Alumna Karen Diver Elected Tribal Chair

Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa: First Woman Chairwoman


Karen Diver

In early February, 2007, UMD alumna Karen Diver was elected chair of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. In her new position, this 1987 economics graduate now heads a tribal government that employs between 1,600 - 1,800 people and has assets totaling over $300 million. She also serves on the governing body of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe, made up of the White Earth, Mille Lacs, Fond du Lac, Bois Forte, Leech Lake, and Grand Portage bands.

Background

Diver, Fond du Lac’s first woman chair, is prepared for the job. Most recently she served as the director of special projects for the Fond du Lac Reservation and before that, she was the executive director of the YWCA in Duluth. The list of the positions she has held and the boards she has served on is impressive and includes: Arrowhead Welfare Reform Partnership, Minnesota Council of Nonprofits, American Indian Community Housing Organization, Duluth Community Action Program, Governor's Workforce Development Council, and the Blandin Foundation.

One significant opportunity, and possibly the event that prepared Diver most for her new position, was her participation as a Bush Foundation Leadership Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. There she received the Master in Public Administration degree in 2003. As a student in the Harvard American Indian Economic Development Project, she studied best practices in governance and economic development in Indian Country.

Business Growth

As Fond du Lac’s chair, Diver serves on the reservation business committee, often called the tribal council, along with five other members. Her plan is to work with the other tribal council members to bring those “best practices” to the tribe. There may be changes in the coming months. “Fond du Lac has experienced exponential growth in the last 20 years, and for the most part, the community just hung on for the ride.”

Fond du Lac’s businesses have flourished, unlike some sovereign nations around the world. “We have many tribal enterprises and their success may be due to our strong sense of culture and community,” Diver said. When one business does well, everyone gains. The largest employer in Carlton County, the tribe owns the Black Bear Casino, the Fond du Luth Casino in Duluth, a construction company, a propane company, a gas station, a convenience store, a hotel, and a golf course.

“Fond du Lac is looking at a $119 million expansion to Black Bear Casino,” Diver said. “We’re tearing down and re-building the casino, adding a convention center and a family friendly hotel.” It’s a huge undertaking but it promises to bring more employment and revenue to the tribe.
The Reservation Business Committee runs all the businesses. “We haven’t given management over to other corporations like some other tribes have,” said Diver. “We’ve been able to be successful doing it ourselves.”

The growth has brought more families back to the area. “We’ve done well as a tribal nation and now it’s time to do long-range strategic planning for the future,” Diver said. More people, more businesses, and more job opportunities means that the tribe needs to achieve a higher level of governance. “We can’t govern the same way we did in 1985,” said Diver. “The tribe needs transparency, accountability, openness, community awareness, clear policies, and a strong structure.”

Education and Housing

Workforce development is important to Diver. “The tribe is committed to hiring our own members to work in our businesses,” Diver said. Education is a strong community value at Fond du Lac. “I’m proud of our schools,” she said. Fond du Lac cares for and educates its children from birth to the second year of college and they do a lot with little money. “The money per student is less than provided for federal inmates,” Diver said. “Academic success means workforce success.”

The tribe’s role is to fill gaps in services. Housing is a constant problem because there are over 200 families on waiting lists. “We are trying to look at housing in a comprehensive way: from helping the homeless to helping people buy their first home,” said Diver.

Attending UMD

Karen Diver has a passion for Fond du Lac, possibly because she left Minnesota for many years. Her parents, both tribe members, moved in 1960 on the relocation program, and Diver was raised in Cleveland, Ohio. A tribal scholarship to UMD brought her, and her daughter, Rochelle, back.

Life was not easy at UMD. Diver remembers taking three busses in the morning to get her daughter to daycare and herself to class. There were late nights and lonely days, living half a country away from her parents.

Some of Diver’s dedication to advocacy for others is due to her own situation. She knows what it’s like to rely on welfare and how hard it is to achieve success when you don’t have resources.

Diver is the only Native woman and one of only three Native Americans to graduate from UMD’s Labovitz School of Business & Economics.
Diver says she would have never have made it through UMD if it hadn’t been for the Anishinabe Club. “I was a single mom. I wouldn’t have survived without the support of the Native kids,” Diver said. “They helped me believe that I could make it at UMD. When I had problems, the Anishinabe Club helped me solve them.” Staff even helped with emergency financial support. Diver’s best friend now is an American Indian woman that she met in the Anishinabe Club. A current staff person at UMD, Rick Smith was a fellow student. “It meant a lot to me that UMD hired staff and teachers from the Native community,” Diver said. She remembers art teacher Carl Gawboy and staff member Jay Newcomb as part of her support system. “The Anishinabe Club Room was a safe place,” she said.

Leadership

It doesn’t surprise Diver that she is working at Fond du Lac. It was always her long-term plan to provide leadership for the tribe. As she continued through her career, she garnered the experience that has prepared her for the role as Fond du Lac Tribal Chair: in community development, workforce development, organizational management, women's issues, culturally competent programming, and financial literacy.
Diver searches for a way to balance the past “200 years of poverty and oppression,” with a future full of growth and economic success. She wants good things for her people: jobs, housing, health care, and education. “We want a better life for our kids,” she said. And it’s important for her that Fond du Lac maintains its strong culture. Balance is the goal. “That’s the sweet spot,” Diver said.

Karen Diver, Employment and Community Service
-Chair of the seven county Arrowhead Welfare Reform Partnership
-Vice-Chair of the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits
-founding member and Treasurer of the Board of Directors of American Indian Community Housing Organization,
-Vice-Chair of Northstar Community Development Corporation
-Marshall School Board of Trustees member
-board member of Duluth Community Action Program
-member of YWCA of USA Child Care Advisory Panel and the YWCA of the USA Convention Committee
-past gubernatorial appointee to the Governor's Workforce Development Council. (Arne Carlson)
-Director of Special Projects for the Fond du Lac Reservation
- UMD’s Master of Advocacy and Political Leadership faculty team member
-Previous to that she served as the Executive Director of the YWCA of Duluth, a position that she held for eleven years.
-Duluth Family Services Collaborative and the Duluth Human Rights Commission
-She is currently the Chair of the Board of Trustees of the Women's Foundation of Minnesota and a member of the Board of Trustees of the Blandin Foundation

— written by Cheryl Reitan with assistance from Communication Intern Jenna Hagen

UMD Homepage 2007

UMD home page editor, Cheryl Reitan, creitan@d.umn.edu
NEW RELEASES, UMD media contact, Susan Latto, slatto@d.umn.edu, 218-726-8830

 

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