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Students build homes and careers

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CASS LAKE, Minn. – At Leech Lake Tribal College, the carpentry class gives a whole new meaning to “take home project.”

Within a few weeks of LLTC’s May 13 graduation, the house Rochell “Rocky” Carpenter’s students built will be loaded on a truck and headed for a member of the Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians.

This is the third house completed through the one-year carpentry course that concentrates on teaching students how to improve or build homes. “So many people are interested in building their own homes; 60 percent of our students are just interested in building their own homes,” Carpenter said.

The LLTC carpentry course started about seven years ago; its students have completed a cabin, a garage and houses. The homes, paid for by the Red Lake Band, usually were built on the reservation 50 miles northwest of the college and the Leech Lake Band of Chippewa. But that caused transportation problems and the students missed college activities.

“If somebody missed the van, it was a struggle to get them to the job site,” Carpenter said. The tribal college hosts a Monday gathering that her students would miss. “Every Monday, we have drumming and a potluck.”


Photo courtesy Mark Lewer, Leech Lake Tribal College Shane Roy worked on drywall in a house built at Leech Lake Tribal College in Minnesota.

The most recently completed house will be delivered to a Red Lake tribal member based on a waiting list. The last recipient had been on that list for six years. The electrical work is done by students from the two-year electrician program and the ductwork and plumbing are contracted out.

Working on a house benefits Carpenter’s students in multiple ways. They learn “framing, reading a blueprint, exterior finishes (roofing, siding), interior finishes (drywall, trim, hanging doors). They should be able to estimate a job (cost of materials and labor),” which can help them in a carpentry career or as they decide the cost of work on their own homes.

“Part of their curriculum is to take a technical writing class, a mathematics course; these students are really quick,” she said. “A lot of other teachers complain that it’s so difficult for them to motivate students (with theoretical knowledge), these students actually get out there and apply it.”

The learning curve is swift. “About 80 percent of our students are working just from the basic knowledge of what a hammer is or what a screwdriver is. About 20 percent have been in construction.”

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With a carpentry diploma, students seeking a construction career get credit for about 1,000 hours of apprenticeship with the North Central States Regional Council of Carpenters, which covers Minnesota, North and South Dakota and Wisconsin, which starts them at better-than-beginning wages and gives them a solid jump toward journeyman status.

The carpenters’ council recently began a free training program it hopes to bring to the 35 reservations in its region. The week-long course introduces students to commercial rather than residential carpentry, as is taught at most colleges, said Steve Newby, business representative for the organization. That means working with different materials – steel versus wood studs, for example. Many projects on reservations, such as Red Lake’s hotel-casino, could benefit from local workers with carpentry skills.

While most of her Leech Lake students will not go into the field, Carpenter found carpentry is a good career. She is the only female carpentry instructor in Minnesota.

“My father and my stepfather were both carpenters,” said the instructor, who has family members enrolled at White Earth Band of Chippewa. “I would have to play at the job site all the time, and I kind of grew up in that. … I actually have a hammer tattooed on my arm.”

As a teenager, she decided carpentry was “not going to get me a lot of dates,” but came back to the field when she got older. Her first job was siding a house, and when she received her first paycheck, getting dates took a back seat as a career motivator.

Leech Lake Tribal College graduated its first student – Sean Fahrlander with an Associate of Arts degree in Anishinaabe Language and Culture – in 1993. This year the college had its largest graduating class with 40 graduates May 13. The college has about 70 faculty, staff and administrators and about 250 full-time students, 92 percent of them from northern Minnesota reservations.

For a time, she worked with contractors in Minneapolis, including one that hired only women. Then, she returned to White Earth to work on her mom’s house – who, like many clients, started by “just wanting windows replaced” and asked for a whole lot more, joked Carpenter. “I tell my students that the greatest compliment that somebody can give is adding on work for them.”

The dimensions of the houses the Leech Lake class builds on-site are limited by the ability to move the structure. The college worked with the movers. “We’ve set up a series of concrete piers and large two by 12 beams. … We can’t build anything wider than 24 feet,” Carpenter said.

When moving day arrives and the house is lifted onto the truck, she admitted, “It’s kind of a nail biter.”

It’s also a satisfying conclusion of an education well done.