Leon "Lee" Cook, a member of the Red Lake Nation who dedicated his life to advancing the causes of sovereignty, education and economic opportunity for American Indians, has died of a breakthrough COVID-19 infection. He was 82.
An orphan at age 6, Cook overcame childhood poverty and tragedy to become one of the nation's most influential and best-known advocates for Native American rights. He rose to the highest levels of government during a period of tumult in the early 1970s and helped to lay the foundation for a new era of self-determination for tribes throughout Indian Country.
Cook, of Cass Lake, whose Ojibwe name was Waase Waagosh or "Shining Fox," died Oct. 13 at Sanford Bemidji Medical Center in Bemidji.
"Lee was a true 'man of the people,' who always spoke with compassion and love," said Sam Strong, tribal secretary of Red Lake Nation. "He empowered everyone around him."
Cook wore many hats during a barrier-shattering career that spanned generations. At 31, he became the youngest person ever elected president of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), the oldest and largest Indian advocacy group in the United States.
Cook served in the Nixon administration as director of economic development at the Bureau of Indian Affairs. And in 1974, he testified before Congress on the benefits of a landmark law, the Indian Child Welfare Act, that sought to end the devastating practice of removing Indian children from their families and placing them in homes and boarding schools far removed from their communities.
With perseverance, self-effacing charm and a gift for making connections, Cook helped establish a groundbreaking tribal resource and education center at Bemidji State University; Red Lake Nation College, a two-year tribal school in Red Lake; and the Minneapolis American Indian Center, a central hub for the Twin Cities' urban Native community.
He also served as director of Indian Education for the Minneapolis Public Schools and assistant to the president for diversity at Augsburg College in Minneapolis.
"Lee was in many ways one of the great patriarchs of Indigenous education in this country, and he was pretty fundamental in shaping policy," said Anton Treuer, a professor of Ojibwe at Bemidji State University and author of 20 books on Indigenous language, culture and history. "He also had uncommon charm and charisma."
Cook was the youngest of his parents' two children born on the Red Lake reservation. His mother, Rose, died of a heart condition soon after his birth; his father, Frederick, an electrician, died in a car accident six years later.
But Cook spoke fondly of being raised by an extended and caring family of aunts, uncles and cousins, whom he often referred to as his "brothers and sisters," said his daughter, Trisha Cook, of St. Paul. The one-room house where he spent much of his childhood had no indoor plumbing or telephone service, and the northern winds seeped through the home's tar-paper walls, family members said.
Cook found refuge and structure in the small Catholic Church on the reservation and its mission grade school, St. Mary's. In eighth grade, he made a life-changing trip to St. John's Abbey in Collegeville, Minn., with a priest who was taking his final vows. While there, Cook toured the dorms of nearby St. John's Preparatory School and became enthralled with the possibility of living on campus and studying full time.
He spent three years working odd jobs, from woodcutting to packing fish, to save enough money to attend St. John's Prep, and in 1966, he became the first Minnesota Ojibwe to graduate from the University of Minnesota's School of Social Work.
In 1970, Cook traveled to Washington, D.C., to serve in the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) under President Richard Nixon, who was calling for a new policy of "self-determination without termination." Cook was hired along with 14 reform-minded young Native Americans, known as the "Fearless Fourteen," who were brought in to shake up the BIA's entrenched and predominantly white bureaucracy. But a year later, he resigned in disgust, citing a conspiracy by the Interior and Justice departments to "destroy the Indian community," according to a 1972 New York Times article.
Soon after, Cook was elected by a landslide as president of the NCAI, where he continued to champion Native causes. In the early 1970s, he convened a national meeting to discuss ways to pressure professional sports teams with racist mascots to change them. One of his final accomplishments was helping to spearhead the opening in 2017 of a much-needed grocery store in Red Lake.
After retiring at age 75, Cook continued to advise tribes and individuals on economic development and education projects. "Lee laid the groundwork for so much of what we have accomplished today as a people," Strong said.
For years, Cook ran his household much like a tribal council, family members said. Every Sunday evening, he would gather his wife and three children around the table in Minneapolis and discuss what was happening in their lives, upcoming school or athletic events and chores that needed to be done. Cook would go around the table and ask everyone to speak.
"My feet barely could barely touch the floor, and yet Dad always made me feel like my voice and my opinions really mattered," recalled Trisha Cook. "He really wanted to be a super dad, I think because he never had a dad."
Besides his daughter Trisha, Cook is survived by his wife, Patty; a daughter, Kristin, of Duluth; a son, Thomas, of Minneapolis; and five grandchildren. He was buried at St. Mary's Mission Catholic Cemetery in Red Lake.
Chris Serres • 612-673-4308