Courtesy Leech Lake Tribal College
Bill Blackwell Jr. holds a sign supporting Leech Lake Tribal College's commitment to being commercial tobacco-free.

Leech Lake Tribal College Goes Commercial Tobacco-Free


Leech Lake Tribal College (LLTC) in northern Minnesota recently took the bold step of making its entire campus commercial tobacco-free.

The two-year process was completed in August 2014 with the adoption of a campus-wide, commercial tobacco-free policy. Now, the only tobacco not prohibited on the school grounds is asemaa, tobacco used for ceremonial purposes.

LLTC’s mission is to provide quality higher education grounded in Anishinaabe values. Leech Lake Tribal College honors its heritage and embraces sacred medicines, such as asemaa, as important gifts for all people. Supporting opportunities for traditional asemaa use on campus was deemed a critical component of the policy.

Surveys that were conducted before and after the policy was instituted show that the new policy supports LLTC’s efforts to encourage healthier lives for its campus members. The percentage of students who use commercial tobacco has dropped from 49 percent to 41 percent since the policy was implemented.

“I appreciate having a non-smoking campus, especially as a light smoker,” said Michelle Marion, an LLTC student. “Not being able to smoke freely on campus has probably kept me from being a regular smoker again. [For] nearly four years now, I haven’t been a regular smoker. If the campus allowed it, then I’d probably bum that cigarette that would lead me to another and another and then to being that regular smoker.”

The Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe established Leech Lake Tribal College by Tribal Resolution in July 1990. Since its inception, LLTC has been committed to the well-being of its campus community. Creating a positive environment that was free of the dangers of commercial tobacco was viewed as a pledge to the health of students and staff, as well as future generations.

Leech Lake Tribal College averages nearly 200 students, with most coming from the nearby Leech Lake and Red Lake reservation communities. LLTC employs some 60 people in faculty, staff and administrative positions.

Given the prevalence of commercial tobacco use at Leech Lake Tribal College, LLTC spent a full year engaging the campus population before launching the policy. Throughout the 2013-14 school terms, the college provided tobacco education resources, hosted listening sessions and offered help to those who wanted to quit smoking.

During the year-long preparation prior to implementation, elders shared stories about the traditional uses of asemaa and the important role it plays within Anishinaabe culture. Ceremonial uses at campus gatherings, such as the weekly Monday Drum, served as examples for its critical importance. Traditional asemaa practice increased from 46 percent to 71 percent for students and from 56 percent to 71 percent for faculty and staff within one year.

(Leech Lake Tribal College)

The Mino-ayaawigamig Wellness Center on campus offered continued support through referral services and information. Other activities included stress relief and relaxation exercises, a walking challenge, quit-and-win contests, and educational tobacco bingo.

Commercial tobacco use is a leading cause of death for American Indians. In Minnesota, five of the top six causes of death among Native peoples—heart disease, cancer, diabetes, stroke, and lower respiratory disease—are related to commercial tobacco. Provisions within the state of Minnesota’s Freedom to Breathe Act, which prohibits smoking indoors, leave sovereign tribal lands to the discretion of the tribes. Making the campus a smoke-free sanctuary for all was a huge step toward reducing the dangers of secondhand smoke, and many on campus say that the policy shows that the school truly values students and staff.

“I think it’s a good policy to have,” said Petra Rodriquez. “It keeps our grounds more clean and looking better. Being a tribal college, we should be using tobacco the correct way and not putting these chemicals in us and secondhand smoke for others.”

According to a recent survey at LLTC, 83 percent of students and 84 percent of faculty and staff support the elimination of commercial tobacco on campus. Even among students who are commercial tobacco users, 71 percent say that they support the policy and nearly half say the policy is helping them to smoke less. Among commercial tobacco users, 79 percent of students and 100 percent of faculty have said they have attempted to quit.

This success was achieved in partnership with Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota and ClearWay Minnesota, the funders of this initiative.

Matt Hanson is the director of the Mino-ayaawigamig Wellness Center at Leech Lake Tribal College in Minnesota.

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