A safer playground with the help of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe

A rendering of the proposed handicap-accessible safer playground for Native youth will be in the shape of Mikinaak, the turtle, with a ribbon of surfacing that symbolizes water creates a play space for people of all ages and abilities. (Photo courtesy: Flagship Recreation.)

Doug Thompson

Leech Lake youth say their vision is ‘more than just a park’

A group of tribal youth in the small northern Minnesota village of Ball Club are leading a Native nation rebuilding project that will result in a new park for their community.

Leech Lake youth have been working with the Circle of Healing group to design and fundraise for a new park in the Ball Club’s second village neighborhood. The proposed playground will take the shape of a turtle, or Mikinaak, to honor the Ojibwe culture and language. The playground will be accessible for people of all abilities.

Leech Lake youth say their vision is ‘more than just a park.’ Scheduled to be constructed this coming spring, it includes a culturally-infused accessible playground design, a basketball court, a fire ring with seating (a ‘chill space’ as the youth refer to it,) and a pavilion for community gatherings.

Ball Club Park Design Meetings
Ball Club youth spent 2017 and 2018 designing the park and selecting playground equipment. (Photo courtesy of Circle of Healing.)

“I was nervous when this whole thing began, but this has brought us all together, and I learned I have a voice that will be listened to,” said Teona Bebeau, a fourteen-year-old Leech Lake community member with aspirations to become a teacher and live her life in the Ball Club area. “I had to share my thoughts openly and collaborate with others, both old and young. I learned I can be a leader.”

Surrounded by the Chippewa National Forest, Ball Club, or Baaga’adowaan in Ojibwe — which also translates to lacrosse stick — is one of many tribal villages within the Leech Lake Indian Reservation.

Native nation rebuilding refers to efforts tribes are making to increase capacities for self-rule and sustainable community and economic development. Community leadership has been investing in infrastructure projects over the past several years in an effort to address the ills associated with present-day effects of generational trauma.

Ball Club resident, Robbie Howe, who serves as District 1 Representative for the Leech Lake Reservation Tribal Council, said the project is providing a much-needed cross-generational success story for the community.

Howe says the biggest challenge the community has faced in recent years is drug use by its youth. A safer place to gather is one possible solution.

“There has been an unprecedented rise in drug use by our children over the past several years. Everything bad that happens in the world seems to be exponentially worse here in Indian country because of the history of marginalization and oppression of our peoples,” said Howe. “The playground will be located in a place that is accessible and safe for the children to gather and play while building the cohesive foundation Ball Club needs to correct the negative trajectory that drug use has caused over the past several years.”

The Leech Lake Band has invested in community projects to benefit Ball Club’s youth in recent years. According to Amanda Youngrunningcrane, 21st Century program coordinator for the nearby Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig school, projects have included building an ice rink, purchasing ice skates for community youth, and clearing a hill for sledding in the wintertime.

“To understand how we can expand upon these earlier projects, we engaged our youth in a process to learn how to further meet their needs,” explains Youngrunningcrane. “This not only serves a practical purpose to design and construct a safe place to play, but it builds ownership and pride.”

Approximately two-thirds of the people in the Second Village neighborhood are under 17. Located just north of the center of Ball Club on U.S. Highway 2, its existing playground contains only three pieces of older playground equipment.

“Our playground is dated and inadequate,” said Nashel Bebeau, Secretary/Treasurer of the Ball Club Local Indian Council. “The equipment is not safe and it is not handicap accessible.”

Ball Club before renovations
In the Spring of 2020, a new park will replace three old pieces of playground equipment in Ball Club’s Second Village neighborhood. (Photo courtesy of Circle of Healing.)

The youth and the project have a friend in a multi-cultural collaborative focused on reconciliation. Circle of Healing, the local group of Native and non-Native people who “work to build relationships, connections and understanding within and between Indigenous and non-Indigenous cultures” became involved during a 2017 envisioning session with Ball Club youth.

According to Becky LaPlant, a public policy program associate at the Blandin Foundation in neighboring Grand Rapids, Minnesota, the Circle of Healing responded in 2011 to an expressed desire by community members to begin a cross-cultural conversation to help the greater Itasca County area become more inclusive.

“We learned quickly that there was a need for a better understanding of culture and history on the part of the non-tribal population in order to start creating an effective platform for reconciliation and healing in our region,” says LaPlant. “The Circle became involved in this project by asking the kids, ‘What would be meaningful for their community?’”

The playground initiative has garnered broad support beyond the local communities of Ball Club and Grand Rapids. Flagship Recreation, a playground equipment supplier based in Lake Elmo, Minnesota has been voluntarily assisting the Ball Club youth with the design of the playground layout and equipment.

“Leadership in local communities rarely experience this kind of endeavor more than once, but it is something we do every day. I see this as an opportunity to make a difference in the lives of others,” says Stacy Strand, the sales consultant with the company who’s been working with the youth.

Though the neighboring Chippewa National Forest has not been directly engaged, its leadership has expressed keen interest in projects like this that provide outdoor opportunities for children.

“Most people are unaware that 90 percent of the Leech Lake Indian Reservation is within the Forest, which creates a very complex relationship between this National Forest unit and the Tribe,” says Darla Lenz, Chippewa National Forest Supervisor.

“Because of this, we are working increasingly hard to better connect with the local tribal communities, especially the youth. Engaging youth in outdoor activities helps build their appreciation of natural resources.”

Thus far, the park project has attracted approximately $160,000 in funding commitments from various sources for the $200,000 initiative. The largest pool of funding, approximately $75,000, will be provided by the Leech Lake Nation itself.

Other financial support is coming from sources including the Blandin Foundation, the Northland Foundation, the Bush Foundation Board of Directors Fund and Kaboom, a national non-profit funded by Keurig Dr. Pepper, an organization dedicated to “bringing balanced and active play into the lives of kids growing up in poverty.”

LaPlant says the group is actively fundraising to close the $40,000 funding gap by approaching other foundations, companies, and individuals. In addition, a crowdfunding site has been set up through GiveMN. https://www.givemn.org/story/Aparkforballclub

“This is an impressive community effort, and having the children involved makes it truly great. These kids are my favorite thing about this community,“ says Howe.

Tadd Johnson, Senior Director of American Indian Tribal Nations Relations for the University of Minnesota system, and a citizen of the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa said he is excited about the effort as well.

“In addition to my work with the University, I serve on the boards of the Udall Foundation and the Native Governance Center, both of which emphasize Native nation rebuilding in their missions. One of the elements that enable nation rebuilding is learning to collaborate towards a common good in the face of the vast historical injustices our people have endured,” says Johnson.

“This is an opportunity for these children to improve an aspect of their community in a tangible way that brings the next generation together around a common goal. This bodes well for Ball Club and the Leech Lake Nation as a whole.”

Teona Bebeau demonstrates Johnson’s point in summing up her perspective on the project.

“I am exhilarated we are going to finally have a good park, and it is fun to be able to say that we did it together. I’m looking forward to collaborating with others on new projects now that I know how it works to be part of putting something like this together.”

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Douglas Thompson is a Tribal Relations Specialist with the Chippewa National Forest. He can be reached at douglas.thompson@usda.gov 

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