakota Indians had communities at Leech Lake. The Ojibwe bands moved into the region during the mid-to-late 1700's. The first Ojibwe settlements were on small islands on Leech Lake. This area in north central Minnesota was the home of the Mississippi and Pillager Ojibwe bands. In 1847, treaties took sections on the southwest corner of their lands with the Mississippi and Pillager bands from the Menominee and Winnebago tribes that were to be moved from Wisconsin. The remaining land was ceded by treaty in 1855 that established the reservation. The 1864 Treaty expanded and consolidated the reservation in the area of the three lakes. The intent at that time was to have the other Minnesota Ojibwe bands move to the Leech Lake area. By 1867, the plan was changed and White Earth Reservation was created to be the home of all Ojibwe people. The area of the Leech Lake Reservation was reduced by executive orders however, in 1873 and 1874 added land.
Drained by the headwaters of the Mississippi River, the area is generally swampy. With some 40 wild rice producing lakes, it has the largest natural wild rice production of any of the State's reservations. The land is mostly second growth. The Leech Lake Tribe holds the smallest percentage of its reservation of any of the state's tribes. County, state, and federal governments owned well over half of the original land. Of the 677,099 original acres, 212,000 acres are surface area of the three big lakes. Of the remaining 465,000 acres, other levels of government own 332,804 acres. The National Chippewa Forest has the largest portion of the land. Seventy-five percent of the National Forest is within the reservation.
The Leech Lake Tribal Council is the governing body with their offices in Cass Lake and is a member of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe. The Tribal Council consists of a Chairman, Vice Chairman, District 1 Representative, District 2 Representative, and District 3 Representative. In the early 1990's, the Tribe contracted with the BIA to operate programs under self-governance procedures as one of the second groups of ten tribes allowed into the pilot project. The State is responsible for criminal and some civil jurisdiction over Indians on the reservation. The Leech Lake Tribe issues its own automobile license plates.
The smaller communities have facilities for community events and services such as medical clinics and programs for elders. The people have organized their own community councils to give a political voice to their concerns. Health services are provided at the IHS hospital and clinic in Cass Lake and clinics in the other communities. If care that is more extensive is needed, the hospitals in neighboring cities are used. The Tribe operates a halfway house and an ambulance service, however, fire protection is from neighboring communities. In 1995, the Tribe began a burial insurance program for all enrolled members.
Education and programs for children are provided by two tribally run childcare facilities, Head Start programs in seven communities and the K-12 Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig tribal school. The Tribe sponsors and provides funding for the Leech Lake Tribal College that began in 1990. The college is located in Cass Lake and offers AA degrees with credits transferable to Bemidji State University and other higher education institutions.
In the first major hunting, fishing, and wild rice rights cases in Minnesota, the Tribe confirmed that it had the right to control these activities on the reservation. The State pays the Tribe for its restraint in using the reservation's resources. In addition, the State conservation officers are deputized by the Tribe to enforce tribal natural resource codes.
The Tribe operates three gaming enterprises. The Palace Bingo & Casino in Cass Lake and Northern Lights Gaming Emporium four miles south of Walker, and White Oak Casino in Deer River. The Palace has a restaurant and offers many events. In 1996, the Palace Hotel, with 80 rooms and indoor pool, was built adjacent to the casino. The casinos have made the Tribe the largest employer in Cass County.
For many years, the Tribe has operated the Che-wa-ka-e-gon complex comprising of a service station, the Che-We restaurant, a convenience store, and a gift shop. A nearby retail center, built by the Tribe, houses Indian-run business and provides incubator services until they are successful enough to go out on their own. Included in this service is a pizza parlor, Dairy Queen, a barber shop, and a tribally-run office supply store. An embroidery business was successful enough to move out on it's own in 1995. A motel, restaurant, and marina were purchased by the Tribe and are now being run under a lease agreement as Shingobee Inn. The Tribe also has an Indian-run archaeology firm, the Leech Lake Archaeological Company.