The Comeback Kid

A political outcast rises again on the Leech Lake Reservation

Standing beside his white Monte Carlo in the parking lot of the Northern Lights Casino and Hotel, Archie LaRose doesn't look much like a politician. Tall and barrel-chested, he sports a shock of short, spiky black hair with a fluffy rattail. His smooth-skinned face makes him look younger than his 33 years. But in his tumultuous and often controversial two-year stint as the secretary-treasurer of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe--the second most powerful elected office on the reservation, and the one he is again seeking now--LaRose learned a few things about the political game.

So before heading out for another evening on the campaign trail, LaRose decides to take care of some last-minute hygiene and carefully clips his fingernails. As he does this, he casts his eyes across the half-full parking lot at the recently expanded casino. If circumstances were different, he might take this opportunity to pop inside. Maybe he would thank some of the voters who supported him in his recent primary victory. Maybe he would try to win over some new voters for the upcoming general election.

But circumstances don't permit that. Six months ago, LaRose received a formal notice barring him from the premises of Northern Lights and the other two other casinos owned by the Leech Lake band. The letter, signed by the band's gaming director and security chief, said there was reason to believe that LaRose had committed an act "that threatened the reputation and/or safety of persons of Leech Lake Gaming."

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

"It was just another insult," LaRose says with a shrug. "They didn't even bother to say what I did." The ban is the least of his troubles. After a long and acrimonious power struggle, his colleagues on the Leech Lake Tribal Council voted him out of a job this July. He appealed to the Leech Lake Tribal Court. The court ruled in his favor and returned the matter to the tribal council. It didn't make any difference. After a second hearing, the vote was the same. LaRose was out of a job. Now he is hip-deep in a bid to recapture his old office and, like any seasoned pol, he exudes optimism about his prospects.

"I'm a warrior and I'm going to come back, my friend," he says. "I've got a strong heart, and a lot of guts and courage. I'm not going to stay down." As he heads east on Highway 200, past the northern Minnesota resort town of Walker, LaRose cranks up the Rod Stewart disco classic "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy?" and lays out his itinerary for the evening: three hours of door-knocking in two of the reservation's most remote backwoods settlements, Smokey Point and Kego Lake. There aren't a lot of votes here--maybe two dozen households in all--but the locals supported LaRose in the primary. He wants to let them know he doesn't take their votes for granted.

"Two years ago, a lot of elders told me they never had a candidate come to their houses before," LaRose says. "I believe that's what won me the election." On the reservation, some candidates avoid door-to-door campaigning altogether, instead relying on family and clan affiliations to get out the vote. But LaRose has made face-to-face interaction the main tenet of his political gospel. And since he's been out of work, he's been able to spend a lot of time on the campaign trail. Sometimes he is out for eight hours a day, sometimes twelve or thirteen. Even his staunchest critics grudgingly concede admiration for his commitment to campaigning. "That boy gets out and he hustles and he knocks on every door," says tribal attorney Mike Garbow.

The effort has yielded results. Last month, after a successful battle to get his name listed on the primary ballot, LaRose finished first in a field of 14 candidates. The runner-up, a distant cousin of LaRose's named Donnie Headbird, trailed him by 20 points.

Door-knocking on the reservation is not without its hazards. In his last campaign for secretary-treasurer, LaRose was bitten by dogs on three occasions. So as he steers the Monte Carlo into the driveway of a supporter at Kego Lake and spots a big mixed-breed dog, he's wary. "Oh, man, stiff tail. Not a good sign," he says. He honks the horn, waits for a resident to come corral the dog, and then warily sidles up to the front door.

Inside, he is greeted by an old friend from Cass Lake, Rodney Johnson. After a few pleasantries, the conversation turns to LaRose's reelection bid. Johnson ventures that there might be an effort to buy votes. The practice has gone on for years on the reservation, Johnson claims: Sometimes people are given money for their votes, sometimes pills or liquor. But LaRose tells Johnson he is not worried about this. "I always tell people, 'Go ahead and take their money and vote how you want. They can't follow you into the booth,'" he says.

At that, he launches into his talking points. He vows to push for "the programs"--like free snow plowing and grass cutting for elders--and to fight "misspending." He points with pride to his role in eliminating an extra layer of management in the tribal government and his efforts to have the band's financial affairs scrutinized by outside auditors.

Politics at Leech Lake have long been rife with accusations of graft and corruption, and LaRose has been on both the receiving and giving ends. In his removal hearing, his opponents alleged that he funneled emergency assistance funds to friends and relatives. Mike Garbow, the tribal attorney and a LaRose foe, says that authorities are only now learning the extent of the abuse of the program. Between October 2002 and June 2004, according to Garbow, the band paid out approximately $3.7 million dollars in emergency assistance. Four members of one family, Garbow says, received $16,000 for car repairs over a four-month period. "The standing orders seem to have been, 'Go ahead and dole it,'" Garbow alleges. "There seems to be very little documentation that Archie authorized it. But it stinks and it makes you sick."

LaRose has become accustomed to deflecting such charges. "At the removal hearing, they said I gave away too much. I helped the people by giving away hotel rooms for wakes and funerals. I lent cars from the motor pool so people could go to the doctor. What's wrong with that? It's the people's dollar. That's why I wasn't stingy with it," he says. "I told the council, 'If you want to take me out for helping the people, so be it. I'll be back.' I still stand good in the people's eyes."

 

If nothing else, LaRose knows plenty about what it's like to be poor. Born at the Cass Lake Indian Hospital in 1971, he spent much of his early childhood at a reservation housing development called Tract 33. With its burned-out trailers, boarded-up houses, and litter-strewn streets, Tract 33 is notorious as one of the most troubled spots on the reservation. Yet LaRose speaks fondly of his childhood days at "Track" and, while he no longer lives there, he still calls it home. "Some people look down on Tract 33, because the majority live in poverty. But it's not as bad as they say. I don't have any fear being at Track, any time of the day or night."

At the age of seven, LaRose found his way to the reservation boxing ring, where he made a name for himself competing in both regional and national tournaments. He credits the sport with keeping him out of trouble with drugs and alcohol. Still, LaRose, like many Leech Lakers of his generation, did eventually run afoul of the law. In 1991, he pleaded guilty to third-degree assault in Cass County Court. As LaRose tells the story, the assault was in retaliation for the burglary of his trailer by a former sparring partner. To this day, he says, it is the only mark on his record.

However, two years later, LaRose and four other Leech Lakers were arrested and charged in connection with a more serious crime: the armed robbery of the Palace Casino, where LaRose once worked. According to news reports at the time, the bandits--who wore ski masks and coveralls to conceal their identities--fled the Palace with about $27,000 in cash and jewelry. The Bingo Bandits, as they were dubbed, were said to have foiled the pursuing sheriff's deputies by placing nail-studded boards along the escape route.

The charges did not stick. After two of the defendants were acquitted in jury trials, the cases against LaRose and the others were dismissed. "There were 130, 140 suspects and leads, and I was just one of them," LaRose now says. "I guess they figured I was a dumb Indian and I would plea-bargain to something I didn't do. So I waited in jail, went through the process, and the judge dismissed the charges." Before that experience, LaRose says he had entertained thoughts of working in law enforcement, maybe as a game warden or a policeman. Afterward, he started thinking about becoming involved in tribal politics.

While raising a family and working as a custodian at the Palace, LaRose made his first run for office. In 1996, he worked on the campaign of Eli Hunt, who was elected tribal chairman. Two years later, LaRose made his first bid for a seat on the tribal council. He lost that race but acquired a serious bug for politics. He ran again two years later, losing by a narrow margin in a rough-and-tumble campaign that featured repeated airings of the allegations about LaRose's supposed involvement in the Palace robbery.

"His involvement with the robbery has been debated over and over, and that probably cost him the election when he ran for district representative," observes Bill Lawrence, publisher and editor of the Native American Press/Ojibwe News and a sometime LaRose supporter. But Lawrence, whose paper ran a series of critical stories and letters about LaRose's background early in his political career, says many band members are now more interested in LaRose's reform agenda than his past. "At this point I don't think the public really cares about the robbery. I think a lot of people really believe in Archie," he says. "They know Archie and his family have been on the bottom rung for a long time, and they know they've had to scrape."

 

As LaRose tells it, the many allegations leveled against him--and his removal from office--were simply retaliation for his efforts to open the band's finances to public scrutiny. He claims his enemies oppose him for upsetting the tribal government gravy train. There is little disputing that he came into office with an agenda. After he was elected secretary-treasurer in 2002, LaRose immediately moved to bring in an outside auditor and, immediately thereafter, ran into stiff opposition from the band's then-chairman, Eli Hunt. Frustrated, LaRose and his allies successfully petitioned for a recall vote, which resulted in Hunt's removal from office. After that, LaRose's critics went to the media, telling reporters at Minnesota Public Radio and the Bemidji Pioneer of concerns that a gang called the Native Mob might try to influence the election through violence. That violence, LaRose points out now, never materialized.

"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."

 

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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