Grand Portage: A model of cooperationby Bob Kelleher, Minnesota Public Radio
Grand Portage, Minn. — One of the state's more remote attractions is found on Lake Superior's North Shore, just seven miles shy of the Canadian border.
The Grand Portage National Monument celebrates the state's fur trading history -- the voyageurs and the Indians who swapped furs for trade goods like beads and cloth. Almost 70,000 people visited the monument last year.
Today, the monument serves as a national bellwether for cooperation between the federal government and American Indians.
The Grand Portage itself is an 8-and-a-half mile trail that roughly follows the lower Pigeon River, which forms part of Minnesota's border with Canada. The trail connects Lake Superior to what was Fort Charlotte, and the navigable parts of the Pigeon River.
The portage opened up trade to the fur-rich forests beyond, and links to chains of lakes and rivers that reach to the Pacific Ocean.
A new Grand Portage trading post sits where the original was built. It's a recreation of the North West Company's 1797 headquarters, and is filled with handmade barrels, canoes, and furniture. Many of those items were made by staff at the park, including park ranger Karl Koster.
Koster is an interpreter, meaning he takes on different historic roles at the park. On this day he's the cooper -- a barrel and bucket maker. Koster's workshop is a rough-hewn canoe storage building, just outside the log fort.
"We're a small park, and we can basically manufacture a lot of the stuff that we use around here," said Koster. "These will be used in the kitchen for hauling water when we're cooking over there. So, we're pretty self-sufficient of a little park."
But the monument stands out among national park units for another reason entirely.
It's the first to be co-managed by the National Park Service and an American Indian tribe -- in this case, the Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. Band members -- employed by the band and not the federal government -- do the park maintenance; everything from cleaning and painting to major construction.
Karl Koster has been here throughout the transition.
"We have one incredible maintenance staff. So many of them are the same guys that have been here as long as I have," said Koster. "You can throw those guys an 18th century tool and they are a true maintenance staff. They're as good with 18th century tools as they are with the modern tools."
Grand Portage may have been the ideal place to launch Indian co-management. There's a uniquely warm relationship between the local tribe and the National Park service.
Most national parks stand on what was originally Indian land, in many cases forcibly taken by the U.S. government. This monument, on the other hand, was created in the 1950s at the urging of the Grand Portage band. Half the park's 710 acres were donated by the band. Enabling legislation gives band members a hiring preference.
Today, one-quarter of the monument's dozen full-time employees are tribal members, while almost another dozen band members work maintenance. The monument provides tribal members jobs and draws tourists to their remote community.
From his office, Grand Portage band Chairman Norman Deschampe has a great view of the monument from atop a forested hillside, with a hazy blue Lake Superior below.
Deschampe says it's natural that the local Indian people should play an important role here.
"When the fur trade took place here, it wasn't just the voyageurs. It depended a lot on the Indian people for food and as guides," said Deschampe.
A decade ago, Congress opened the door for Indians to take on a much more substantive role in park affairs.
It starts with the Tribal Self Governance Act, which gives tribes the right to administer federal Indian programs through the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
A 1994 amendment created the potential for Indian management of other Department of Interior programs where a tribe could show a historical, geographical, or cultural connection -- in places like federal forests, refuges, and parks.
In 1996, Norman Deschampe and the Grand Portage Band proposed taking over maintenance responsibilities at the Grand Portage Monument. But it took more than two years to negotiate the compact.
"The biggest thing was, it was the first one. And usually when that happens you want to try and get it right, because that's usually the precedent that others -- if there are others -- follow," he said.
It wasn't easy. In particular, the proposal concerned some Park Service employees.
"There were a few people on staff that were concerned they were going to lose their job," said park superintendent Tim Cochrane. "We were able to deal with that pretty effectively. They did not lose their jobs."
Finally, in November 1999, the band and the Park Service had an agreement. One park employee did take early retirement, and another remains a federal employee today, but on loan to the Indian band.
Cochrane says, nationwide, the real concerns weren't focused on Grand Portage as much as the on the Park Service in general.
"Many or most Park Service people thought that this was not a good idea, and that this was precedent-setting, and that the next thing you know we'll have more of these agreements cropping up around the nation," he said.
That has happened, although very slowly, and with limited success.
Federal land managers and tribal officials have reached agreements in dozens of parklands in places like Alaska and California. Most deal with short-term programs or projects, and not with ongoing management, like at Grand Portage.
One arrangement in Montana has been much more difficult. A confederated tribe's bid to manage the National Bison Range Wildlife Refuge has spawned two lawsuits so far -- one from a public employees group worried about jobs, and another from an environmental group worried about wildlife management.
And all of the cooperative agreements twist on some gray language in the law. The tribes can assume control of any function, except those that are "inherently federal" -- although it's not entirely clear what that means.
"It's a wonderful phrase, but no one has really defined it very well," said park superintendent Tim Cochrane.
That phrase could come up again in Grand Portage. Tribal Chair Deschampe says the band would like to assume additional responsibilities at the monument. There's plenty more work he thinks band members could be doing.
"There's interpretation. They do a lot of research. There's law enforcement -- those internal departments that they have down there," said Deschampe. "Under (the) Self Governance Act, you can really compact for all the services, except those that are considered an inherent federal function. And as far as we can tell, the only inherent federal function down there would be the superintendent position."
But that's yet to come. Deschampe says there are no immediate plans for the band to push for a bigger role, at least not yet.