BENA, MINN. – Generations of Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe have been waiting for the start of this school year.
Student dancers in bright ceremonial regalia twirled through the airy new gymnasium at the Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig high school Monday. There were no leaks in the roof over their heads. There were no bats or mice in the walls. The floors were sturdy and level, with nothing to trip them up as they followed the intricate steps of the dance.
“It’s such an honor to have a new school,” said dancer Rozalina Hunt-Morris, who will be starting her sophomore year in a new high school rather than the rickety pole barn that the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe had made do with for decades. “I love everything about it. They have nice chairs. Nice halls. Nothing’s cracked. Nothing leaks.”
Until recently, Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig was glaring proof of the federal government’s neglect of its treaty obligation to tribal schools. Of the 183 schools in the Bureau of Indian Education system, 63 were in poor condition, and few were in worse shape than the Bug school.
Federal spending on tribal schools had been in decline for years, and it took a sustained, bipartisan effort by the Minnesota congressional delegation to wring $12 million in federal funding to build the new school.
Monday’s dedication ceremony here drew Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, former Sen. Al Franken, and Reps. Betty McCollum, Tim Walz and Rick Nolan. Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith beamed in video greetings.
McCollum and Franken, in particular, spent years twisting arms to get the funding. McCollum, who tucked the Bug school funding into a 2016 appropriations bill, credited the students who lobbied so long for a building they knew they’d never get to enjoy themselves.
“They were not seeking help for themselves,” she said, nodding at the young dancers in the auditorium. “They were seeking help for the students who performed for us today.”
As students and visitors wandered through the new building Monday, they marveled at the light streaming through the big weatherproofed windows, the spacious classrooms, the hallways lined with glossy lockers, the safe and well-equipped science labs, the dedicated spaces for lessons in traditional beadwork, music and dance, the smart blackboards, and the new video conferencing technology for long-distance learning.
“This is a joyous day,” said Bug school Principal Victoria Wind, who graduated from the old high school — the one where they had to chip away ice from the exits that froze shut in the winter.
The new school — the one Wind’s daughter will attend — has a geothermal heating system. School officials won’t have to swaddle the students in coats and blankets inside chilly classrooms.
The toilets won’t back up. The wiring won’t spark. The halls and classrooms won’t be cluttered with buckets to catch the water dripping from the leaky ceilings.
The new walls are Sheetrock, not tin. Teachers won’t have to evict nesting squirrels from their desks. The roof isn’t dented from last winter’s ice dams.
Those were the conditions when Andy Jackson graduated from high school in 2001, and when he returned a few years later to teach drumming and Ojibwe language classes.
“It feels good. It feels so good,” he said, looking around the bright hallway outside of what will be the new science lab.
Jackson’s daughter twirled her way down the hall, arms thrown out in a corridor that’s wide enough for twirling. She’ll enter kindergarten this year, and when she’s old enough for high school this building will be waiting for her.
Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig got its start in 1975, when 75 Indian students walked out of Cass Lake Junior-Senior High School to protest what they saw as discrimination and cultural insensitivity. The band converted a bus garage into a schoolhouse, named it after an Ojibwe leader whose name translates to “Hole in the Day,” and developed a curriculum that honored and preserved the band’s culture and language. No one realized how long they’d have to wait to see a real school roof over students’ heads.
“You can actually do science here now,” said Carol Kloehn, the school’s parent liaison, looking around the new science lab, which will have things the old lab lacked — like an eyewash station and safe storage for lab chemicals and enough microscopes for everyone.
Enrollment at the elementary school next door tops 120, she said, but the old high school used to scare some students away — literally.
It scared local law enforcement too, who worried that the flimsy structure would collapse in a tornado or trap students in narrow halls if someone came after them with a gun. When winds topped 40 mph, students were evacuated, just to be safe.
“Our children, they need this,” Kloehn said. “They deserve this.”
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