It’s been almost six months since so many of you donated more than 5,000 books and over $83,000 to stock the library at the new Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig School on the Leech Lake Reservation in northern Minnesota. I recently paid a visit to the school, and what I saw was thrilling. The library is stuffed with thousands of books. The kids are reading. In class. In study hall, And at home! Their parents are reading for fun and erudition. And they’re reading kids’ books to their little kids.
This is now a different world for these kids. The physical plant of the old school was a disgrace, and for years sent a message to the students that the federal government didn’t think that it was worth investing in the education of Indian kids. The old school leaked so badly that students had to wear their parkas in class during the cold north woods winter months. The structure was so unsound that they would have a full-scale evacuation when winds exceeded 40 mph.
But what disturbed me most when I first toured the school in 2009 was the library. It was essentially a large closet containing just two small bookcases of books.
So, when we finally got the funding for the new school, I made it my mission to make sure the new library would have the books it needed to nurture a love of reading and learning for all the children and adults at Leech Lake.
At the new school’s dedication, I was pleased to tour the spacious modern wired library with a capacity to hold 20,000 books! But funding from the Bureau of Indian Education of books was sadly lacking.
I sent a letter to every tribe in the country asking for books by Indian authors, books about their tribes’ histories, literature from Indian authors with stories about their people’s past or about the contemporary American Indian experience.
Boxes of books came from tribes all over the country. From Alaska to Florida. From Maine to California. From Wisconsin to Minnesota.
That’s when Laurie, my assistant, Will Howell, and I really got to work. Laurie hit up Scholastica for a thousand middle school books. Another publisher sent 100 copies of a geology book. Laurie asked people if they would host book drives. Two teenagers brought in boxes of used books.
Will made a list of American Indian books on a website called Donors Choose. We got about $800 worth of books donated through them. That wasn’t going to do it.
Will and I put our heads together and created a new plan – a Go Fund Me page that I’d send out to my peeps. Laurie created a huge list of books that teachers wanted on the website. We made sure there’d be books for every age. From reading-ready books that parents could read at bedtime to their little ones. Graphic novels! Sports magazines! Art. Geography. Philosophy, science, health, religion, novels – pretty much what anyone at Leech Lake had asked for.
I went out to Team Franken, and wouldn’t you know it, they bought thousands of books within a few hours! Laurie furiously added books, but couldn’t keep up. Folks started sending boxes of books! Girl Scouts from Robbinsdale, MN sent copies of their favorites. Parkview United Church of Christ sent 32 boxes of books. Folks came to the school from all over Minnesota with boxes and bags full of books.
Books came from all over the country. And the world. From Germany and Great Britain. From Japan and China.
Before it was all over, the Go Fund Me Account was up to $83,000!
When the books started arriving at Leech Lake, it was a bit of zoo. The students did the lifting, carrying, and the sorting. It looked like chaos, because Laurie’s husband, Norrell, and a guy named Lee, were still building the bookshelves, and every inch of floor space was covered.
But when I visited a couple weeks ago, the shelves were in. It looked like a library in a big school in an affluent Minneapolis suburb. The teachers, the administrators, the kids I spoke with were not just happy, not just proud, but genuinely grateful. Grateful that so many folks had gone out of their way to make sure they would have the reading material necessary to progress in school. And also that folks in their community could immediately have access to books they’d always wanted to read. And that parents would have the children’s books that they could read to their kids at bedtime.
As I got in my car to drive back down to Minneapolis, Laurie poked her head in the driver’s side window. “Please thank all the people who made this possible. And tell them how much it means to all of us.”
“Will do, Laurie.”
So, thank you, people who made that possible. It means a lot to everyone at the Leech Lake Reservation! And, if you must know, to me.
*Thank you in Ojibwe.