Earlier today, before a crowd of some 400 people in a casino bingo hall, Arthur "Archie" LaRose was sworn in once again as the secretary-treasurer of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe. For the 35-year-old LaRose, it must have been a sweet moment. After all, not only did he defeat one of his bitterest political opponents (who also happens to be his wife's uncle), he swept all 13 districts. "Those are some beautiful numbers, man," LaRose said appreciatively. "I've never seen it happen since I've been following politics."
If the margin of victory was satisfying, the context was even more so. Over the course of his contentious, four-year tenure as the band's second highest ranking official, LaRose has been stripped of his job duties, banned from setting foot in tribal casinos and generally been mired in a state of near constant controversy. Actually, the controversy part goes back further than four years.
A product of one of the toughest corners of the reservation--a blasted out housing project in Cass Lake known as Track 33--LaRose first made news back in 1993 after five masked bandits perpetrated the only casino-heist in Minnesota history. LaRose, along with four fellow Leech Lakers, was arrested and jailed. He maintained his innocence and, ultimately, the case was dropped.
After that, LaRose--who made a name for himself on the reservation as an amateur boxer--decided to try his hand at tribal politics. While he failed in his first bid for office, his popularity with the voters of Leech Lake has seldom been in question. There is also little question that he has been remarkably unpopular among his fellow members on the tribal council. Over the years, his colleagues have accused him of everything from untoward gang affiliations to financial skullduggery to intimidating tribal employees.
Twice council members voted to remove LaRose from his office. The first time, a tribal judge invalidated the removal; the second time, a special election was held and LaRose coasted to another easy victory. An uncommonly hard campaigner, LaRose credits his repeated success to a simple credo: listen to the people.
This year, he says, a main plank was eliminating the requirement that anyone who rents a room at the tribally-owned hotels have a credit card. The policy, which was enacted under the rationale that it would dissuade drug dealers from setting up shop in tribal facilities, proved unpopular with band members. "I would say 85 to 90 percent of the people on the reservation don't have a credit card," LaRose observes. "When we have wakes and funerals, a lot of our family and friends who come don't have credit card and don't have a place to stay. So this policy directly effects our band members."
Given the margin of his recent victory, LaRose can't help but contemplate higher office. "If this year goes good and I can do my job, if they [the other tribal council members] let me do my job, I'll stay where I am." He pauses a beat, then adds, "But some day I'm going to seek that chairmanship."