by Joe Bowen, courtesy of Duluth News Tribune
A call to action by a former Minnesota senator has inundated a Leech Lake tribal school.
Al Franken, the former comedian-turned-U.S. senator, asked the internet last week to donate books and cash to Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig School’s secondary school library. By Friday afternoon, May 3, school -- and UPS -- workers estimated they’ve received about 1,800 packages of books, plus $75,000 via a GoFundMe campaign Franken highlighted.
Conditions at the school’s building for secondary students were notoriously shoddy, and Minnesota lawmakers such as Franken pushed for years to secure federal money to replace it. The new building, which opened at the beginning of this school year, didn’t have many books in its library or enough shelves to store them on, which meant boxes and boxes of books sat quietly in a storage room this year.
“When I first toured the old school years ago, I was particularly struck with the school’s library -- if you could call it that. It was in a room the size of a closet and contained two small bookcases,” Franken, who resigned in 2017 amid a series of sexual misconduct allegations, wrote on his website. “I would love for the students and faculty and community to have access to a comprehensive collection of books about the history and culture of Native Americans, so that they can study the rich, proud history of their people.”
On paper, the school already had about 17,000 books, according to Media Specialist Laurie Jo Villwock, but most were for younger students and stored in the school’s K-6 building. Staff hadn’t done a full accounting of them since 2008.
Last year, administrators at the school paid for about 4,000 new books with about $62,000 in grant money, most of which came from the Bureau of Indian Education.
Franken asked tribes across the country to send books about their culture and heritage to Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig. That netted the school about 100 more, and a DonorsChoose fundraiser brought a few hundred dollars’ worth, too -- but the former senator’s call to action is the highest profile effort to fill the high school’s library to date.
For about a week, boxes and boxes of books have poured into the school. A small hill of discarded packaging formed near the library’s entrance on Friday as a handful of students and a library aide tore open each box and carefully organized each new book one of several stacks.
School staff listed the books they want on an Amazon wishlist, but some donors have sent duplicates from the list or, seemingly, books they feel would be worthwhile nonetheless.
“So we have 30 copies of “Moby Dick,” which I don’t think I even asked for,” Villwock said. The school has also received about 30 copies of “To Kill a Mockingbird” and about 40 of “1984,” according to staff.
Donors from across the country have sent collections of used books, too. A woman said she had 17 boxes ready to donate -- if school staff could pick them up from her home in Georgia.
And the tens of thousands of dollars pouring into the GoFundMe campaign won’t go entirely to literature. Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig administrators plan to use some of that money to buy bookshelves and other furniture for the library, bolster the smaller libraries in individual classrooms, and maybe buy a new batch of chromebooks for students there.
The new Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig secondary school’s library can hold about 20,000 in all, staff estimated.