Rep. Betty McCollum
During a 2009 tour of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe reservation, Chief Executive Marge Anderson holds Jonas Harper and hosted Congresswoman Betty McCollum (D-Minnesota).

First Woman to Lead a Minnesota Indian Tribe Walks On


Marge Anderson wasn’t only the first woman to lead a Minnesota Indian tribe, she also fought for tribal hunting and fishing rights on Lake Mille Lacs.

She served as executive chief of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe from 1991 to 2000 and again from 2008 to 2012. She was appointed to the position in 1991 after the death of Arthur Gahbow and won elections in 1992, 1996 and 2008. Her career in tribal government began well before that as the District I representative in 1976. After that she served as the band’s secretary-treasurer from 1987-1991.

Anderson walked on June 29 of natural causes. She was 81.

“Marge Anderson was a great tribal leader for the Band and a trailblazer for all of Indian country,” said Melanie Benjamin, current chief executive, in a press release. “This is an extraordinary loss for the Band.”

Part of her leadership involved using profits from the band’s Hinckley and Mille Lacs casinos to fund social programs, schools and clinics instead of handing out payments to the band’s approximately 3,500 members.

Anderson’s friend and lawyer Tadd Johnson, head of the American Indian Studies department at the University of Minnesota, Duluth, told the StarTribune that Anderson had a quiet leadership style.

“She spoke very softly but her words carried a tremendous amount of power,” he said.

Like in 1999 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled to uphold the band’s right to hunt, fish and gather on lands it ceded to the government through the Treaty of 1837. A decision that ended a nine-year legal battle and that came down while Anderson was in office.

“I was standing there next to her when the decision came in and the receptionist for the reservation said ‘What should I do with this Marge?’ She said why don’t you go ahead and make that announcement. And they had just won this tremendous victory in the U.S. Supreme Court,” Johnson told the StarTribune.

Anderson was born Marjorie Ann Davis on April 21, 1932 on the reservation. She graduated from Onamia High School in 1952. She then completed hundreds of hours in advanced skills training, workshops and seminars. She was an authority on the history, traditions and culture of her people and spoke the language fluently.

Her work made her a national figure.

“The members of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe have lost a great political leader and champion of tribal rights who will be remembered for generations to come. Marge was an inspiration who dedicated her life to improving the lives of her community and Indian people all across this country,” said Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minnesota.

A wake for Anderson will be held July 2 at 5 p.m. and services will be held July 3 at 10 a.m. at the District I Community Center, 43408 Oodena Drive, in Onamia, Minnesota.

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