November is national Native American Heritage month. Across the United States there will be wonderful cultural presentations, symposiums, museum exhibits and celebrations. For me personally, however, the greatest showing of commitment to our community and culture by caring, giving volunteers takes place in a small rural town in Northern Minnesota every summer.
This year, the eighth annual event, was an amazing team effort that achieved more than any trip previously. During the last week of July, a group of volunteers including many National Indian Gaming Association (NIGA) Associate members traveled to Cass Lake, Minn., to assist White Earth and Leech Lake Ojibwe Tribal enrollees with housing repairs/construction and the community at large with elders’ and children’s projects. The people served are mainly tribal members living in this rural region of Northern Minnesota where unemployment exceeds 60 percent, winter temperatures reach approximately 50 degrees below zero, homelessness is widespread and there is a general need for essential basic services.
The White Earth Cass Lake Mission Trip was originally founded and organized by my family and family-owned businesses working alongside our church. The initial launch was a very “gut reaction” effort when we saw the needs and answered a request for help from the local tribal community center in Cass Lake. The unmet needs have become so great over the years that the tiny office located on Main Street is overwhelmed. When I saw my own tithes to my church serving good causes all over the world—places such as India and Africa—yet saw the hunger and homelessness here on our own reservations stateside, something definitely tugged at my heart (and pocketbook) and I just reacted. Since that first year, the mission trip program has evolved into a well-organized effort with hundreds of volunteers and donors with projects that include construction, health care, camps for tribal youth, elder programs and a new homelessness reduction initiative.
The growth in large part has been due to the support of the gaming industry. Gaming industry professionals Matthew Robinson and James Klas (Klas Robinson QED), Kari McCormick (Kitchell Contractors) and Ann Zenor and Rachel Perez (Kidsquest/Cyberquest) not only volunteer and donate supplies and funds annually, but also have tackled the task of growing the program and recruiting the assistance of others. Although technically I may be the founder/director, these five individuals truly deserve the credit behind the growth and longevity of the project.
This year, in addition to the above mentioned individuals and firms, we were particularly thrilled to gain support and participation from the following gaming industry related organizations as well: Association of Equipment Gaming Manufacturers (AGEM), the National Indian Gaming Association, COST of Wisconsin, Shooting Star Casino, Gasser Chair, Loeffler Construction, YWS Architects, Leech Lake Gaming, Ditronics and Phunware. Several churches hailing from Minnesota, Connecticut and California work alongside the gaming industry in the project. The church youth groups’ participation immensely adds to the effectiveness and efficiency of the workforce.
This year we were blessed by two cultural presentations to start the week of work. A spiritual leader conducted a blessing and smudging, and a local drum group performed honor songs for us. The blessings were effective as we completed most of our projects ahead of schedule.
With freezing subzero temperatures during winter months complete with wind chill factors, ice storms and blizzards, the homes in this area require weatherproofing unlike other regions in the U.S. This year our construction team was able to complete three home reconstructions, including two new roofs on houses that would not have made it through the harsh winter. Both tribal recipients of the new roofs were elderly and handicapped.
Chronic substance abuse has long been an ongoing problem in this area and we applaud the work of the White Earth tribally owned treatment and education center for youth, Oshki Manidoo in Bemidji, Minn. Our construction team was able to dedicate an entire day of the trip to painting and repairs for this nonprofit center. Our annual children’s program was especially robust in 2014 with record attendance of children ages 5 to 14 hailing from throughout the community. We were especially touched by the many homeless children who were able to attend each day despite challenging circumstances.
An annual highlight is always the distribution of “goodie” bags for elders. This year NIGA donated strong, sturdy canvas conference bags that were especially appreciated. Wanda, a sweet woman in her 90s commented that she liked the NIGA bags since they would last a long time and she plans to be around for a while yet! A new program in 2014 that added a very touching element to the mission trip was the implementation of “Project Magic Bedroom.” A separate group within the construction team redecorated three little girls’ bedrooms in complete makeovers. The themes and colors were of the girls’ choosing, and most had lots of pink and purple with princesses, rainbows and butterflies.
It is always sad when Friday rolls around and we have to leave as so many friends have been made, lives have been touched and there is always so much more work to be done. However, many of the gaming companies have now implemented year-round programs to collect clothing and other items of need to send up to the Cass Lake area throughout the year. There is especially a strong need for clothing, toys and baby supplies (diapers are always in demand). We also have a new task force discussing ways to work with the tribal housing office, local churches and community members to address the epidemic homeless issue.
I can’t express enough gratitude to the 112 volunteers who made the 2014 trip and to the numerous sponsors and donors who made it possible. We need long-term sustainable solutions in Indian Country, and I know that many tribal leaders and government officials work hard every day to seek those solutions. In the meantime, our little group with big hearts and a few dollars will continue to help as much as we can in a little corner of the world—a part of the reservation that feels forgotten. For us the true meaning of Native American Heritage Month is rolling up our sleeves and working alongside the community in Cass Lake. The 2015 trip is already planned, Kidsquest is organizing a fundraising effort and more volunteers are needed.