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New heritage center fulfills a 50-year-old promise

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GRAND PORTAGE, Minn. - Almost 50 years ago, a promise was made to the Grand Portage Chippewa when the band gave some of its land in the heart of the reservation to the federal government to help in creation of a national park in Minnesota.

On Aug. 10, with the official opening and dedication of the Grand Portage National Monument's heritage center, that promise - to create a visitor center and museum on-site - was finally kept.

''This is a reflection of that promise made a long time ago,'' said band Chairman Norman Deschampe, who is also president of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe, at the opening ceremony.

The new $4 million, 16,600-square-foot building represents many things, he said, including increased employment, additional opportunities to bring in tourism and a chance for the story of the Grand Portage people to become even more a part of the national monument's historical objective.

Because the National Park Service staff works closely with the community, it also gives the people a sense of ownership in what happens there. Two elders came to tell the chairman exactly what they thought about the place. They expressed their ''sincere happiness about what's going on here,'' Deschampe said. ''That's probably one of the most important things of all.''

Grand Portage National Monument is unique in many aspects. Under an Indian Self-Governance Act agreement, the band is a partner in the park and members work in many jobs from grounds maintenance to management positions.

''They are really integrated into the day-to-day management,'' park Superintendent Tim Cochrane said of the band's influence on the park. Among the original mandates to the Park Service in creation of the monument is encouragement of traditional Ojibwe handcrafts.

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The national monument commemorates the era of the voyageurs and the height of the fur trade, as well as the history of the area's Ojibwe people. It already had several buildings recreating the period, including a Great Hall rebuilt after one burned, along with many artifacts, in the 1970s.

The monument may be unique also in that some land was given to the federal government in 1958 by the band rather than simply held in trust for return to the band, as is the case with most reservation-based parks.

''The unique relationship that has blossomed here is a direct result of the people who are here,'' said Ernest Quintana, director of the Park Service's Midwest region. ''I'm a firm believer in good things happening because good people come together in the right place and the right time.''

Within the new building are many reflections of the local culture along with its diverse history. Among the artwork are paintings and a mural by Ojibwe artist Carl Gawboy, as well as photographs by Grand Portage band member Travis Novitsky and beadwork by band member Marcie McIntire. Other paintings by a local man, Howard Sivertson, show the voyageur and Ojibwe lifestyle of the 17th century. During the ceremony, the Grand Portage Traditional Drum performed several honoring songs under the direction of Drum Keeper Gilbert Caribou. Park rangers Jeremy Kingsbury and Shane Ausprey performed on the bagpipes, reflecting the Scottish heritage of some fur traders.

The building interior features large log pillars placed to the four directions and a cupola that reflects an Ojibwe architectural tradition from early 20th century meeting halls. Slate accents inside and outside were collected on-site during the construction. The downstairs of the building will be used for archives, rare books and archaeological artifacts protected with professional quality storage. The main level will serve as the visitor welcoming area and the upstairs level, besides holding displays of artwork, will be used for offices - bringing the headquarters of the national monument on-site rather than almost 40 miles away in Grand Marais, which has been the case since its 1958 opening.

Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., said during his speech at the opening ceremony that the original verbal promises to create such a center were long in coming.

''There was a great vision painted,'' he said, ''but over time and over budgets ... those promises were not kept.''

The current heritage center ''is a gift from one government to another, a gift from one people to another people,'' Oberstar said. ''It's places like this that keep the spirit, the culture, the history, the love of place.''