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Karen Driver.

Karen Diver has been elected the first female chair of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.

UMD alumna elected tribal chair

Karen Diver is first chairwoman of Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa

By Cheryl Reitan

Feb. 23, 2007

In early February, University of Minnesota Duluth 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 approximately 1,700 people and has assets exceeding $300 million. Diver becomes Fond du Lac's first female chair.

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. 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.

One significant opportunity for Diver was her participation as a Bush Foundation Leadership Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. There she received a 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.

Life at 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. A tribal scholarship to UMD brought her and her daughter, Rochelle, back to the state.

Life was not easy at UMD. Diver remembers taking three buses 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."

Growth for the tribe

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 members to bring "best practices" to the tribe, and 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," she said.

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. 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.

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," she added. "The tribe needs transparency, accountability, openness, community awareness, clear policies and a strong structure."

Envisioning the future

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," Diver said. And it's important for her that Fond du Lac maintains its strong culture. Balance is the goal. "That's the sweet spot," she said.

UMD communication intern Jenna Hagen contributed to this article.