Beth Drost remembers eating lunch at the only log school in Minnesota, the Old Grand Portage Log School, when she was an elementary student. Now, at 41, this was where she learned that she would be the first chairwoman of her tribe.
“There were a bunch of us just sitting around, Grand Portage style,” Drost said explaining that this style is referred to as being surrounded by close family and friends. “We were watching the election judges file through all the votes.”
This election wasn’t like previous years. It was abrupt because the passing of longtime Chairman Norman Deschampe. He served the Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa as a council member for 45 years, and its chairman for 27. On February 9, he died of a heart attack.
This loss led the Grand Portage Band to hold a general election on April 29.
“I had in the back of my mind to run for tribal council someday, but I didn't think it would be like this and I didn't think it would be quite so soon,” Drost said.
After encouragement from her family, Drost decided to run for tribal chair.
There were four candidates: two women and two men. After the general election, the two women candidates-- Drost and Marie Spry-- advanced to the special election. Spry, former vice chair, served as interim chairwomen when Chairman Deschampe passed.
“Just being there with Marie and all that she had accomplished, and to shake hands and embrace her was pretty cool ... to see opponents come together like that,” said Drost. “We were all in the community hugging.”
Drost received the majority vote: 173 (93 absentee votes and 80 votes). Spry, received a total of 121 votes: 62 at the polls and 59 absentee.
According to the Grand Portage Band, there are approximately 1,000 band citizens. However, most members reside outside of the reservation; some live in the US, others in Canada. This is because the reservation sits along the border of Canada and Minnesota.
One of Drost’s goals her first year in office will address this: to provide a platform where all band members can easily access information about the tribe.
“Having a website is really, really important to reach everyone,” she said. “I want to start working with the team to create a band website where we can have a repository-- where all of the tribal issues (are accessible) that pertain to us.”
Drost worked as a park ranger at Grand Portage National Monument since 2008. As a ranger she learned how to manage her daily tasks, prepare classes and conduct trainings in compliance with the government agency guidelines. She feels it has equipped her with the organizational skills needed to manage tribal affairs.
“What motivated me to run was that I felt I could step up,” she said. “I had the experience to perform some of the leadership duties that the band needs right now.”
Not only is leadership something that she’s learned professionally, but throughout her upbringing. As the daughter of band member Curtis Gagnon, she felt confident of the election process.
“My father ran to be on the tribal council when I was growing up,” said Drost. “I went through that whole process with him, but he had an unsuccessful bid at that time.”
In addition, Gagnon taught his daughter the importance of the land and treaty rights.
When Drost was about 10-years-old, Gagnon sued the state of Minnesota because he shot a moose off reservation territory. But he claimed that according to the band’s treaty rights, band members had the right to hunt and fish in the area he shot at the moose. In the end, the band won a settlement under the 1854 Treaty.
This legacy is something that Drost intends to continue while in office: to help others understand that her, and her band, think of land use and ownership differently.
“Being connected to the land and the fishing are the seasonal things that we do,” said Drost. “Being outside, that stuff's important to carrying on so that it never goes away from our people.”
Tsanavi Spoonhunter, Northern Arapaho and Northern Paiute, is a reporter-producer at Indian Country Today. She is a Chips Quinn Fellow. Email: Tsanavi@IndianCountryToday.com