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Grand Portage mourns the loss of its longtime leader

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Grand Portage Chairman Norman Deschampe in 2003
Grand Portage Chairman Norman Deschampe answers questions in May 2003 in his office on the Grand Portage Indian Reservation in Grand Portage, Minn.
Jack Rendulich | AP Photo 2003

Norman Deschampe, who was first elected to the Grand Portage Tribal Council at the age of 23 and went on to serve more than 40 years in tribal leadership — including 27 years as chairman — died at his home of a heart attack on Feb. 9. He was 65. 

Deschampe was also a former president of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe, a tribal government that represents six Ojibwe bands in northern Minnesota. 

During his long tenure leading the Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, he helped launch a charter school on the reservation, helped tribal members secure off-reservation treaty rights and forged a strong connection to the nearby community of Grand Marais and to Cook County in northeastern Minnesota.  

But it was his kindness, generosity and love of children that his friends and colleagues remembered most. 

"You hardly ever saw this guy without kids around him because the kids just loved him," said Grand Marais Mayor Jay Arrowsmith-DeCoux, speaking just before the start of the memorial service Wednesday. 

"The fact that right now I'm at this gathering, and the Grand Portage Community Center is exploding with people — there are hundreds and hundreds of people here — also speaks to his legacy. He was an incredible man," he said.

"He was a really dedicated family man," said the band's interim chairwoman, Marie Spry. 

Deschampe had four daughters, and "he followed his kids wherever they went," recalled Spry. All four graduated from college and three returned to Grand Portage to work, including one who is a tribal judge, Spry said. 

"He was very personable, easy to talk to. He'd help anybody with anything," Spry added. "His main goal was to help people on the reservation to have better lives." 

She said he was working to start a Boys and Girls Club on the reservation when he died, a task she said she'd try to complete. 

In Grand Marais, Arrowsmith-DeCoux has proclaimed Feb. 26, Deschampe's birthday, as Norman Deschampe Day in the city. 

The two communities are "completely interconnected," Arrowsmith-DeCoux said. "We certainly have our differences, but we're so intimately connected and Norman was really good at identifying that and working toward continuing that unity. That's what we're celebrating."

The Grand Portage Band will hold a special election in July to elect a new chairperson. But Spry said Deschampe's shoes will be impossible to fill. 

"There's going to be a void here for quite a while," she said.