"There was just no hope."
Marge Anderson, chief executive for the Mille Lacs
Band of Ojibwe, said for years life on the reservation was bleak. Unemployment, poverty and alcoholism seemed to
stand heel to toe on the reservations. Anderson's own family lived in a tar-paper shack.
For Anderson, now 67, public school was a struggle.
She spoke Ojibwe as a child. Not speaking English made early school days understandably more difficult. Anderson
struggled through public school and thought of quitting several times. But each time her parents encouraged her
to return. They believed in the power of change that comes with education, she said.
Anderson could not afford college for herself after
high school. She graduated in 1952. But she sees that opportunity available now to young people.
Anderson said she was always told the key was education.
And once educated, the responsibility was to return to the reservation to help the people.
The band also recognized the need to preserve their
language as a link to heritage, spirituality and sense of being.
"We were in the process of losing that,"
Anderson said. "Kids are really proud of who they are now. The pride you see in their faces now is a great
accomplishment. ... They can be anyone they want to be now."
When she was a child, Anderson's father was a seasonal
railroad worker and work often took him away from home. Her mother was a strong family figure. The family did not
rely on welfare. Although with eight children to feed, Anderson said her mother knew every possible way to cook
a potato. Now Anderson orders potato soup whenever it is on the menu. It is a reminder of home.
And when the cupboards were empty, Anderson said her
mother gathered the children and went into the woods to gather bundles of bittersweet. They gathered just what
was needed. Then the red-berried branches were taken to the highway where the family sold birch bark baskets.
"People bought them like hot cakes," Anderson
On Saturday mornings when Anderson's mother scrubbed
the floor, she remembers playing a soap bubble game with her siblings. Bubbles were chosen like race horses from
the suds and followed to the finish line on the slanted floor.
"We thought we were rich because families were
together," Anderson said. "I think of those times as fond memories."
Dolls were additional play things Anderson's mother
made for her children. "She was an exceptional lady," Anderson said of her mother. "I learned a
lot from her."
Anderson said racism still exists although it is less
overt now than it was during her own childhood when children felt a sense of shame along with their heritage. Anderson
said that was one of the driving forces behind establishing a tribal school.
Memories of tribal elders still turn to the days when
the federal government's policy of assimilation meant children were removed from Ojibwe homes and sent to boarding
schools. Children were taken out of native dress, hair was shorn and speaking Ojibwe was forbidden.
In an videotaped oral history of the band, tribal
elder Jim Clark recalled his time in boarding school and being punished when ever Ojibwe was spoken. When asked
about the time now, Mille Lacs band members refer to it as a bad or dark period.
"My mom went through that,"Anderson said.
"Her sister was taken and she was never able to see her again. ... That was a hard thing to accept."
Anderson's aunt died before the family could be reunited,
but her daughters were later found to be living in the Twin Cities.
Anderson moved away from the reservation and lived
in the Twin Cities for about 18 years. She returned to Mille Lacs when called to work on the reservation. When
a position opened in tribal government, she was approached to run. First elected a district representative in 1976,
Anderson was re-elected. She then ran for secretary-treasurer and won. When Chief Arthur Gahbow died in 1991, she
was appointed to serve in his unexpired term.
The first time Anderson walked into the chief executive's
office, the full effect of the task ahead hit home.
"I thought what the heck am I doing here?"
she said, from a small conference room near her office. "I don't belong here. For just a few moments I had
my doubts, but I just got caught up in it."
Anderson said as the years went on she started to
see more women serving as elected leaders in their tribes. While women have always been leaders in the Indian community
and at home, more recent roles are taking a public turn.
"It was not until recently we came out in the
forefront," Anderson said.
Anderson said she sees strengths in team building
from women leaders, but regardless of gender a key is to know where to lead. "I think they have to have a
And visions are helping tribes through a cultural
revival. Anderson said she hears everyone saying the same things about renewal. Anderson, who lost a brother to
a car accident and alcoholism, is enthused about the possibilities. She wants Ojibwe children to be proud of their
"I look at that as a strength, instead of a weakness,"
Anderson said of being Indian. "I think we are survivors and continue to survive. I could probably spend a
whole day talking about being Indian."