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Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe: Tribal council postpones property purchase decision

Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe Chairman Arthur "Archie" LaRose addresses a public meeting Wednesday at the Palace Casino on the proposal to transfer a debt to Moondance Jam and buy the Two Points property on Leech Lake. From left are Robbie Howe-Bebeau, District 1 representative and interim secretary-treasurer, Eugene "Ribs" Whitebird, District 3 representative; and Steve White, District 2 representative. Pioneer Photo/Molly Miron

The Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe had the opportunity Wednesday to buy back a traditional section of the tribal homeland and rid the tribe of a potentially bad debt Wednesday.

However, many band members protested that the Tribal Council was rushing into a deal without giving them sufficient notice. After several hours of testimony during a public meeting at the Palace Casino Bingo Hall, the Tribal Council voted 2-1 to table the issue. Steve White, District 2 representative, made the motion and Robbie Howe-Bebeau, District 1 representative, seconded to table the proposal, and Eugene "Ribs" Whitebird, District 3 representative, voted against tabling. Chairman Arthur "Archie" LaRose did not vote as a roll-call vote was not requested.

The property includes 47.6 acres and 2,835 feet of lakeshore frontage in the northern Leech Lake area known as Two Points. The undeveloped land was appraised last year at $2.6 million.

The Leech Lake Band has been trying for three years to acquire the property, but the $2.5 million price tag was too high, even with the possibility of grants.

Owner Ed Robinson offered to sell the land in question to the tribe for $600,000 and take over the $2.4 million loan the tribe made Sept. 14, 2010, to Moondance. Payback was to be over seven years in installments. Moondance Jam's owner, Kathy Bieloh is scheduled to make the first payment of $460,973.76 Sept. 14, next week.

However, Moodance attorney Jason Pederson of Fuller, Wallner, Cayko and Pederson of Bemidji, said Wednesday, that Bieloh would almost certainly default on the loan, and possibly declare bankruptcy.

Robinson said he would take over the loan to relieve the Leech Lake Band of the risk and allow the band to buy the desired land. He also said he would renegotiate the payments on the loan so that Moondance could remain solvent and in business.

"The Tribal Council is absolving itself of any risks associated with the Moondance loan," said attorney Zenas Baer. "Mr. Robinson has agreed to assume that risk."

Robinson and others pointed out the importance of the influx of tourists and their business each year during Moondance Jam. The Leech Lake Band also benefits greatly, he said, as many Moodance fans stay at the Northern Lights in Walker and spend money at the casino and restaurants,

"When we put this deal together to try to help you folks ... because jobs in this area, schools, are much funded by tourism, and Moondance is tourism," Robinson said. "The whole idea was to help the area, and by helping the area, help you. The whole thing is to get you folks a piece of land you desire."

His words were greeted by boos.

LaRose said the land in question is a sacred to the Leech Lake Band. It is purported to be the original settlement of the Anishinaabeg when they migrated to the area. He said he sees the deal as a win-win-win for the band, Moondance and the greater community.

However, those opposed to the proposal cited abortive attempts to acquire the Two Points property in the past and accusations of corruption of tribal members involved. The land was originally bought in 2004 from the U.S. government by Leech Lake Band member Harold "Skip" Finn for $80,000. He subsequently sold it at a profit to non-band members. Robinson bought it in 2006 for $2.5 million.

Robinson and real estate agent Sheila Johnson said if the current deal with the Leech lake Band fails, the land will be subdivided and developed. With the potential Moondance debt default looming, this was the last opportunity the Leech Lake Band had to acquire the land, they said.

LaRose said he was surprised at the opposition to the proposal, but put it down to tribal politics.

"We can't take back the past and fix it," he said. "(Robinson's offer) would have worked out for both parties."

He said the next steps would be to discuss the proposal among Tribal Council members and try to find a solution before Sept. 14.