Last April, Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig School Superintendent Mary Trapp made a long, long, long awaited announcement to students and staff.
“We had tears, we had claps, we had cheers,” she recalled. “The kids are excited that this is only going to take a year.”
The excitement rose for the promise of a new $11.9 million high school.
As school began this year, that promise sprouted to reality when ground was broken August 24 on the campus of the K-12 program, fondly nicknamed “the Bug School,” on Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe lands within the Chippewa National Forest in northern Minnesota.
The intention is to open the doors to students by August 2017. But while construction has been fast-tracked, securing funding to replace a dangerous, inadequate structure took nearly two decades.
The community backing the Bug School is used to fighting for its children’s education, a struggle that started in 1975 between the Local Indian Education Committee (LIEC) and the Cass Lake School Board.
“Parents were concerned about how the Ojibwe children were treated in the local schools,” Trapp said.
In 1975, LIEC sponsored the walkout of 70 students from the public schools and supported the start of an alternative program with two teachers and 35 students in grades 7 through 12 at the local Teen Center.
Within six months, the new school had a name: Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig, or “Hole-in-the-Day,” for an Ojibwe leader who, as elder Eddie Benton Banai said at the 1976 ceremony, “fought for our land, he fought for our people, but uppermost, he fought for the future of our children.”
By 1977, the BIA-contracted program started taking elementary school children. By 1980, it was accredited under the Minnesota Non-Public School Association, and by 1984 moved to its permanent location near Bena.
The location had a main building, used for the elementary children and offices. High school students were set up in a pole building.
“From the beginning, the bus garage converted into a high school was a challenging space for the Bug-O-Ne-Gay-Shig’s high school,” said Trapp. “The floor was uneven… In high winds, sometimes the heating would go out, snow would come under the walls and into the school… The library was basically a shelf—12 feet long by 2 feet wide.”
Eventually the roof leaked, mold sprouted, electrical problems arose and budgets didn’t allow upgrades. Security and Ground Supervisor John Parmeter, who has served 26 years at many jobs at the school including as a teacher, began seriously documenting the problems 18 years ago… after he passed out in his high school office because of chemical fumes. Ultimately, his documentation and photographs helped prove the funding needs.
No one wanted to give up on the program, but little by little, high school operations were moved into the increasingly taxed main building. High school enrollment dropped from a peak of 120 students to the current 35, Trapp said. The school’s total enrollment, which draws from a 40-mile radius, numbers 200 children with various tribal backgrounds.
Those who fought for funding expanded beyond the Bug School staff and parents and the Leech Land Band. Minnesota’s U.S. Congressional delegation became involved.
“This has been on my radar since right after I joined the Senate, going back to early 2009, and I’ve been fighting ever since for funding to fix the Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig School,” said Minnesota’s U.S. Sen. Al Franken, who attended the groundbreaking. “I take my job on the Senate Indian Affairs Committee really seriously, because far too often, we fall short when it comes to making even basic investments on tribal lands: they often don’t get the same commitment from the federal government when it comes to things like education, housing, healthcare and criminal justice… getting this funding took a lot of work—from lawmakers, the tribe, the community and the Obama Administration—and I’m thrilled we’ve taken this huge step towards fully rebuilding the school.”
At the ceremony, Leech Lake Tribal Chairman Faron Jackson Sr. praised a long list of those who come together for the school. “This day would not have been possible without the hard work, dedication, sweat, and certainly tears of many individuals, administrations, school boards, students, teachers, parents, elders, and local, state, and federal elected and appointed officials, to name a few. Thank you.”
Plans are big for the 44,000-plus square feet of high school; the space will benefit all ages.
“Classrooms can be opened up for collaborative work,” Trapp said. “There will be a bigger art room, a distance learning lab, state-of-the-art science lab and a culture program in the east wing of the high school—music, dance, drumming.”
There will be a proper library, and Trapp expects high school enrollment to reach the former peak and perhaps beyond. “We are confident that we will get back to that 120 number (in 5 years).”
The school has had other achievements, too, this year, such as completion of a math curriculum that passed state standards while incorporating Ojibwe culture.
Franken said he’ll be back next year. “It was really special to join other lawmakers and community leaders at this groundbreaking and know that kids at this school will be able to learn and celebrate the Ojibwe heritage and culture in a safe environment. I’m looking forward to when we cut the ribbon.”
For Parmeter, now 70, the new building is a “dream come true,” but he has one more desire before retirement. “My dream is to be able to teach in that school at least one year… It’s the whole idea of saving culture and passing it on.”