'It feels awesome': Heather Boyd makes history as first woman and first Anishinaabe to lead Grand Portage National Monument
A few miles from the Canada border, Heather Boyd walks the grassy trail of the national monument’s Ojibwe Village. She passes the soaring pointed timber of the palisade fence that encircles the recreated historic depot, what was once the famed 18th-century cultural crossroads of the Grand Portage Anishinaabe and the fur trade.
Boyd then stops in the field where the National Monument hosts the annual Rendezvous Days event. Thousands of visitors flock to the remote site every August for music, camping, reenactments and craft workshops.
“This is the encampment area,” Boyd says. “It’s wild to see tent upon tent here.”
She looks up at the nearby western hills, the site of the Grand Portage Band’s annual powwow, also in August.
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“I’m really looking forward to blending the two events a bit more, the powwow and the Rendezvous here” Boyd says. “Well, it’s celebrating both cultures, right? So, being able to encourage not only visitors here, but encourage them to go up to the powwow, too, and have that experience.”
Boyd is the new superintendent of the Grand Portage National Monument. She is the first woman and first Anishinaabe person to hold the National Park Service position since the monument was established in 1958. The Anishinaabe have occupied the land since “time immemorial,” as the monument’s signage points out.
Today, Boyd is wearing a pin given to her by the Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, the tribe that has been co-managing the site with the park service for decades. She is also wearing a traditional Native ribbon skirt, striped in red, white and black.
“The ribbon skirt represents resiliency and identity and is just empowering as a woman,” Boyd says, “and a woman in a management position — that I'm the first Anishinaabe and the first woman to ever lead here.”
Many say her appointment is a historic moment in the co-stewardship of the monument, which is within the boundaries of the of the Grand Portage Indian Reservation. The Grand Portage Band donated the land to the federal government.
“I understand living in a tribal community,” says Boyd, who is an enrolled member of the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa from Bayfield, Wis. “I think that’s one of the things they saw in me.”
Less than half a mile up the road, April McCormick sits in the timber building that houses the Grand Portage Reservation Tribal Council, the partner in co-management with the National Park Service. McCormick is the Tribal Council secretary treasurer.
“We're really trying to have our leadership be reflective of who we are,” McCormick says.
McCormick says Boyd is a good fit because of her 14-year tenure as an administrative officer for Isle Royale National Park, the Michigan island site in Lake Superior, which is part of the Anishinaabe ancestral homelands. It’s less than 40 miles from Grand Portage and on a clear day, you can see it from Boyd’s new office.
McCormick adds that even though Boyd is from a different Anishinaabe band, she is one of them and the community has welcomed her.
“She has a deep understanding of tribal government and protocol,” McCormick says. “And also, just understanding the value of our culture, and traditions, and how we're telling our story for national parks. Whose worldview, whose lenses are we using?”
Citing the efforts of the Grand Portage Band, McCormick points to the growing number of Native women working at the national monument. She says the current chief of interpretation Anna Deschampe is the first Grand Portage Band member to fill the position, within the division of interpretation and education. Boyd will work with Deschampe to refine the storytelling at the national monument, from signage and exhibitions to reenactments and workshops.
The National Park Service announced Boyd’s appointment last summer. She’s only recently relocated from Michigan. The choice to wear the ribbon skirt regularly at Grand Portage, instead of the typical green and khaki of the NPS uniforms, is one way she’s making an impact on the site’s culture.
“Throughout my career with the Park Service, I don't see a lot of Indigenous people,” Boyd says. “As I go to different meetings, I'm the only one in a ribbon skirt in a room. Breaking that barrier so people feel like this is a regular thing means a lot to me.”
Boyd points to other Native women in leadership, who in growing numbers in the last few years have been wearing the ribbon skirt in their official capacity in state and national government.
White Earth member and Minnesota Lieutenant Governor Peggy Flanagan often wore a ribbon skirt. And Deb Haaland, who in 2021 became the first Native woman to serve as the U.S. Secretary of the Department of the Interior (the department responsible for the National Park Service), wore a traditional ribbon skirt at her swearing-in ceremony in Washington D.C.
While Boyd says she still has a lot to learn about the site, she knows she also wants to make an impact by doing more community events, like a recent Ojibwa language roundtable that was hosted in the monument’s Heritage Center. The center houses a museum, art gallery and shop; she wants to bring more local artists into the space, too.
Joseph Bauerkemper, professor and director of the Tribal Sovereignty Institute at the University of Minnesota Duluth, says Boyd’s appointment is important but not surprising.
“The Grand Portage Band has really sophisticated, long-standing, consistent leadership, even when different elected officials and community leaders have come and gone,” Bauerkemper says. “Grand Portage has worked very effectively in partnership with the National Park Service for many years, and so this is not a radical shift in that relationship, but it's a significant improvement in that relationship.”
He compares Boyd’s appointment to the Biden administration appointment of Haaland. “It’s of similar import, because Secretary Haaland brings extensive knowledge and experience to that position” he says. “Native nations don't have to explain to the Secretary of Interior who they are, what they are, what they're up to, and that's a big deal. We can see the same thing going on — sure on a smaller scale, but no less important — at the monument there at Grand Portage.”
Grand Portage National Monument is considered a leader in the National Park System for its co-management agreement, which creates a sharing of power and responsibility between the federal government and local tribes. Charles F. Sams III, the current National Park Service director (and the first tribally enrolled member to hold the position), testified before congress in 2022 about Grand Portage.
“The stewardship of Grand Portage National Monument exemplifies how successful co-management can be, while infusing valuable dollars into the local Tribal economy,” Sams said.
Boyd also sits on the NPS Tribal Relations Advisory Committee for the Midwest region, which includes superintendents and staff from other parks and sites and meets monthly by video call. At the May meeting, Boyd sat in the conference room of the Heritage Center. St. Croix National Scenic Riverway superintendent Craig Hansen — who is the former superintendent of Grand Portage — was on the call and said Boyd’s appointment is significant.
“It shows the commitment to that community and that site,” Jansen said.
Also on the call was Alisha Deegan, the superintendent of the Knife River Indian Village National History Site in North Dakota. A member of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation, Deegan is also working at a federal site in her ancestral homeland.
“Having that connection to the land that is beyond government is huge,” Deegan said. “The pride extends beyond her and her family.” Deegan explained that, as a Native person, it can be “really difficult” to work for government, or feel welcome entering a federal building or park, because of the U.S. history of oppression, violating treaties and taking land from Native populations.
“Having Indigenous people in leadership positions, there is that permission to come back to sites,” Deegan said. “Elders may come and shares stories they wouldn’t have before.”
Boyd sits at her desk in her office at the Heritage Center. She is framed by a window that overlooks the Ojibwe Village and the Historic Depot, with Grand Portage Island and Isle Royale appearing as purple streaks in the distance on Lake Superior.
Boyd says she feels like she’s home, even though she hasn’t lived on her own Red Cliff reservation for 20 years.
“So, when I first came over here, it just felt right,” Boyd says. “When I first started with the Park Service, I wasn’t promoting my heritage and my culture because it didn't feel right. Here, I feel like I’m empowered to do that. It feels awesome.”
The Grand Portage National Monument grounds are open year-round. The Historic Depot opens for the season Memorial Day weekend.
Correction (May 26, 2023): A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the Lieutenant Governor’s title. This has been fixed.