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New document details well project on reservation 50 years ago

Long-time Cloquet resident Ann MacConnachie has preserved a timeless bit of area history. In a document she wrote and recently presented to the Fond du Lac Cultural Center and Museum, MacConnachie details how a group of women from Cloquet saw a need that existed on the Fond du Lac Reservation 50 years ago - and went all the way to the nation's Capitol to help remedy it.

"We were a group of young Presbyterian 'church ladies' who were new to the Cloquet area, having arrived here after World War II with our husbands," MacConnachie detailed in the introduction to the document, titled "Water for Indians."

She went on to detail how many people on the reservation at that time lived in shacks with dirt floors and were treated like second-class citizens.

"The post-war boom which we enjoyed in town had not touched the reservation," noted MacConnachie.

In the fall of 1960, she said the church's social action committee devised a plan to talk with tribal elders and study various aspects of the reservation to find out what could be done to upgrade the quality of life for its people.

"One basic need jumped out at us like a stop sign," said MacConnachie, "- clean, safe water. The shallow wells were all polluted. Only one working well existed for hundreds of people spread over many square miles."

The women of the group wrote to all of the senators and representatives in Washington, advising them of the situation on the reservation, and to their amazement, Senators Eugene McCarthy and Hubert Humphrey answered promptly, as did Representative John Blatnik. At that point, another local group known as The Women's Charitable Organization joined the cause by collecting hundreds of signatures on petitions, which were then sent to the same Congressmen to add weight to the request for federal intervention.

MacConnachie said the Congressmen in turn contacted the Division of Indian Health, Secretary of the Interior Stuart Udall and the Public Health Service to request funds for new wells on the reservation. At the same time, Governor Elmer Anderson weighed in with a five-year plan for the reservation and, at a special meeting of the Reservation Business Committee, a resolution was passed requesting help obtaining emergency funds for well drilling from the Minnesota State Health Department.

"We had set some wheels in motion and waited anxiously for results," wrote MacConnachie.

In June 1961, MacConnachie said she was informed that $14,000 had been allocated by the Public Health Service for well drilling on the reservation, with the work to commence as soon as bids could be let.

"It wasn't much, but it was a start," wrote MacConnachie. "Something was being done!"

By the end of the summer, the local church group was stunned to learn that deep wells had been drilled at every home on the reservation.

"There was no evidence that our efforts contributed to the success of this endeavor," MacConnachie reflected in her document. "Perhaps we helped to develop the critical mass that finally tipped the scales toward action. It was enough that our mission was accomplished."

MacConnachie's project report includes copies of all of the original documentation from the project, including the letters from McCarthy and Humphrey, the result of the church group study on the reservation and a photo and article from the Pine Knot detailing Gov. Anderson's visit with Peter DeFoe [Sr.] and Sherman Smith of the tribal council during his tour of the reservation.

Jeff Savage, curator of the Fond du Lac Cultural Center and Museum, said the document will be kept on permanent display at the museum.

"It helps outlines the concerns of some of our tribal people during those early days, and shows the long-term influence this project had on our community," commented Savage.

MacConnachie is a retired psychiatric social worker now living in Florida who still vacations at her family cabin on Big Lake each summer. She has previously published magazine articles as well as a book, "Defining Moments," in 1998.