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Carla Big Bear: Her life, like that of the Mille Lacs Band, is the story of a remarkable transition

After a semester in Washington, she says, “I know now that I can survive out there – and I can come back home again, too.”

Carla Big Bear finished a semester in Washington this year.
Photo courtesy of Carla Big Bear
Carla Big Bear finished a semester in Washington this year.

MinnPost is visiting Minnesota’s rural youth — both literally and virtually — this year to explore their lives, the choices they face, and how their current choices might shape Greater Minnesota in the years to come. This week, in both stories and videos, we’ll feature the lives of several young Native Americans from various parts of the state.

MILLE LACS RESERVATION — Law school is on the list of Carla Big Bear’s options for the step she takes after she earns her bachelor’s degree next year.

She’d also like to step into politics, either as a congressional staffer on Capitol Hill or as a lobbyist on Native American issues. A semester in Washington, D.C., this year as part of the Native American Political Leadership Program piqued her interest.

Indeed, as a member of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, Carla has a world of options open to her because her generation is the first in Minnesota to reap the full benefit of casino profits.

Carla’s story is the story of a remarkable transition for Native Americans, not only on the Mille Lacs Reservation but across rural Minnesota.

Before and after
Sitting in the modern tribal offices not far from the shore of Mille Lacs Lake, Carla harked back to the days when she lived along one of those dirt roads two miles from the town of Isle.

“Before we had casinos, we were so broke we couldn’t afford dirt for our roads,” Carla said, quoting her role model, the Band’s Chief Executive Marge Anderson.

“Now the majority of our roads are paved,” she said.

Carla Big Bear at Mille Lacs Lake
MinnPost/Sharon Schmickle
Carla Big Bear at Mille Lacs Lake

“The trees came right up to the road,” she recalled, painting a mental picture that would stir nostalgia in many whose roots took hold in rural Minnesota.

If you walked up the hill you could watch a distant train pass by.

If you listened, you could hear a natural world buzzing and chirping around you.

Scattered among the trees on that road were the homes of Carla’s close-knit family. There were aunts, uncles and cousins. There were grandparents who taught a new generation how to perform age-old tasks such as tapping the trees for maple syrup and burning the feathers from ducks after a hunt.

“My grandmother did a lot of beading,” Carla said. “We would go over, and she would give us a needle and thread so we could make necklaces.”

Carla’s three-bedroom house was packed with her mother and six kids. Add the cousins who often were invited to sit down to the table at meal time and it typically was overflowing.

Darkness in the proverbial village
Yes, it sounds like the idyllic childhood — growing up in a proverbial supportive village. But there was darkness, too, beginning with the poverty associated with living on welfare until Carla’s mother climbed slowly from low-skill jobs to a professional career.

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There was the battle with addiction. “Growing up in a rural area … for a lot of people there was not much to do, so we saw a lot of alcoholism in parts of my family,” Carla said. “That was hard.”

And there was racial tension in town, where native kids and white kids sat side-by-side in school. Carla’s school memories include a scene in which her sisters and brothers are embroiled in a big fight.

“It was something we got used to, but there is a point where it needs to end,” she said.

Despite the tension, she said, “school was fun for the most part.” She played volleyball and basketball.

A life-changing lesson
But then, in 9th grade, Carla took a turn that set her up for one of life’s major lessons. She cleaned out her locker one day after Christmas vacation and dropped out of school — on her own, without telling anyone. Her mother left for work each day expecting Carla to go to school. She didn’t. She just stayed home.

That lasted through April, when the authorities finally alerted her mother and enforced truancy laws. Carla was required to do community service, planting trees and clearing brush. And she was on probation until she was 18.

“That was an eye opening experience … one of the best things that ever happened to me,” said Carla, who is now 27. “I learned that you need school.”

She also learned that she loved to study math, Spanish language and computers. English and science were a different story. But, all in all, Carla said she blossomed into — in her words, “a nerd.”

She graduated on time with her class and became the first in her family to go to college.

A new spirit across Indian land
After earning a diploma at Minneapolis Business College in Roseville and an associate’s degree at Central Lakes College in Brainerd, Carla enrolled at St. Cloud State University, where she is close to finishing the courses for a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice.

The Mille Lacs Reservation.
The Mille Lacs Reservation.

The momentum behind Carla’s academic ambition comes in part from a new spirit of progress, optimism and pride at Mille Lacs and other reservations with casino profits.

Not every reservation can claim an equal share of this momentum; those nearer urban centers have enjoyed greater profits than the more isolated reservations. And even highly profitable bands have a long way to go to solve problems associated with centuries of poverty and isolation, according to the Minnesota Indian Gaming Association.

“Even with casinos, Native Americans in Minnesota still have lower per capita incomes, higher unemployment, poorer housing, lower graduation rates and educational achievements, and less opportunity than other residents of our state,” the association says in a summary of tribal economic conditions.

Still, you find signs of progress down nearly every one of those newly paved roads on the Mille Lacs Reservation.

Beyond financing education programs from preschool through a lifetime of adult learning, the Mille Lacs band also has plowed profits from its Grand Casino Mille Lacs and Grand Casino Hinckley into job-generating local businesses: a movie theater, supermarket, resort, gas station and other enterprises.

In all, the band says on its website that it employs more than 4,000 people and provides business for some 1,200 vendors. While going to school, Carla also has held a few of those jobs, and she currently works for the band as a grant writer.

“We have a lot more opportunities than my mom … had growing up,” Carla said.

They also have an easier financial road to college. Carla said she gets $9,000 a year in tribal financial aid for her studies as long as she is enrolled in classes.

A giant step
Life has been a series of big steps for Carla since that day long ago when she turned around her attitude toward school.

She took a giant step last year when she applied for the Native American Political Leadership program at George Washington University. The scholarship program offers a semester of classes at the university’s Washington, D.C., campus and an internship.

Carla wasn’t sure at first. Could she possibly get into such a prestigious program? If she did, how could she endure that much time away from the family that had surrounded her all her life?

As usual, the family was supportive — as long as she promised she’d come back home eventually.

She won the scholarship and kept the promise too. She is back now, living with her sister in an apartment near the reservation, in the town of Milaca.

From a Central Minnesota perspective, the politicians and institutions of the nation’s capital had been familiar in one sense — but, at the same time, abstract and distant. In Washington, they came to real life in every dimension.

Carla met with Minnesota’s congressional delegation, toured the Pentagon, the White House and Native American centers. She lived in a dormitory four blocks from the White House. She interned at Holland & Knight, a law firm that often represents Native American interests, calling congressional offices and covering Capitol Hill hearings.

The White House is smaller than either of the casinos the Mille Lacs Band operates in Minnesota.

“I was shocked when I saw the White House,” Carla said. “It is small!”

To physically stand among the rows and columns of graves in Arlington Cemetery was deeply moving.

“It is beautiful, but so sad,” she said.

The work of safeguarding Native American interests never is finished. Carla’s to-do list includes helping to secure the rights and benefits pledged to Native Americans in treaties and other agreements over the centuries. Another high priority is preserving Native languages.

“We are losing our language fast,” she said. “There are all kinds of programs out there to help other people keep their languages, but not Natives.”

Perhaps the biggest eye opener was the discovery of her own potential on a larger stage than she ever had seen before.

“I am a different person,” Carla said. “I know now that I can survive out there. And I can come back home again, too.”

Tuesday: A Steve Date video with jingle-dress dancers on the White Earth Reservation.

Smokey Hill Singers talk about White Earth and life on the powwow trail