Marge Anderson, the first woman to lead a Minnesota Indian tribe and a driving force in efforts to secure tribal hunting and fishing rights on Lake Mille Lacs, died Saturday.
Appointed chief executive of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe in 1991, following the death of longtime tribal head Arthur Gahbow, she was elected to the top post in 1992 and 1996, leading the band until 2000 when Melanie Benjamin replaced her. Anderson was returned to office in 2008, serving until last year, when Benjamin was again elected chief executive.
Anderson died at age 81 of natural causes at the Mille Lacs Reservation in Onamia, tribal leaders said. She is survived by her husband Merlin Anderson, their three children, grandchildren and great grandchildren.
She became nationally known as a leader in efforts to strengthen tribal sovereignty and government in areas of law enforcement and environmental protection. She used the band’s profits from its Hinckley and Mille Lacs casinos to fund social programs, schools and clinics for the band’s approximately 3,500 members instead of handing out individual payments to band members.
She believed that the payments would have to be divided among so many people that the money “would be gone overnight.’’
Her view was that tribal government should help people “go to school, learn a trade, a profession, and come back here and do good things for your people.’’
She was challenged for that position in 2000 and was ousted by Benjamin, who campaigned to share more casino profits with individual tribe members.
Sunday, Benjamin praised her former mentor. “Marge Anderson was a great tribal leader for the band and a trailblazer for all of Indian Country. This is an extraordinary loss for the band,” Benjamin said in a news release Sunday.
While the successful lawsuit to enforce fishing and hunting rights granted under an 1837 treaty made her a lightning rod for criticism by non-Indians, Anderson continued to pursue the band’s efforts to win those rights and expand its profitable gaming operations.
“This case is about more than hunting deer and catching fish,” she told the Star Tribune in 1998, shortly before the 1999 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that validated the treaty rights. “It is about preserving and passing along the traditional ways that make us who we are — Ojibwe people.”
Tadd Johnson, head of the department of American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota, Duluth, and her lawyer and friend, said Anderson got “threats and hate mail,’’ during the treaty rights discussions, and “she stood strong through that.’’
Anderson had a quiet leadership style and came from the old school of consensus building and standing firm in the band’s position, Johnson said. “She spoke very softly but her words carried a tremendous amount of power.’’
Her quiet style was demonstrated the day the Supreme Court ruling came down, Johnson said. “I was standing there next to her when the decision came in and the receptionist for the reservation said “What should I do with this Marge?’ She said why don’t you go ahead and make that announcement. And they had just won this tremendous victory in the U.S. Supreme Court.’’
In a statement, Curt Kalk, the band’s secretary-treasurer, said “Marge led the band through our treaty-rights case and into the modern era of Indian gaming. She made history for the band and we will feel her impact for generations.”
Born, Marjorie Ann Davis on April 21, 1932, on the reservation, Anderson graduated from Onamia High School in 1952.
Denied the opportunity to go to college, she eventually completed hundreds of hours in advanced skills training, workshops, and seminars and took on the cause of higher education for her people.
Anderson was an authority on the history, traditions and culture of the Ojibwe and was fluent in the language.
Anderson became a national figure, known throughout Minnesota, by federal officials in Washington, and by tribal leaders across the United States.
“The members of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe have lost a great political leader and champion of tribal rights who will be remembered for generations to come,’’ said U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn. “Marge was an inspiration who dedicated her life to improving the lives of her community and Indian people all across this country.”