Red Lake citizen Lee Cook or Waase Waagos was ‘larger than life’

By: - October 28, 2021 9:24 am

Leon “Lee” Cook, Red Lake Nation. Cook died on Oct. 13, 2021. Photo courtesy of his son, Tom Cook

This story originally appeared in Indian Country Today.

Leon “Lee” Cook, a lifelong advocate for the betterment of Native people, champion for Indian education and former National Congress of American Indians president, died Oct. 13. He was 82.

Cook, a citizen of the Red Lake Nation in northern Minnesota, was a larger-than-life figure, a groundbreaker who impacted many people in and beyond Indian Country.

Cook’s career had an unusual path. He was just in his 20s when he was considered as a potential Democratic vice presidential nominee. Then he went to work for Richard Nixon at the Bureau of Indian Affairs during a time of reform. Then he resigned to run for, and win, president of the National Congress of American Indians. He was just 31 at the time.

After Washington, he spent decades in education.

Even with all that Cook accomplished, his heart remained with Red Lake.

“It didn’t say it in his obituary, but he was orphaned, and he lost both his mom and dad really young by the time he was 7, and Red Lake raised him and his family, his extended family raised him and loved him,” his daughter, Trisha Cook, said. “And he spent his life trying to say thank you.”

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Dalton Walker
Dalton Walker

Dalton Walker, Red Lake Anishinaabe, is the deputy managing editor for Indian Country Today. He started as a national correspondent in January 2020.