Leonard Sam was a guardian of the natural world, a keeper of cultural knowledge, and an avid defender of treaty rights who exercised them regularly. A deep believer in the Anishinaabe cultural ways of hunting, fishing, and gathering, Leonard could always be found outdoors. He grew up in the smallest of the four original communities in the Mille Lacs Reservation, Chimi- nising (Isle). He was one of many children to John and Maggie (Armstrong) Sam.
From a young age, Leonard was groomed to be an accom- plished and revered ricer. He would talk about how after his parents got in from their daily haul on the rice beds, they would allow Leonard and his sister Marie to take the rice boat and challenged them to go out by themselves and get what they could. All of this practice led to Leonard and Marie being pretty darn good ricers in their day. There are legends that exist about them and how many pounds they could pick in a day’s time. It’s clear that from a young age, he not only lived the customs and lifeways of the Anishinaabeg, but grew to be an important part in carrying them forward to future generations as well.
Leonard worked for the Mille Lacs Band Department of Natural Resources for a number of years up until his retirement. Even after that, he took part in an elder work program that allowed him to serve that same department as a mentor. It also gave him the ability to continue to do the things that he loved and be in the outdoors. His granddaughter Kelly Sam said, "He was always on the move and knew the importance of hard work and work ethic. Whether it was being outdoors with Perry Bunting, other DNR employees, or a tribal youth summer worker, he understood the impact that he was giving to them by teaching them what he knew; teaching and living by example and showing anyone who wanted to learn just how important those treaties were to the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe. He was so active with anything natural resources. He wanted to explain to those working for the Band and youth why each specific natural resource was important."
Aside from his presence in the DNR and in hunting and gathering, Kelly also remembered those acts by her grandfather as more than what they represented on the surface, saying, "I think what he understood and loved about those activities more than anything was the act of being with people and loved ones throughout the process. Spending family time while being in nature; he knew that is was a connecting force. All of my favorite memories of him are of being outside."
Many times, we often think about treaty rights in a sense of them being things that we are privy to or have a right to, but we often forget what those traditions meant for us as Anishinaabe people. It meant time together with family, it meant celebrations, it meant joy. These were things that were the life blood of our people and things that kept us alive. We did things together as a way of life. They were never viewed as rights, but as the way that we lived our lives and thrived in this world.
Another piece of cultural practice that Leonard was adamant about continuing was the practice of setting dishes in memory of loved ones and in thanks and gratitude for the coming and going of the seasons. "There were so many things that he would say during those family dish ceremonies, and they were always profound. Every single time, he would stress the importance of us continuing to do those ceremonies as a family and why they were so important. He always said that it was about giving thanks for those things that are changing, blooming, or tucking away for the winter, so that they may come again and continue to give us life and sustenance," Kelly remembered.
When asked what she learned and will remember and miss the most about her grandfather, she replied, "He instilled his hard work ethic in me for sure. I'll always remember him humming. They used to talk about him being a good singer back in the day. His humming was always so soothing. I will always cherish his purposeful nature about staying connected with family and taking care of each other. He was strong in his beliefs. Whatever it was, he really kept strong ties to his morals and the functions of the world around him."