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Grand Portage: Rich in land, and protective of it
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Grand Portage still holds the land with the witch tree. And with revenue from a busy casino built a dozen years ago, the band has added significantly to the amount of reservation land it owns - now 95 percent. (Photo courtesy of Minnesota Sea Grant/ Jeff Gunderson)

Grand Portage, Minn. — (AP) - It's said that the twisted cedar tree has thrust from the rocky bluffs on Lake Superior for more than 300 years.

The so-called "w" at the tip of Minnesota's Arrowhead region is a fixture in Minnesota calendars and tour books, and a symbol of the Grand Portage Band of Chippewa. To the Chippewa, or Ojibwe, who call it Manido-Gree-Shi-Gance or "spirit-little-cedar," it's a sacred site where tobacco offerings have been sprinkled for generations.

To others, it was worth about $85,000.

That was money Grand Portage didn't have in 1987 when the witch tree and its surrounding lakeshore was put up for sale by a private landowner. But the band knew their livelihood was their land, and they rallied to raise money enough to buy it.

Grand Portage still holds the land with the witch tree. And with revenue from a busy casino built a dozen years ago, the band has added significantly to the amount of reservation land it owns - now 95 percent.

"What's special is the way people look at the reservation - the concept that this is their home," said Grand Portage Chairman Norman Deschampe. "There's a sense of ownership, that the reservation belongs to everybody."

About 500 of Grand Portage's 1,200 band members live on the 44,700-acre reservation that's tucked among bluffs of birch and pine and filled with moose, lynx and deer.

Bordered by Canada, Lake Superior and national forests, it's on an increasingly popular tourist path. Occasionally, out-of-state families stop at the reservation looking for teepees and wigwams, the children inquiring where the "real Indians" are.

But today's Grand Portage members are more likely to be found on treadmills or at the indoor swimming pool, fighting the epidemics of heart disease and diabetes that are common among American Indians.

Tribal buildings are smokefree. And land development is scorned.

"It's a good life here," said band elder Dick Hoaglund. "If people don't fit in, they usually leave. It may be just too quiet for them."

Grand Portage already owned 75 percent of the land on the reservation before it opened its casino in 1990 (the lodge has been open since 1975). When the money came in, the band went to members to see where their priorities laid.

Education, housing and health services were among the answers. But Grand Portage members also knew the reservation was on the development path of new resorts, trendy cafes and house-size cabins creeping up the North Shore.

The band bought back more than 2,000 acres from private landowners and then made most of the reservation land untouchable - prohibiting development after band members and non-band members spoke out at public meetings to say they wanted it preserved, said Deschampe, who's also president of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe, which includes five Ojibwe reservations.

"You don't have to be Indian to appreciate what is here," Deschampe said.

Grand Portage doesn't have the new, large homes sometimes seen on reservations closer to the Twin Cities. A group of elders who gathered recently for lunch (potato soup) at the band's dining center says that's not Grand Portage's style.

"People say we should be capitalizing on it (casinos). But we say, 'Why?' - a place like Grand Portage doesn't need this," Hoaglund said.

The median household income at Grand Portage has jumped 21 percent in the past decade to $30,326, according to the 2000 Census.

The band's new community center, media center and day-care programs are open to residents. Rental housing is offered to casino and lodge staff. The band has a center for elders and provides full college scholarships to members - for the institution of their choosing.

There are no other communities besides Grand Portage on the reservation, which means there isn't the same racial tension evident on other reservations hard by non-Indian towns. There's not a lot of crime and the band works closely with their neighbors - the county, the Coast Guard, Border Patrol and Forest Service, Deschampe said.

"We're up here in the corner," he said. "No one really bothers us here."

When Europeans began to trickle into eastern Minnesota, Grand Portage became the headquarters for a worldwide fur trade, hosting an event known as Rendezvous from 1730 to 1805. The trading hub is celebrated at the Grand Portage National Monument that recreates voyageur life in the 1700s on land the band gave to the Park Service.

Grand Portage didn't take part in early Ojibwe treaties with the United States, even though they were part of the Lake Superior Band of Chippewa. But when nearby Isle Royale was ceded by treaty in 1842, they became upset and were granted annuity rights, or payments over time.

The band went on to cede their Arrowhead lands in an 1854 treaty and accepted the reservation that remains today - 18 miles of lakeshore that extends from nine miles to a quarter-mile inland.

Grand Portage keeps a close eye on its surroundings. Most people draw their water from Lake Superior, where the water quality is good. Industrialization hasn't touched the reservation.

The band has restocked the lake with its native coaster brook trout, a project that received national attention.

"It's pretty wild and unchanged," said Rick Novitsky, the band's natural resources director. "There's no railroads around here to bring problems to us."

There's some commercial fishing and timber production on the reservation. In the winter, the band hosts the Grand Portage Sled Dog Race - following the spirit of musher and Grand Portage member John Beargrease and his mail runs near the turn of the century.

Grand Portage has become a leader among reservations with its government-to-government relations. The state helped Grand Portage buy land that included the High Falls - Minnesota's highest waterfall, located on the Pigeon River. In return, Grand Portage leases Grand Portage State Park back to Minnesota for $1 a year.

The band also negotiated the nation's first tribal-Park Service compact to oversee maintenance at the national monument.

"We're not just their neighbors, we're in their neighborhood," said Tim Cochrane, Park Service superintendent for the monument. "The tribal council has been very thoughtful, very progressive and fair."

Deschampe said Grand Portage was self-sufficient before receiving gambling revenue, but the casino has provided more opportunities and year-round job security. The band has built an endowment fund as a hedge against a dropoff in casino business.

Holding a cup of coffee and surrounded by reservation maps, Deschampe looks at Lake Superior and towering pines from a window in his office, which sits at the end of an old house used as tribal headquarters. Plans are under way for a new government center.

"There are people coming back, which is good. We welcome them. This is home," he said, opening his hand toward the window. "Why wouldn't you live here?"

Grand Portage: Minnesota Chippewa Tribe: Grand Portage National Monument: (Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.) AP-NY-06-18-03 2006EDT

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