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Grand Portage Band elects first woman as tribal chair

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Beth Drost
Beth Drost will become the first woman ever to hold the post when she is sworn in on July 11.
Courtesy of Beth Drost

Beth Drost, who has worked as a National Park Service ranger for the past 12 years, will become the next chairperson of the Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa — the first woman ever elected to the post. 

Drost defeated another woman — interim chair Marie Spry — in the July 1 election to replace longtime chair Norman Deschampe, who died unexpectedly in February after leading the band for 27 years. 

Since 2008, Drost has worked as a park ranger at Grand Portage National Monument, where she provided educational and cultural programming. She'll be stepping down from that job before she is sworn in as the Grand Portage band's next tribal chair on July 11. 

Drost grew up on the Grand Portage reservation north of Grand Marais at the far northeastern tip of Minnesota, on the shore of Lake Superior. She learned to run sled dogs, fish and collect maple syrup. 

Her father, Curtis Gagnon, played an instrumental role in the Grand Portage Band's effort to secure treaty rights to hunt, fish and gather off reservation land. 

In 1984, when Gagnon was arrested for shooting a moose outside Grand Portage reservation boundaries, he sued the state of Minnesota, in a case that eventually led to a settlement guaranteeing band members the right to hunt, fish and gather within the boundaries of a treaty the band had signed in 1854 with the U.S. government. 

Drost was only seven at the time, but she said as tribal chair, she'll work to encourage band members to continue practicing those cultural traditions.

"I'd strive to be that kind of person where I was connected to the land so that people can continue to care about our resources," she said. 

Drost said she's not surprised that Grand Portage band members elected a woman as chairperson, noting that Ojibwe people have several women leaders, including Melanie Benjamin, chief executive of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, and Cathy Chavers, chairwoman of the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa. 

Still, she said, it's a "big honor" to be the first woman elected. She said she broke down in tears when she realized her daughter, who's six, will be able to say that her mom was the first chairwoman of the Grand Portage band.