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Dalton Walker
Indian Country Today

Leon “Lee” Cook, a lifelong advocate for the betterment of Native people, champion for Indian education and former National Congress of American Indians president, died Oct. 13. He was 82.

Cook, a citizen of the Red Lake Nation in northern Minnesota, was a larger-than-life figure, a groundbreaker who impacted many people in and beyond Indian Country.

Cook's career had an unusual path. He was just in his 20s when he was considered as a potential Democratic vice presidential nominee. Then he went to work for Richard Nixon at the Bureau of Indian Affairs during a time of reform. Then he resigned to run for, and win, president of the National Congress of American Indians. He was just 31 at the time.

An old photo of Leon "Lee" Cook's 1971 NCAI president campaign. (Photo courtesy of Holly Cook Maccaro)

After Washington, he spent decades in education

Even with all that Cook accomplished, his heart remained with Red Lake.

“It didn't say it in his obituary, but he was orphaned, and he lost both his mom and dad really young by the time he was 7, and Red Lake raised him and his family, his extended family raised him and loved him,” his daughter, Trisha Cook, said. “And he spent his life trying to say thank you.”

Lee Cook’s favorite quote was to “live each day like it’s the only one you’ve got.”

His work took him from his homelands across Minnesota, Washington, Arizona and New Mexico.

He was born in 1939 in Red Lake, Minnesota. His Ojibwe name was Waase Waagosh, or Shining Fox.

Cook graduated from Saint John’s University in Minnesota in 1961. In 1966, he received his master’s degree from the University of Minnesota’s School of Social Work, a first for a Minnesota Ojibwe, according to his obituary.

Two years later, Cook was in Chicago and in the running at the Democratic National Convention for the vice presidential ticket, the same year Minnesotan Hubert Humphrey ran for president and lost to Republican Richard Nixon.

Cook still found a way to Washington. Even as a progressive, Cook served under the Nixon administration in the Interior Department as director of economic development at the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

An old newspaper clipping of Leon "Lee" Cook. (Photo courtesy of Holly Cook Maccaro)

He left the BIA because he said he didn’t “see any construction action coming about in this administration,” according to an old Associated Press newspaper article clipping, where Cook blasted the BIA and its bureaucratic leaders.

The American Indian Press Association quoted a close Cook associate: “He’s not leaving the war. He’s just leaving the Eastern Front.”

According to an article in the The New York Times, Cook “resigned in disgust, charging a conspiracy by the Interior and Justice Departments to “destroy the Indian community.”

Leon "Lee" Cook, far left, at the 1971 NCAI convention. (Photo courtesy of American Indian Press Association)
(Right) Leon "Lee" Cook, Red Lake Nation, speaks with American Indian Movement leader Dennis Banks at a National Congress of American Indians conference in 1971. Cook died on Oct. 13, 2021. (Photo courtesy of American Indian Press Association)

He explained more to the American Indian Press Association.

“I’ve observed while the Interior Department has been doing evil and diabolical things to destroy Indians,” he told the press association. “The visibility we’ve given that department is now widely known, and I will continue to make them famous.”

The Nixon administration, though controversial, had tremendous impact on Native people, including the doctrine of self-determination and the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.

In 1971, Cook was elected to lead the National Congress of American Indians in Reno, Nevada. He defeated NCAI President Earl Old Person. Old Person, a decades-long tribal council member for the Blackfeet Nation in Montana, coincidentally died on the same day as Cook.

Cook won in a “landslide election,” according to an American Indian Press Association report.

“Cook’s victory topped a week of turmoil triggered by the activists American Indian Movement and the National Indian Youth Council present in numbers, who lambasted the 28-year-old NCAI for alleged failure to represent all Indians of the 50 states, including urban Indians,” read the report.

Cook’s service at NCAI was during “a transformational and historic era and his leadership helped lay the foundations upon which NCAI still stands today,” his obituary states.

Leon "Lee" Cook, Red Lake Nation, died on Oct. 13, 2021. (Photo courtesy of Cook's obituary)

Cook was an advocate for the Indian Child Welfare Act. He testified in front of the Senate in the 1970s. Holly Cook Macarro, Red Lake Nation and Indian Country Today newscast contributor, said she recently read his testimony again. She is Lee's goddaughter.

"Hearing Lee's voice back in the '70s and how impactful it was, and I thought, ‘All of that is still relevant today,’" she said.

More than 50 years after his time at the Interior, Lee Cook lived to see Deb Haaland, an Indigenous woman, become secretary. Cook Macarro said Lee and his coworkers at the Interior in his day were some of the first to say Native people should run the BIA because “Indians know what’s right, what’s best for Indian Country.”

Lee was excited when Haaland was elected to Congress and when she was sworn in as the first Native person to lead the Interior.

“I don’t know that he thought he would live to see that day,” Cook Macarro said.

ICT contributor Holly Cook Maccaro joins ICT's newscast to talk about Lee Cook and others:

Another first for Cook was when he served on the Red Lake Tribal Council in the 1970s while living in Minneapolis. He was elected a council representative of the Red Lake district and remains the only Red Lake citizen to hold council office while living away from his homelands.

Cook worked for numerous higher education institutions in Minnesota and Indian education programs. He was the first director of the American Indian Resource Center at Bemidji State University and was instrumental in the development of the Red Lake Nation Tribal College, according to his obituary.

In the mid-2000s, when the Bemidji resource center opened, Cook invited one of his friends, Suzan Shown Harjo, Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee, to speak on the Washington Football Team mascot controversy, another issue in which Cook strongly supported change.

Harjo is a longtime journalist and policy advocate. She covered Cook as far back as his run for NCAI president and later worked with him on policy matters.

“Lee was one of those people who could just keep up with anyone, and he would slow down for anyone,” she said. “He understood how to communicate, he understood how to get everyone moving in the same direction. And I think, had he had a couple of more years at NCAI, that it would have made for better policy, more improvements.”

Leon "Lee" Cook at the Democratic National Convention in the 1960s. (Photo courtesy of Holly Cook Macarro)

Cook served on many boards, including Blue Cross Blue Shield Foundation, United Way, YMCA, Minnesota Indian Education Association and National Indian Education Association, to name a few.

Cook is survived by his wife Patricia; children Kristin, Thomas and Trisha; and multiple grandchildren.

He was buried on Oct. 19 in his homelands.

"We really want to thank everybody that's reached out and shared stories and shared pictures and shared articles,” his daughter said.” We appreciate the support and that love so much. I think he'd be really honored and proud to know so many people are thinking of him.

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