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Trailblazing American Indian education leader in Minnesota Larry Aitken dies at 74

Larry Aitken, a spiritual leader in Leech Lake and the founder of Leech Lake Tribal College, has passed away. (BSU Photo Services)

LEECH LAKE, Minn. —Larry Aitken, a luminary of American Indian education, passed away early Thursday. He was 74.

Aitken—whose name in Ojibwemowin means "one who walks alone"—blazed a trail for American Indian educators and leaders who have gone on to earn well-regarded positions in Minnesota and Bemidji-area academia and higher education. He helped establish the Leech Lake Tribal College, which now boasts nearly 1,000 graduates, and the University of Minnesota Duluth's American Indian Learning Resource Center, a progenitor for the American Indian Resource Center at Bemidji State University.

And he did it all during a period when American Indians were exceedingly rare in higher education.

"Some days when I'm having a hard day, I think of people like Larry," said Bill Blackwell Jr., the BSU resource center's executive director, who grew up knowing Aitken and was impressed that he worked at a college. "The work I do is not as hard as the work they had to do because there was no path. I get to continue the path, and I get to make sure the path is taken care of, but those guys created the path. They built the road."

Aitken, who was fluent in Ojibwemowin and held several high cultural honors, worked to convince schools such as Duluth's the importance of Indian education, said Rick Smith, the Duluth learning resource center's director.

"It needed to be taught about in order to bridge that gap between different peoples," Smith said.

And Aitken was one of only a handful of American Indian professors at UMD, where he taught about the lives of 20th Century American Indians and elucidated the differences between western and traditional American Indian psychology, which might have different opinions on a patient who reports encounters with spirits.

He left that job to become Leech Lake Tribal College's first president, and the Bezhigoogahbow library there is named after him.

"Starting out in Indian Education, his was a name that you knew automatically," said Ray Burns, the tribal college's president. "My career aspirations were built on people like Larry."

For decades, he chaired a Bemidji-based scholarship committee that helped thousands of American Indian students earn their degrees.

Aitken also delved into K-12 education, where he and people like Rosemary Christensen, a longtime director of Minneapolis Public Schools' Indian Education program, worked to get Minnesota schools to include more curriculum about American Indian history and culture, among other aims.

"We were colleagues in Indian Country," Christensen said.

And in Bemidji itself, Aitken was instrumental in getting the Bemidji Area Race Relations Council off the ground. The council was comprised of tribal, law enforcement, education, and business leaders who worked to smooth over racially charged issues in and around Bemidji—a store manager whose employee followed an American Indian customer, for instance, might get a visit from some council representatives to try to short-circuit any tension that had arisen.

"There were a number of flare-ups, if you will, and it ranged from welfare case situations to a lot of police mishandling Indian people," said Joe Aitken, one of Larry Aitken's younger brothers, who remembered Larry outfoxing a clerk who tried to follow him. "And, boy, did he have fun with that. He went around in circles and the guy was following him, he went around in circles, and he backtracked and he caught the guy following him and he questioned him."

Joe said he and Larry had a competitive-but-friendly rivalry in golf, football, and so on, and remembered vividly a long-ago day when Larry signed the title on a car Joe had spent an entire summer saving up for.

"He saved our lives more than once getting into scrapes that we shouldn't have gotten into," Joe Aitken said of his older brother. The only person at BSU Larry couldn't beat at arm wrestling was a former green beret, Joe said.

Interviewees up-and-down described Larry Aitken as a kind-hearted and often-hilarious family man who was a gifted and prolific public speaker. BSU's Blackwell and others remembered approaching Aitken with a question that he'd already anticipated and would answer with an illuminating story.

Aitken also taught at Grand Rapids' Itasca Community College, where he arranged powwows and Anishinaabe quiz bowls.

"I remember that his classes were always full," said Kathleen Annette, a White Earth Nation enrollee and honorary member of Red Lake Nation. Annette is the president and CEO of the Blandin Foundation, and she and Aitken often spoke at the same events—about, say, treaty rights—and first met when he was at UMD.

"The one thing about Larry, he was active and committed and so passionate about American Indian culture, language, issues, and for years," Annette said.

Aitken's family has scheduled a wake on Friday and Saturday at the Onigum Community Center outside Walker. Aitken's funeral is scheduled there on Monday. He'll be buried across the street from his family homestead on Agency Bay.

Joe Bowen

Joe Bowen covers education and health for the Bemidji Pioneer.

He is a Minneapolis native and a 2009 graduate of St. John's University. Before moving to Bemidji, Bowen covered education, local politics, crime, and everything in between for the Perham Focus in Perham, Minnesota, and Sun Newspapers in suburban Minneapolis.

(218) 333-9798
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