When LeRoy Fairbanks explains why the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe bought the former Teal's Market in Cass Lake, Minn., in October, the story starts in the past.
Not just a few years ago, when the band began talking about how to get its own local grocery store. No, Fairbanks' story begins more than 100 years ago, before white settlers arrived and the Ojibwe occupied a large swath of northern Minnesota.
"We moved as the seasons went," said Fairbanks, the Leech Lake Band's District 3 representative. As seasons changed, he said, his ancestors ate wild rice, venison, berries and cultivated food.
"We used to roam the neighborhood, and the neighborhood consisted of multiple blocks," Fairbanks said. But when reservations were created and boundaries negotiated with the federal government, "We negotiated to stick to this one block."
Unable to follow their wider-ranging food-gathering traditions, the Native Americans depended on federal government food programs for low-income people, primarily monthly commodity distributions.
The commodities were "really bad food" designed less for quality than for long shelf life , Fairbanks said. "It was terrible food and we had to survive."
Several years ago, Fairbanks said, band members began discussing whether to open their own grocery store. They wanted a way to provide "not just food in a box, not just food in a can, but getting real food for our communities," he said.
They approached Roger Teal, owner of Teal's Market, about buying his store. Teal's family has owned a market in Cass Lake for four generations, starting as a Red Owl store in 1942 , becoming Teal's Super Market in 1953 and Teal's Market in 2009. Over the years, the business expanded with 10 other locations around Minnesota and the Dakotas. Roger Teal's four daughters all joined the business after finishing college.
Teal wasn't ready to sell at the time.
When COVID hit, the band needed to pack boxes of food to distribute among vulnerable community members to protect them from having to venture into public places. The band's casinos were closed, so hypothetically food from their restaurants could have been distributed, except that items came in industrial sizes.
"We could get gallon cans of tomato sauce but we couldn't buy individual cans of sauce or beans," said Mike Auger, the band's gaming division director. The band lacked the license required to purchase consumer-size foods from a wholesaler.
Roger Teal offered to help, using his license to obtain the foods.
Then this year Teal, now semi-retired, approached the band and offered to sell them the store. They closed the deal within two months for what Fairbanks said was "several million" dollars. The band renamed it Leech Lake Market.
Teal declined to say why his family decided to sell the store. The deal does not affect the store's other locations. But he knew early on he would offer the band the opportunity to buy the Cass Lake location.
"The reservation has always been a very good customer and the people on the reservation, everybody there has been great customers for many years," Teal said. "So they were naturally among the first people we talked to. ... They're a good fit for us."
The band let the store's current employees stay on. "They had a very successful business model and successful management and employees and we don't want to break that apart," Auger said.
Fairbanks sees the purchase as an opportunity to reach goals he's been working toward during his almost 10 years in office: food security and food sovereignty. The first term refers to assuring that food is available. Food sovereignty has to do with "the rights of peoples to produce through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems," according to the U.S. Food Sovereignty Alliance.
"Food sovereignty is really defining that we're going to decide what we're going to eat, how we want to eat, when we want to eat, what we're going to provide for our families and communities," Fairbanks said.
Partly because of growing up with unhealthy eating habits, Indigenous people suffer disproportionate health problems. Native Americans have higher rates of diabetes than any other U.S. racial group, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — about twice the rate for white people. Their obesity and heart disease rates are 50% higher than for white people. according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Minority Health.
"We're trying to re-educate ourselves about healthy diets," Fairbanks said. The short closing period left little time for the band to plan how to accomplish its food goals.
"It's the fun part now!" Fairbanks said. He'd like to install a salad bar and fill the deli with nutritious items, and possibly sell products from food producers in the region. The market could even offer foods that are more accessible on the reservation than in cities, such as wild rice and venison.
Some of the band's more than 9,500 members are used to buying from discount stores like Walmart. But Fairbanks reminds them that they now own this store, that the money they spend there is going directly back into their community. Eating healthy foods, he added, can also save money on medical bills.
"In some conversations I've had, people say, 'What are you so excited about, it's just a grocery store?'" Fairbanks said. "It's not just a grocery store, it's our entryway."