Native American Press / Ojibwe News

Nov 15, 2002
Cass Lake, Minnesota mayor Elaine Fleming

Anishinaabe mayor-elect of Cass Lake wins recount, demands cleanup of toxic site

By Jeff Armstrong

A Nov. 13 recount confirmed Anishinaabe community organizer Elaine Fleming’s historic electoral victory over 14-year incumbent Ardean Brasgalla in the race for Cass Lake mayor. Fleming, believed to be the first Native mayor of the small reservation town, added one vote to her six-vote margin of victory last week after Brasgalla insisted upon a manual count of the ballots.

In a dramatic change to the complexion of Cass Lake politics, Fleming will be joined in city government by fellow Leech Lake tribal member Rhonda Michaud, who was elected to a four-year term on the city council.

While conscious of the political significance of her victory, Fleming said she would seek to reconcile and serve the community as a whole.

“I hope we can look at ourselves here in Cass Lake as a unified community. I don’t want it to be seen as them and us,” the mayor-elect said.

A single mother and chair of two departments at the reservation’s tribal college, Fleming is no ordinary politician—in fact she cringes at the label. She calculates her campaign budget at somewhere in double figures.

“It really upset me when people called me a politician,” she said. “My dad was in tribal politics and that kind of animosity turned me off to politics.”

Fleming said her motivation to run for office stems in part from the cancer death of her 40-year-old brother last year. She believes he died as a result of years of exposure to dioxin-contaminated soil and groundwater left behind by a succession of paper companies about half a block from where she grew up.

Although the area was designated a federal superfund site 18 years ago, Fleming said little has been done to clean up the toxic mess. The Anishinaabe educator said she was continually frustrated at the willingness of local and federal officials to look the other way, charging the Environmental Protection Agency with suppressing for nearly a year its 2001 study which found dangerous level of cancer-inducing dioxins in the land and water.

“I met with some of the city council members and said we need to warn the people right away, but the city wanted the EPA to do that. They were worried about the way the public would react to the results,” said Fleming. “I consider it a form of violence when you don’t tell the people what’s going on with this superfund site.”

Fleming, loosely affiliated with the Green Party, said federal funds have dried up for the cleanup of contaminated areas, whose cleanup was slated under the superfund program to have been completed two years ago. She said she was particularly concerned for the welfare of families living in close proximity to the site and for those unknowingly consuming contaminated whitefish from Pike Bay.

“There’s houses over there where people live, right on the edge of the superfund site,” Fleming said.

Linking the success of her term to the extent of public participation in city government, Fleming said tribal members must play an active role in politics if they wish to effect change.

“You should never sit around and wait for people to take care of things for you when you can do it yourself,” said Fleming. “Otherwise, all these little governments run things for you.”