Karen Diver of the Fond du Lac band says tribe does not owe Duluth millions from casino.
Karen Diver sighed as she passed the squat, white barracks-style houses built on the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Reservation decades ago. She took a right and parked her minivan before two new housing complexes.
These buildings, tall and richly hued, earned a smile.
As chairwoman of the Fond du Lac band, Diver wrangled 15 funding sources to get them built. Gambling revenue from the band’s two casinos was key, she said.
Walking around the reservation, west of Cloquet, Minn., Diver pointed out what casino revenues have meant to residents. Their own police, tribal court, clinic, school and scholarship program. In short, she said, “self-sufficiency.”
That, she said, is why the band has refused to give up a protracted legal fight with Duluth over whether the city should get a slice of the Fond-du-Luth Casino’s gambling revenue as outlined in long-standing agreements. An offshoot of the dispute will play out this week before the Minnesota Supreme Court.
Fond du Lac leaders “hoped that people would understand us looking out for our community with our own revenue,” she said recently, in an office lined with birch bark art and photos of her sitting beside President Obama.
The band’s controversial 2009 decision to stop paying the city has pitted Diver against Duluth’s popular mayor, Don Ness. To passersby who yell at her on Duluth’s streets, Diver vigorously breaks down the band’s decision to stop paying the city — citing federal law between folksy jabs and muttered asides.
“This notion of a partnership is a fallacy,” she said. “We just plain paid them, sent them checks. That’s not a partnership. That’s alimony.”
As the case grew, another leader might have taken a step back, said Chuck Walt, Fond du Lac’s executive director of tribal programs. “She has not wavered — despite a lot of pressure to do just that.”
As the band’s first chairwoman, Diver is part of an ascendence of women — many of them highly educated — to top leadership positions within Minnesota’s Ojibwe communities, said Anton Treuer, a professor at Bemidji State University. More than half of the state’s Ojibwe officials are now women, he said. “The ceilings have been punched through by strong native leaders.”
Diver, who was first elected in 2007, thinks the trend is more important for future generations than an indication of changed priorities to tribal policy now. It “really opens up the possibility for young girls and women to find role models within their own communities,” she said.
‘Never any question’
Diver was just 15 years old, a sophomore at a Catholic school in Cleveland, when she had her daughter, Rochelle. She moved to Minnesota for college with just a few hundred dollars in her purse and a 3-year-old daughter on her hip.
Yet her parents didn’t worry.
“When she left with that little girl — everybody crying and waving — we knew that she would do it,” her mother Faye Diver said. “There was never any question.”
Because her parents were from Fond du Lac, moving made it easier for Diver to access tribal funds for college. Her folks “never owned a home or a new car, but they put all four of their children through 12 years of private school,” Diver said. “So I knew education was important.”
It took three buses to get from her apartment to day care to the University of Minnesota-Duluth. She studied economics, becoming the first Indian woman to graduate from the campus’ business school. She later earned a master’s degree at Harvard University.