Feds finally fund new Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig School

Many media outlets reported Tuesday that the Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig School near Cass Lake will finally get a new building thanks to $11.9 million in federal funding.

Operated by the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwa, the Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig School is housed in what was once a bus garage. In recent years it has fallen into serious disrepair.

As a school provided by the Department of Interior under a treaty, Leech Lake was dependent on the federal government to fund its replacement. The band had requested $25 million for a larger facility, but yesterday the Department of the Interior gave word of the almost $12 million. The process took several years.

This description from the Bemidji Pioneer explains conditions in the current school:

The pole barn Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig students call their high school was never meant to be one. It was a bus garage and an automotive mechanic school before it was converted into a high school.

In recent years, doors have come off their hinges, and water has leaked through the roof and onto the light fixtures. When winds reach 40 mph, students run to the nearby middle school, in case the walls collapse.

As you might imagine, this news was well received in the Leech Lake community.

The name “Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig” often stands out on the cancellation list during snow storms. I remember as a kid trying to figure out how to say the word. White kids from the Iron Range like me called it the “Chief Bug” school.

I don’t do that anymore.


Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig, not to be confused with the two Ojibwa chiefs by the same name, was an Ojibwa man who lived on Leech Lake. His escape from unjust arrest kicked off a battle between Leech Lake Ojibwa and a small U.S. Army contingent.

Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig, which means “Hole in the Day,” is a very important name among Minnesota’s Ojibwa people. Just like how there was a period in the mid-20th Century where all the white politicians were named Anderson, so it was for Ojibwa leadership named “Hole in the Day” in the 19th Century.

At the time of statehood, a father and son by that name successively led Ojibwa people in central Minnesota during the time in which Dakota people were being expelled from the state. This was a time when Ojibwa outnumbered whites 10-1. But those men aren’t who the school is named for.

The school is named for a Leech Lake man named Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig, who lived on the shores of Leech Lake just before the turn of the 20th Century. Not a chief, he was just a wiry, 62-year-old Ojibwa who stood up to the federal government in 1898.

In a fascinating part of Minnesota history, Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig escaped from an unfair arrest, to kick off a series of events that led to a brief battle between the U.S. Army and Ojibwa fighters at Sugar Point on Leech Lake, which the Ojibwa won. The event kicked off a regional panic that caused the residents of Bemidji to hole up in the county courthouse. Exaggerated accounts found their way into the New York Times, but the Ojibwa had no desire to fight a war. They just wanted to be left alone.

What’s most stunning is that Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig was never arrested and the Ojibwa fighters never faced charges. A handful of natives who had helped Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig escape in the first place faced minor charges and a short stint in jail. But the demonstration by Ojibwa people was so effective (and the Army so badly embarrassed, having lost six men and escaping only by pity) that most folks just wanted to pretend it didn’t happen.

Read “The Battle of Sugar Point: A Re-examination,” a 1987 paper by William E. Matsen, to learn more about this exciting chapter of Northern Minnesota history.

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