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Leech Lake tribal members fear political violence on reservation
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Gerald White, interim executive director of the Leech Lake Band, has only been in the position for about three weeks. White says the recent political tensions have divided the community. (MPR Photo/Tom Robertson)
Political tensions are high on the Leech Lake Indian Reservation. Voters head to the polls Tuesday to narrow the field of candidates for tribal chairman. There are 26 people seeking the job once held by Eli Hunt. Hunt was removed from office in a recall election in October. Some tribal members are scared. They're worried that political divisions on the reservation could lead to violence.

Cass Lake, Minn. — Some Leech Lake tribal members say there's an atmosphere of fear on the reservation. Luke Wilson is a member of the tribal council.

"Community members are fearing for their safety right now," said Wilson. "They feel that there's a gang atmosphere on Leech Lake ... and you never know. You might get shot. There's a lot of people that fear that right now."

As in other rural communities, gangs, drugs and violence are growing problems on Leech Lake. But Wilson says he believes gang members are now attempting to influence the political process. And he blames Secretary-Treasurer Archie LaRose for allowing it to happen. Wilson accuses LaRose of having ties to a gang known as the Native Mob. He says LaRose uses intimidation and strong-arm tactics to get his way.

"It's kind of in chaos right now," Wilson said. "All the employees are in fear for their jobs and their future. And there's employees that have been threatened. And I get calls every day, you know, too, for protection, you know."

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Image Helen Cummings is the interim director of the tribe's elder division

A number of people contacted for this story declined to be interviewed because they fear retribution. Several said they're afraid of LaRose. LaRose, himself, is at the center of a power struggle. More than 500 petitioners are calling for his removal as secretary-treasurer.

Helen Cummings is the interim director of the tribe's elder division. She voted for LaRose when he was elected this summer, but she now regrets it. She says those who signed a petition to remove LaRose from office are being harassed.

"They're being threatened," said Cummings. "Archie's people are trying to get them to sign affidavits that they never did sign the petition. There have been beatings. People have been beaten up ... and they're afraid to call the police. It's all politically motivated."

Archie LaRose has a criminal record. Cass County court records show that in 1991, LaRose pleaded guilty to third degree assault. He confessed he was part of a group that severely beat two people for nearly an hour.

Two years later, LaRose was indicted by a Cass County grand jury on 12 felony counts. LaRose was accused of planning and participating in the armed robbery of the Palace Casino, which was robbed of $25,000 in cash and jewelry. But witnesses who implicated LaRose later recanted their statements, and the charges were dropped. Cass County authorities say the case remains unsolved.

LaRose did not return phone calls for this story. Several attempts to contact him were unsuccessful.

Law enforcement agencies are concerned about the election and potential for violence on the reservation. Five local prosecutors and law enforcement leaders have asked the U.S. attorney's office for help.

"We have received some information that there may be some influence brought on by the Native Mob," said Bemidji Police Chief Bruce Preece. "I have not seen direct evidence in that regard, nor have I received or seen any documents that would substantiate that. It's just strictly anonymous, essentially phone calls or information provided from other sources outside this agency."

Preece says several band members living in Bemidji have expressed fear of retribution for their political views. Bemidji police have stepped up surveillance of their homes.

U.S. Attorney Tom Heffelfinger says the Justice Department will watch the election and review any allegations of misconduct.

"The Department of Justice does not run elections," said Heffelfinger. "And this is not a situation where we would do what has been done on rare occasions in other parts of the country, where we literally set up poll watchers and monitor elections. We are not doing that. We will not do that."

Heffelfinger says he's confident the Leech Lake Tribal Council is comitted to ensuring a fair and safe election. But it's not clear whether the tribe will take any extra precautions to safeguard voters at the polls.

Gerald White, interim executive director of the Leech Lake Band, has only been in the position for about three weeks. White says the recent political tensions have divided the community. But he downplays the potential for violence.

"Criminal elements are around every day," said White. "I'm sure there's gang members around. Like in every community in America, there's gang members around. Focusing on the Leech Lake Reservation and saying that criminal elements are influencing our politics, I don't know if I would agree with that."

White says the political problems on the Leech Lake reservation are common in Indian Country. He says members are frustrated that elected officials haven't resolved the many social and economic problems facing the band. He blames an ineffective political system created by the U.S. government.

"We're new to politics," White said. "We've basically been operating in this area since 1934, the Indian Reorganization Act ... So our communities are really new to politics, and we haven't learned to play -- I guess you could call it the white man's game."

There are 26 people who want to be chairman of the Leech Lake band. There is no clear front runner. White says the large number of candidates is not unusual. He says Indian politics is often based on family ties. And with such a crowded field of candidates, the voters are splintered into small factions.

"A lot of times we have people in our communities that are good, effective administrators, good effective politicians. But they don't get elected," said White. "We have a political system where people rise from the communities and it's based on family votes, and friendship, and popularity and that kind of thing. A lot of times we don't always have the best qualified person elected."

The top two vote-getters in the election for tribal chairman will advance to a general election in February. Meanwhile, the tribal council is expected this week to set a date for a hearing on the removal of Archie LaRose. If the council decides there's enough evidence, they could either remove him outright, or put the question before voters later this winter.

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