By Mordecai Specktor
Remembering Lee Cook
In November, I was sad to learn that Leon “Lee” Cook had walked on. According to a news obituary in the Star Tribune, Cook died Oct. 13 at Sanford Bemidji Medical Center of a breakthrough COVID-19 infection. He was 82.
A member of the Red Lake Nation, Cook was orphaned at the age of six. As the newspaper noted, “Cook overcame childhood poverty and tragedy to become one of the nation’s most influential and best-known advocates for Native American rights. He rose to the highest levels of government during a period of tumult in the early 1970s and helped to lay the foundation for a new era of self-determination for tribes throughout Indian Country.”
The Star Tribune remembrance mentioned that Cook, at age 31, became the youngest person ever elected president of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI). Among many career accomplishments, he served in the Nixon administration as director of economic development at the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
I’m not sure when I first met Lee Cook. Around 1984, I was on trial in Minneapolis municipal court for a trespass charge at Honeywell, our local bomb and missile maker. This was during the second phase of the Honeywell Project, which originally formed during the Vietnam War to oppose the corporation’s manufacture of cluster bombs. The second phase focused on conventional munitions (new, improved cluster bombs) and parts for nuclear missile guidance systems. I was one of the local activists doing research on Honeywell’s weapons work.
As I recall, it was a group of six defendants on trial – and Lee Cook was a member of the jury.
Judge Cara Lee Neville, who apparently is still a senior judge in the Minnesota district court system, admonished me at one point for having my briefcase visible to the jury. It was an old-fashioned leather briefcase adorned with bumper stickers, as was the fashion in leftist political circles: FREE LEONARD PELTIER, Honor Indian Treaties, KILI Radio 90.1 FM, etc. The judge seemed to think that the briefcase display might influence members of the jury, especially Lee Cook, the only Native juror.
As it happened, when the verdict came in, we were found not guilty. We were pleasantly surprised. (Another trial resulted in a sentence of community service, and another one sent me to the Hennepin County Workhouse to two nights – in a solitary cell with bars and everything.)
Fast forward to 1992, when the American Indian Movement (AIM) was planning protests at the 1992 Super Bowl XXVI, a contest at the Metrodome featuring the Buffalo Bills and the Washington “R”-words. I attended a planning meeting and seated near me at a conference table was Lee Cook.
Of course, I took the opportunity to thank him for the not guilty verdict several years earlier. And he explained that when the jury began to deliberate our guilt or innocence, the sentiment was for a guilty verdict. However, Lee Cook suggested that the jurors review our necessity defense, the argument that by violating a little law, trespassing on Honeywell property, we were trying to avert a much greater harm: the end of humanity in a thermonuclear war. The jury continued its deliberations and eventually came around to Cook’s way of thinking, which was that our direct action at Honeywell was justified by a higher goal.
Lee Cook, of Cass Lake, whose Ojibwe name was Waase Waagosh or “Shining Fox,” dedicated his life to improving the fortunes of American Indians; and many years ago, he kept me from going to jail again.
May his memory be a blessing for his friends and loved ones.
In hard rock mining news
Sulfide mining schemes have been fodder for the “Political Matters” column for the past dozen years. I’ve written about PolyMet Mining’s NorthMet copper-nickel mine, which is close to operation; and the Twin Metals Minnesota proposed sulfide mine, which is on hold after the federal Bureau of Land Management recently rejected the company’s mineral leases and exploration permits for a site south of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
In late November, the Star Tribune reported that Talon Metals is exploring for nickel near Tamarack, Minn.
The project is in its early stages, but environmental groups and the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe are “closely scrutinizing” the proposal, according to the Star Tribune: “Parts of the band’s reservation are within 10 miles of Tamarack. So are prime waters for wild rice, which are sacred to the Ojibwe.”
I’ll be writing about the Tamarack mine in the months to come.