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A new store promises more than just groceries
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Grand Market is the first grocery store for the people of Mille Lacs. It's not only a convienence, but it represents an effort by the Band to diversify their economy. Indian reservations across the country are involved in similar economic development projects. (MPR Photo/Tim Post)
A new grocery store has opened on the Mille Lacs Reservation in central Minnesota. It might not seem like a major event, but for Mille Lacs Band members a nearby grocery is something new. And since the store is owned and operated by the Band, reservation leaders hope it will diversify the community's economy. Indian tribes across the country are delving into similar projects in an effort to move away from gaming as their sole source of income.

Mille Lacs Reservation, Minn. — For people on the Mille Lacs Reservation, it's a relief to finally have a grocery store.

Bev Sutton is a Mille Lacs Band member and a cashier at the new store. Sutton said before Grand Market, residents had to drive at least 10 miles to nearby towns to buy food.

"There's really not a good grocery store in the area. You've got one in Isle and Onamia, but none here on the rez itself," Sutton said.

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Image Mitch Corbine

At first glance, Grand Market looks like any other grocery store. There are rows of name brand canned goods and coolers full of frozen food. But there are a few things that makes this store unique. It's designed to remind band members of their Ojibwe roots

Mitch Corbine is the band's corporate commissioner.

"The aisles for example are numbered one through six. Number one for example is 'bezhig', that means number one, so the Ojibwe can see we're trying to have an identity here," Corbine said.

The store has a definite Ojibwe flair. There are huge raw wooden beams over the entrance and a tribal elder has painted a traditional floral design on the walls inside.

Grand Market was built and is being run by the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe. Corbine says it offers people a convenient place to shop.

"I think what we're looking at also is trying to build up the economy of the local community. We're not going to stop here, there's other services and other needs in the community. This is just the first step in this area where we can start providing some retail types of services for the local economy," Corbine said

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Image Ojibwe and English

The band has tried this type of economic development before. They currently run their own gas station and sandwich shop.

Corbine says they'll start to see profits from the store in about two years.

"All of those profits go into the band and they in turn use it for health education those types of governmental services that they provide for the tribal members," Corbine said.

Corbine hopes the reservation economy benefits from the store's profits. The store also provides twenty new jobs for the community, half held by tribal members.

The store is next door to the band's economic savior, the Grand Casino Mille Lacs. The casino employs 1,200 people and brings in millions of dollars a year from outside the reservation. But the new store represents an effort to diversify, something that's happening on Indian reservations across the country.

Andrew Lee is director of the Harvard Project on American Indian Development. Lee says casino gambling has lifted reservations out of poverty and provided them a stable economic base. He says now tribes are branching out.

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Image Dairy in Ojibwe

"Tribes understand single industry economies are less sustainable over the long haul than diversified economies. We're seeing a lot tribes pushing to venture out into new economic ventures across the country," Lee said.

Some say the new store is about more than making money, it's about encouraging people to eat healthier.

Like other reservations across the country, the Mille Lacs Band has higher than normal levels of diabetes and heart disease. The store is carrying lots of specialty foods, like sugar free items, for people with diabetes. Band leaders also say access to fresh fruits and vegetables might help prevent those chronic health problems.

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