At every significant development in the progress of American Indians over the past four decades, she was at the forefront. She was the first woman to lead a Minnesota tribe, as chief executive of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe.
It was a brilliant autumn afternoon. Tadd Johnson thought he had a meeting with Marge Anderson at her office near Onamia.
But he was told she was at home, hand-parching manoomin, wild rice, with her husband, Merlin.
When Johnson arrived, she put her lawyer and friend to work stirring the large iron kettle over the fire with a canoe paddle as part of a methodical transformation process unchanged for centuries.
“I spent the whole afternoon stirring that pot, and I don’t think they said more than six words to each other,” Johnson said of the couple, who were near 80. The silence, he said, spoke much about their relationship, their love of tradition. “To me, that spoke a lot about Marge’s character, this quiet integrity that she had.”
A patient insistence on justice made her a transformational figure — and often came at a price, said Johnson, now professor and chairman of the American Indian Studies Department at the University of Minnesota-Duluth. Her life often was threatened during a landmark court battle over hunting and fishing rights. When the state once insisted that the band waive its sovereignty as a condition of getting funds to which it was entitled, she went without a paycheck. Then she led the fight to change state law to prevent such pressure in the future.
“Something inside of her called her to a life of public service,” Johnson said. “It was a deep-seated importance to her to improve the lives of her people.”