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Partnership develops Cultural Resources Center within Leech Lake Reservation

The Boys and Girls Club of the Leech Lake Area is working with partners to convert a closed wild rice and smoked fish business within the Leech Lake Reservation into a cultural resource center to serve area youth. The popular business sold rice a...

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The Boys and Girls Club of the Leech Lake Area is working with partners to convert a closed wild rice and smoked fish business within the Leech Lake Reservation into a cultural resource center to serve area youth. The popular business sold rice and fish from a stand in Ball Club, Minn., for over 30 years before the passing of its owner, Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe Tim Holm, in March 2016.

“I was worried that with Tim’s passing there would be a loss of food and cultural activities associated with netting and smoking whitefish, and harvesting and processing wild rice in the area,” said local attorney Frank Bibeau, White Earth Ojibwe. “My grandfather and other community elders taught Tim how to gather and process these cultural and spiritual foods, and I quickly became concerned about the potential for the community losing a connection to its history and traditions.”

Shortly after Holm’s passing, Bibeau began working with the Boys and Girls Club, Honor the Earth, and the Blandin Foundation to finance the revival and development of the site for programming. Thus far, approximately $25,000 has been raised to construct a structure on the property to accommodate community activities that will include the processing of fish and wild rice, and the gathering and storage of balsam boughs, pinecones and other natural commodities gathered on and around the reservation in what is being termed a “learn to earn” setting.

“I see the concept of the Ball Club Living Cultural Resource Center as an important exercise in food access and food sovereignty,” said Shirley Nordrum, Anishinaabe and extension educator for the University of Minnesota. “This effort will create a safe space to pull the youth of our community together to remember the knowledge and skills of our ancestors, and recognize the strength that comes from our connection to the land. This is important because it allows our children to rebuild a sense of community that we seem to be losing.”

There is an economic component to the effort as well. Northern Minnesota’s economy can be challenging, and the northern Anishinaabe bands such as those on the Leech Lake reservation do not enjoy the same level of income and employment from business activities such as on-reservation gaming as tribes with reservations near larger population centers.

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“This project excites me because much of the visible economy of this area occurs off of the reservation in communities like Bemidji and Grand Rapids,” said Kyle Erickson, grant program officer for the Blandin Foundation. “The Resource Center will create unique opportunities for youth to make a living on the reservation in a way that is culturally relevant.”

Diet-related health issues such as diabetes pose challenges to youth in the area.  “We work with around 100 kids, many of whom live below the poverty line,” said Chad Evans, local unit director for the Leech Lake Area Boys and Girls Club in the nearby Deer River School District. “We see this project as an opportunity to take advantage of the presence of local experts with traditional skills who can mentor our kids, and help them improve their diets by teaching them how to harvest and process healthy, natural foods.”  

A longer-term vision for the Cultural Resource Center is to develop a marketing co-op for food and other natural products to take advantage of the site’s close proximity to the reservation’s pow wow grounds and Elderly Nutrition Program.  “Of course we want our kids to learn traditional skills and have hands-on activities, but we also want to expose them to the business aspect of what they are doing,” said Evans. “This is the ‘learn to earn’ aspect of our effort. One way we are doing this in the short-term is to have our kids package the wild rice we harvested this season to be sold during the holidays, much like Girl Scout cookies.”  

Evans said proceeds from these sales will be used to support more programming at the site.

The focus on traditional activities has a direct connection to treaty rights, a contentious topic in northern Minnesota.  

“A basic understanding of tribal treaty rights to hunt, fish and gather in the region is central to increasing cultural awareness and consideration about Indigenous people,” said Becky LaPlant, program associate for Public Policy and Engagement for the Blandin Foundation, and facilitator of the Circle of Healing, a group of Native and non-native people working in the Itasca area to bridge the cultural divide. “The Resource Center will expand educational opportunities and enhance inclusion in the area.”

This treaty rights aspect is also important to the local Boys and Girls Club, which serves both native and non-native youth.  

“This project is not only about healthy food production and life skills, but it provides an opportunity to bring kids together to engage in traditional activities associated with treaty rights in a meaningful, non-confrontational way,” added Evans. “Approximately half of the kids we serve are native, and the other half are non-native. This is a unique opportunity to touch these kids at a point in their lives where they still have open minds.”

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Frank Bibeau agrees.  

“Providing a setting for youth to learn traditional skills, while improving diets, and teaching business skills is the focal point of the Ball Club Living Cultural Resource Center,” he said. “However, the Anishinaabe see access to land and water where resources are gathered, both on and off reservation, as part of our territorial and political jurisdiction that has been guaranteed by the treaties. The Resource Center provides a base and learning environment for both understanding and exercising these rights.”

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Douglas Thompson is an attorney and consultant focused on assisting with natural resource and environmental issues in Indian Country. He can be reached at doug@indiannaturalresourcelaw.com .

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