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Bois Forte leadership - inspired

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Kevin Leecy, in his first foray in politics, was installed as chairman of
the Bois Forte Band in early July. He moved from a business position with
Fortune Bay Resort, owned by the band, to try his hand at governing the
2,700 band members.

"I grew up in Minneapolis, went into the army in 1985, then into college.
Gaming just started and I worked for the Leech Lake Band in their Class III
operation," Leecy said.

Leecy returned to his reservation in 1996 and worked for the gaming
operation. He was the manager on duty, managed the blackjack tables and was
public relations manager. During his public relations stint, he expanded
the collaborative efforts of the resort into the Twin Cities and beyond,
something no other tribe had done.

"We came a long way, we created friendships. That sounds like a cliche, but
we made personal friends with people."

When tourism became important to the other bands of the Minnesota Chippewa
and Dakota tribes, an organization was formed. Leecy became the first
president of the American Indian Tourism Association. In that capacity he
sought out ways to collaborate with other tribes, tourism groups and the
state.

Leecy returned to Bois Forte to make a better life in a rural atmosphere
when gaming brought the opportunity. "I liked gaming," he said.

Now Leecy is in a position to defend gaming when the state of Minnesota
continues through legislative action to try to compete or rewrite the
compacts with the tribes.

"I ran for office because I felt confident that I could bring in new ideas
and a different way of doing things. I am an abstract thinker. I have the
pieces and now have to put them together to create the big picture. I think
I can do that, otherwise I wouldn't have put myself in the position I'm
in," Leecy said.

The Bois Forte Band of Chippewa is one of six members of the Minnesota
Chippewa Tribe. Each band sends its chairman or chairwoman to sit on the
tribe's council. Each band is under the constitution of the Chippewa Tribe,
but each has its own governance body as well.

The Bois Forte Band has taken over the health care of its people. Through a
self-governance compact with the federal government, they maintain the
reservation roads and own the emergency care facility and equipment. Law
enforcement, however, is under the guidance of the BIA. The band is working
toward cross deputizing law enforcement personnel.

The Bois Forte Band has a separate court system that is shielded from the
council with jurisdiction over all Minnesota Chippewa members on the Nett
Lake and Lake Vermillion reservations.

Health care with rising diabetes rates and inadequate funding from the 1HS
is a problem for Bois Forte, much like the rest of Indian country.

"Prisoners get double the health care than we do. They get $4,200 per year,
we get $1,700. That makes us second-class citizens, and we have a treaty,"
Gordon Adams Jr., vice chairman of the Bois Forte said.

The Bois Forte council is working to fix a housing shortage. A tax credit
plan is financing houses on both the Nett Lake and Lake Vermillion
reservations with three, four and five bedroom homes. These are cracker-box
style HUD homes that bring an attractive element to a proud community.

Education is also very important to the Bois Forte council. The council
members speak proudly of the scholarship program that allows members to
attend college tuition-free. When they complete that education some will
choose not to return to the reservation immediately, but it is the stated
hope of the council that people will return to Nett Lake and Lake
Vermillion to work for the tribe and set an example.

"Jobs are important and education plays into that. As long a people have an
education it puts them ahead in the world. We have dedicated funding for
job programs here at Nett Lake so labor people can get trained," Adams
said.

Adams worked his way up through labor construction jobs on and off the
reservation. He said a jobs program that moves people from non-skilled
labor to learn the trades where the higher-paying jobs are located is the
goal of the band.

"We would like these trades people here because we are always progressing,
we need a lot of trades people, we are always [doing] construction. We
would like our people working rather than all these outside union people,"
he said.

The Bois Forte Band receives $1.8 million from Minnesota as part of an
agreement that prohibits unlimited hunting and fishing in the ceded lands
of northeastern Minnesota by the tribal members. The 1854 cessation treaty
reduced the lands of the Bois Forte and other bands, but retained their
right to hunt and fish. Recent events in Minnesota have created ill
feelings between the non-Indian and Indian communities over the fishing
issue.

The Bois Forte members are eligible to catch double the state limit of fish
as a result of the agreement.

With a portion of the money received from the state, the Bois Forte created
a No Youth Left Behind policy. The money is used to put youth to work over
the summer months and this year the fund accommodated everyone that
applied.

Drugs and alcohol still remain a problem on Nett Lake. A task force
supported by the council was set up this year to work on the problems. The
plan to attract qualified people from the urban areas that can return to
work for the tribe also brings city problems to the reservations. But the
council and some community members see the task force as a means to curb
the influx of drugs and alcohol and work toward prevention.

Council members said they do not make any major decisions without the input
from the elders.

"They advise us," said Kevin Strong, council member. "We do a lot for our
elders. We have budget for the elders and an activity fund and we just
purchased a new 14-seat van for the elderly meals program. We make sure all
program decisions go past our elders," Strong said.

Grants and revenues from Fortune Bay Resort help support the elder
programs.

"Every single decision we make sure the culture is included, it's
important," Leecy said.

Looking to the future, advancing technologies will be included in many
economic development decisions. Plans are to develop T1 technologies. The
water tower on Nett Lake can act as a location for antennae and the village
is not far from a rail system.

Wild rice also has potential for the Bois Forte. The band wants to ask the
legislature to rename cultivated paddy rice, which is a major reason
natural wild rice has fallen out of the market.

If the name is changed it could return the market for wild rice to the
Chippewa bands.

"We made the casino more diverse because someday it may go away and we will
be ready," said Ray Villebrun Sr., council member. "With our resort we are
ahead."

The council plans to create a department of business development to assist
individual band members who wish to create new businesses.

"We will take part of jobs training and take part of educational training
to ensure that their business is successful, even offer incentives for a
business on the reservation. We do have tourism training with Fortune Bay
Resort, now let's focus on Nett Lake, and crate a one-stop shop for
economic development," Leecy said.

Nett Lake is small, yet the council said it would like to see businesses
where money can be spent and kept on the reservation. Most goods and
services are acquired off the reservation.

"We invested wisely and never built beyond our means. Now we look back at
individual band members and lift them up. We are constantly looking for
business opportunities to come up with the right one," Strong said.

One proud accomplishment is the band's relationship with surrounding
communities, something Leecy and Fortune Bay's present public relations
director Bill Tibbetts strove for.

"A lot of tribes don't reach out. We sit on a lot of chambers and on the
government advisory council on tourism. It is better to be involved and
have input," Leecy said.

To that end, the band turned what could be a difficult task into an easy
process of land into trust. Leecy said the band received support from the
surrounding communities.

For the Bois Forte members who live in the urban areas, the council has set
aside funding that will support meetings with those members to listen to
their concerns, help with home repairs, mortgages and health care. It's
also important to send council members to the urban areas to listen to the
concerns of Bois Forte members, "and not just visit when their vote is
needed," Adams said.

The Bois Forte council members are quick to point out that their council is
a model for all others. "We get along," they said.

"We have our differences, but we have teamwork, we have a camaraderie and
others are envious of us. I'm proud of that. It puts us ahead with teamwork
and communication. We back each other up," Villebrun said.