The Comeback Kid

A political outcast rises again on the Leech Lake Reservation

"They even claim I'm linked to the Native Mob," LaRose says. "Well, if I'm in a gang, it's a one-man gang," he shrugs. "I'm a family man. I've got four kids and a wife I've been with for 15 years." LaRose acknowledges that he has friends and family members who have been caught up in drugs and crime. But that, he notes, is not unusual on the reservation, and he shouldn't be blamed for the actions of others. And he lets it go at that, with little indication that he has been personally wounded by any of the accusations or criticisms.

That durability is the defining feature of LaRose's political career. "The thing about Archie is he's like Cassius Clay. He can take a beating," observes Frank Bibeau, a band member and former tribal attorney. "Two years ago, Archie was just a young guy who knocked on everybody's door, spent some time visiting with elders. People liked that. But I've been very impressed with the ways he's grown over the past two years. In the last year, when things really started popping, he was the one urging people to be calm and talk to each other."


Before the fall: Archie LaRose at a Leech Lake band forum last summer
Mike Mosedale
Before the fall: Archie LaRose at a Leech Lake band forum last summer

Last week, LaRose and his opponent in the February 15 general election, Donnie Headbird, came to Minneapolis to a meeting of about 30 Leech Lake band members who live in the cities. For two hours, LaRose and Headbird listened quietly as the band members discussed various matters, ranging from the current state of affairs on the reservation to the problems with the Indian Child Welfare Act. Near the end of the meeting, both candidates were invited to speak. Headbird stood up first. A heavy-equipment operator and Marine Corps veteran, Headbird said he was running because he had been encouraged to do so by people who were weary of the constant tumult on the tribal council. He talked about his sobriety. He talked about the need for more programs for the youth and the elderly. He was modest and brief. And he talked very little about a specific agenda for the job of secretary-treasurer.

Then LaRose took the floor. He strode to the center of the room and launched into a full-blown oration. He discussed his origins on Tract 33. He noted that, unlike the other members of the current tribal council, he didn't come to the council with any professional experience or a high-paying job. He defended his largesse on emergency assistance and talked about the need for more oversight of tribal programs. He suggested that the "sovereign dollar"--annual monies generated by agreements with the state--could be divided among individual band members. "No one should be suffering or struggling on the reservation, but the majority are. They're grassroots," he said. "I'm grassroots."

His rhetoric grew more expansive. He talked about the possibility of uniting Minnesota's Ojibwe reservations into one nation. "That's my big dream," he said. "We'd be very, very powerful if we just stopped fighting among ourselves." People nodded. And then he returned to the subject of his tenure as secretary-treasurer, defending his actions small and large. He said he, too, had heard about the abuse of the emergency assistance, and said he had forwarded information to the FBI.

As LaRose continued his monologue, George Goggleye, the current tribal chairman, and Mick Finn, a council member, got up from their seats. They started walking toward the door. They paused here and there to shake hands and exchange pleasantries. Looking a touch irritated, LaRose complained that "out of respect" the council members should have stayed until he finished.

And then, like a boxer, he shook it off, put his head down and plowed on with his speech.

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