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Mike Schmid Remembers the History of Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig School

Mike Schmid stopped by KBXE studios as teachers were moving their materials into a brand new building at Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig School in Bena. Mike, along with Rose Robinson, was one of the school's first teachers when it was founded in 1975. Mike presented a history of the school at the new building's dedication on July 30th, and shared his recollection of that history with Maggie Montgomery.

"In the 1970s a group of parents around Cass Lake felt as though their students were not being welcomed at the school--that they weren't getting any kind of cultural education at all, and that they really were excluded from so many activities. So they wanted to start an alternative program.

"I think this was happening nationwide--after the boarding school era, even though Indian students were going to the public schools, many of the students really weren't accepted. So they wanted to start an alternative program. A group of parents in Cass  Lake, headed by Dennis and Judy Harper--but many other parents too--went to the school board with a proposal month after month for 6 months. That was in 1975. The proposal was always just tabled.

"They decided at that point--it was November--they decided to have their students walk out of school. So they had the walkout in November of 1975. The Department of Education came in because there was a lot of publicity about it. They said the alternative program could operate separate from the public school as long as the superintendent still was overseeing it.

"That first year all we had to work with were Johnson O'Malley funds, which were funding for Indian students that the Local Indian Parent Committee had control of. And so we used their money for running our whole program because we didn't get any money at that point from the public school.

"We were located in...it's called the co-op building in Cass Lake. It was a block from the stoplight. Little log building. One room upstairs and a basement. We had a little fuel oil space heater that worked sporadically and a toilet that froze up regularly that first winter. We had 35 students there and we separated the classrooms with sheets.

"But it was a good feeling there...We had 3 elders that came in every Monday. They brought the drum and the pipe and did a ceremony for us. That was Hartley White and Tom Mitchell and Bill Bobolink came every Monday. That was a really nice start.

"Then in the spring of that year Eddie Benton Benai and Porky White gave our school the name Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig in a traditional naming ceremony. There's three Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shigs that are prominent in local history. Porky White was from the Battle Point area; Sugar Point/Battle Point; and so he was well aware of the one from Leech Lake. And then there were two other Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shigs from Gull Lake. Eddie Benton Benai said that the school is named after all three of them because they all protected the people and protected the land."

When asked how he became one of the school's first teachers, Mike said, 'To the best of my memory, somebody just found out that I had a teaching degree. I had only been in Cass Lake for a couple of years. I was director of the daycare center. And someone asked if I'd be willing to teach there and I said yes. And then Rose [Robinson] was just getting out of BSU [Bemidji State University] in the teacher program and so she had just gotten her certification to teach.

"For the next 10 years we were always scrambling to find a physical place to be in. For a while we were at the Bald Eagle Center which was an old Job Corps camp, and it was rented by BSU...but then their lease ran out and so then we had to move; it was a scramble. We were downtown Cass Lake in a big old building one year--that was probably the worst spot--and then we were out at the Mission and we used houses for the classrooms."

Forty-three years later Mike still teaches at the school. "I'm part-time, half-retired, still loving it...For me it's been wonderful, just knowing so many families, so many students. It's just been a great time...Some people think I'm just a light-skinned Native because I've been hanging out with 'Shinabs,' as we say, for so long. I grew up in southern Minnesota, a little farming community, and had a little reservation, Lower Sioux; it was only 20 miles away. I knew absolutely nothing about Natives or anything in that area.

"And then I went to Moorhead State and met Skip Finn and a couple of other guys from Cass Lake and then some other folks from Pine Point and we just had such a good time together... I started visiting their families and that's how I ended up here."

It took many years and a lot of political action to finally get a new Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig high school built. Mike credits the entire Minnesota legislative delegation and especially former Senator Al Franken for finally getting the job done.

"I think [the new school] will be such a big change, because for all these years we've told students how important education is, but the facility that we had did not show that society valued their education. And I think now they can see that is really does mean something, not just to them but to the outside world."

To learn more about the history of the Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig School--and more about the new school--listen to the entire interview with Mike Schmid below. Check out the slide show above for a few photos of the new school.