Washington, D.C. (October 19, 2021) – The National Indian Gaming Association is saddened to hear of the passing of Leon “Lee” Cook, former President of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) and a life-long advocate of the advancement of tribes, with a focus on Indian Education.
Cook, 82, passed away on October 13, 2021, at the Sanford Bemidji Medical Center in Bemidji, Minnesota.
National Indian Gaming Association Chairman Ernie Stevens, Jr. was one of several tribal officials that spoke to the legacy of Cook at the services. Stevens shared, “Lee Cook was a part of a team of Native American professionals from around Indian Country who came to Washington, DC to create change in services provided to Native America. This team came to challenge and change the legacy of inadequate services to the Tribes.
Stevens added, "These advocates, led by Lee Cook, changed the way benefits and services were provided to Native America. While Tribal Nations still have to work hard to hold the US Government to their trust responsibility, it is a different world today. Indian Country is a better place because of Lee Cook and his colleagues and their work to educate the United States Governments about the responsibility to respect and defend the sovereignty and our treaties."
Stevens also shared, “Lee was a good friend and colleague of my father, Ernie Stevens, Sr., often standing side-by-side on behalf of tribal governments. Lee was a true inspiration to many, and he will always be remembered as a true statesman, always as a true Indian country Warrior.”
Cook’s family released the following:
Leon “Lee” Cook (Waase Waagosh - “Shining Fox”) was born in 1939 in Red Lake, MN, on the Red Lake Indian Reservation to proud parents, Rose and Frederick Cook. After attending St. Mary’s Mission School, Lee attended and was the first Red Laker to graduate from St. John’s Preparatory School (1957) and St. John’s University (1961). Lee loved being a “Johnnie,” and St. John’s became his second home. In 1966, Lee was the first Minnesota Ojibwe to graduate from the University of Minnesota’s School of Social Work, obtaining his master’s degree.
Lee’s professional life brought him to Washington DC, Phoenix, Albuquerque, and every corner of Minnesota, including Minneapolis, where he raised three kids. Lee’s career was focused on the advancement of tribes, with a focus on Indian education. Highlights from his career include his election as President of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) in 1971, at the age of 32 – the youngest ever elected to this position. His service at NCAI was during a transformational and historic era, and his leadership helped lay the foundations upon which NCAI still stands today.
Prior to this, he served in the Nixon Administration as the Director of Economic Development at the Department of Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs, helping usher in a new era of self-determination for tribes throughout Indian country. Subsequently, he was elected to the Red Lake Tribal Council in the early 1970s as the Red Lake District Representative. At the time of his election, he was a resident of Minneapolis and was the first and remains the only tribal member to be elected from off the reservation. Lee worked in anti-poverty programs in Minnesota and as a Senior Field Coordinator for the Department of Commerce.
His career also includes service as the Director of Indian Education for the Minneapolis Public Schools, the Assistant to the President for Diversity at Augsburg College, and as the Commissioner for Health & Human Services at the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe. Lee was also the first Director of the American Indian Resource Center (AIRC) at Bemidji State University, home to one of the largest Native American student populations in the United States. Lee was instrumental in making the AIRC a reality, providing Native students with a center for support and mentorship. Lee also played a key role in the development of the Red Lake Nation Tribal College, serving in an advisory role for many years. An active member of Minneapolis’ urban Indian community, Lee was also instrumental in the development of the Minneapolis American Indian Center.
A lifelong and progressive Democrat, Lee was also proud to have been one of the Party’s candidates considered to serve as the Vice-Presidential nominee during the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
Lee was also appointed to many Boards, his voice a valued resource for those in and out of Indian country. These included the Blue Cross Blue Shield Foundation, TPT, the United Way, YMCA, Dunwoody College, St. John’s Alumni Association, the MN Indian Education Association, the National Indian Education Association, and the Met Council.
Never overshadowed by work, Lee’s first love was always family and friends. He loved his lifelong friends and classmates and continued to make and keep friends throughout his life. Whether he met folks on the golf course or over a martini, Lee never met a soul he couldn’t talk to…, and Lee could talk. And talk. Overcoming a stutter at a young age, Lee was a clever wordsmith who engaged any audience in front of him.
Lee enjoyed golf and spent a lot of time on the course. He loved good cars, he never turned down a good steak, loved to travel, and made it to 49 states. Lee liked dinners with friends, BBQing, a good debate, politics, family holidays, reading the paper, a good sense of humor, and a good laugh, especially at one of his own jokes.
Lee is survived by a heartbroken family, including his beloved wife, Patricia (Patty), children, Kristin, Thomas (Ann), & Trisha, grandchildren Zoey, Estelle, Theodore, William, & Oliver. Others include special greats Ninde and Sophia, Michael Michaud, Staci Birt, and first wife Dana Cook. Lee also leaves behind dozens of cousins, nieces, and nephews, grands, and many other relatives and friends who are really going to miss our big guy! Lee was preceded in death by his parents, Rose and Frederick Cook, and his beloved sister, Patricia.
Casket Bearers were Theo Hanson, William Hanson, Oliver Hanson, Jacob Hopperstad, Michael Michaud, and Toni Rudolph. Honorary casket bearers included Rocky Cook, Nickel Cook, Tig Pemberton, John Poupart, Mark Macarro, Eddie Rudolph, Frank Michaud, Jimmy Michaud, Darrell Seki, Sr., and Steve White.
Funeral Services were held on Tuesday, October 19, 2021, at the Red Lake Community Center in Red Lake, MN, with interment at St. Mary’s Mission Catholic Cemetery in Red Lake, MN.