He was elected to the Grand Portage Tribal Council when he was 23 and continued in Tribal Leadership for the rest of his life serving as Tribal Chairman for a majority of his career. In total, he served on the Grand Portage Tribal Council for 45 years, 27 years of those years as Tribal Chairman. He also served as the President of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe and Vice Chair of the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council.
The Grand Portage Reservation is located in Cook County in the extreme northeast corner of Minnesota, approximately 150 miles from Duluth. It is bordered on the north by Canada, on the south and east by Lake Superior and on the west by Grand Portage State Forest.
The Grand Portage Reservation encompasses a historic fur trade site with spectacular Northwood’s Lake Superior shoreline. The reservation extends about 18 miles along the lakeshore and from nine miles to a quarter mile inland. The community of Grand Portage is the location of the tribal buildings and home sites. Grand Marais is the closest city, 36 miles to the southwest, and Thunder Bay, Canada, is 37 miles to the north.
The name Grand Portage comes from the nine-mile portage necessary to bypass the cascading waters of the Pigeon River to get inland to the lakes and rivers leading to the fur-rich areas of northern Minnesota. By the 1730's the Ojibwe, in their migration along the northern shore of Lake Superior, arrived at Grand Portage. The French record of fur trade over the portage began in 1731. The British took over in the 1760's and the North West Company built the post at Grand Portage by around 1785-87. Some 150 Ojibwe families lived in the vicinity of the post. In 1803, the British company moved to Fort William, Canada, which is now known as Thunder Bay.
The Indian community that provided services and trade at the Grand Portage continued working with the British in Canada. The population in Northern America declined. In 1824, Schoolcraft reported 60 people. For a while in the 1830's the American Fur Co. used Indian people to operate a commercial fishing station at Grand Portage. It did not last long. To this day close ties continue with the Ojibwe in Canada since the border often splits extended families.
The Grand Portage Indians were members of the Lake Superior Band but were not participants in the early Ojibwe treaties with the United States. They protested being ignored in the 1842 Treaty when Isle Royale was ceded and they then received annuity rights. In the 1854 Treaty they ceded their lands in the Arrowhead region of Minnesota and accepted the Grand Portage reservation. During the allotment era, no serious attempt was made to relocate the people to White Earth.
The Grand Portage Tribal Council is the governing body of the reservation and is a member of the MCT. The Tribal Council consists of a Chairman, Vice Chairman, Secretary/Treasurer, Council man, and Council woman. In 1996, Grand Portage entered the Self-Governance Program by contracting to administer its own programs from the BIA. The State of Minnesota is responsible for criminal and some civil jurisdictions. The Tribe established its own court in September 1997. It collects its own sales tax.
The Tribe, working with the local residents, the State, and the Environmental Protection Agency, established a Land Use Ordinance for the reservation that was approved in 1996. This ordinance designates areas of land use according to tribal priorities for wildlife habitat, timber production, and protection of the resources for recreational purposes. A primitive area had been set aside in an eastern portion of the reservation in 1956. The hunting and fishing rights of tribal members in the ceded lands of the 1854 Treaty are regulated under the Tribal Code and enforced by the 1854 Authority.
The community at Grand Portage contains the tribal headquarters, the Trading Post, Daycare Facility, as well as other tribal businesses. The Gitchi Onigaming Community Center was built in 1994 that offers a wide variety of recreational activities, a swimming pool, a senior center, a teen center, a computer room, library, and powwow grounds. The center also provides services with a Head Start program. A log school building has provided federal and public education with an elementary school in Grand Portage since the 1930's. In 1997 a new school for student's K-6th grade was opened and linked to the community center. As a state public school operating under special legislation, the new facility will be leased to the Cook County Public School system. The old school building, the only log school in Minnesota, will continue to be used for educational activities for the Tribe. The students go to middle and high school in Grand Marais. The community has its own health clinic, ambulance service, and volunteer fire department.
The Grand Portage Development Corporation was established in 1971 to spur economic development on the reservation. Their most successful operation is the Grand Portage Lodge and Casino that opened in 1975. It has provided an ever-increasing source of employment for band members and income for the Tribe. The hotel is located on the shore of Lake Superior, off Highway 61. It has 95 rooms, conference facilities, an indoor pool, and gift shop. The reservation has over 100 miles of hiking trails, a marina, and campgrounds. A casino opened in 1990 and expanded in mid-1990s. Eighty percent of their customers come from Canada and is the largest employer in Cook County. Approximately 18% of the employees are First Nation Ojibwe from the Thunder Bay, Ontario Area. Some of the Indian people work as loggers and commercial fishermen. Off-reservation employment is at Grand Marais and Thunder Bay, Canada.
The Grand Portage area has several other attractions for tourists. The Grand Portage National Monument, built on reservation land, features the reconstructed fur trade fort of the 1700's. The original portage trail to historic Fort Charlotte on the Pigeon River is operated by the National Monument. From the bay, ferries take visitors to Isle Royale National Park, 19 miles out in Lake Superior. Grand Portage State Park, located on the Pigeon River, has made the great falls accessible to the public since it opened in 1995. In a unique relationship, the Nature Conservancy and private donations purchased 2.5 miles of land along the river. The State acquired the land, donated it to the Tribe, and then the Tribe leased it back to the State to operate as a state park. The agreement provides that staff positions should be held by those with significant knowledge of Indian culture, preferable knowledge of the Grand Portage Band. (Laws of MN for 1989, Chap 359, Subd 27a, Sect 7-11). There have been funds allocated by the State to build a new State Park Welcome Center.
The 300 year old Manito Geezhigaynce, a twisted cedar known as the little spirit cedar tree, is located on the north side of Hat Point on a stone ledge. This tree has great significance to many generations of Grand Portage Indians and boatmen on Lake Superior. The land with the tree was offered for sale in 1987. A group was formed and $100,000 was raised to buy the land for the Tribe in 1990. To protect their heritage, the Grand Portage Indian community requires that to visit the tree, there must be a tribal guide. The John Beargrease Sled Dog race is held annually from Duluth to Grand Portage and back. It is in honor of John Beargrease, a Grand Portage member, who from 1887 to 1899 delivered the mail from Two Harbors to Grand Marais. Depending on the weather conditions, he would hike, come by boat and in the winter by dog sled.
For additional information about the Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior please visit their website: Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior