Karen Diver’s familial roots are with the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, but the former tribal chairwoman was raised in Cleveland, Ohio, where her family ended up during an urban relocation program in 1960.
Despite growing up in the city of the questionable “Cleveland Indians,”, Diver told a packed room on March 25 that she didn’t really experience racism against Indians until she received a tribal scholarship to attend the University of Minnesota Duluth and moved in 1983 to her tribal home area.
“I didn’t know people didn’t like Indians until I came to Duluth,” Diver began what would be a fiery acceptance speech as the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial’s 10th honoree. When she returned to Duluth, people saw her as a white woman, so never minced words that she often overheard. “I hear what’s in their hearts because they think I’m their ally and that pissed me off.”
The Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial harkens to the tragic history of racism in Duluth. The memorial was erected in 2003 at the approximate area where in 1920 a mob lynched three African American men after they were unjustly accused of raping a white woman. The memorial, and the group associated with it, has a mission to achieve racial justice through education, reconciliation and healing.
“I’m not really interested in reconciliation,” Diver said, adding that such moves seemed like asking other people’s permission “for us to be okay.”
“I’m not asking permission; I am demanding it. … My mother told me, ‘If you do not speak up when people are hurting you, you are helping them.’”
Diver received the Clayton Jackson honor for her years as a “steadfast community leader and advocate for racial equity and tribal sovereignty.” Her work has included time as a youth board member of the Cleveland American Indian Center, as director of the Duluth YWCA, as vice president of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe and as director of special projects and later as tribal chairwoman (2007-2015) for the Fond du Lac Band. She left that position to become President Barack Obama’s Special Assistant for Native American Affairs. Since leaving that position when Obama’s term ended, she has been an instructor for UMD’s Master of Tribal Administration and Governance program.
Before leaving for Washington, though, she successfully undertook seven years of court battles with the City of Duluth over its agreement connected to the tribe’s downtown Fond-du-Luth Casino, originally a joint venture in 1986. The tribe contended the profit-sharing agreement, which gave $75 million to the city from 1994 to 2009, was not legal under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988. The tribe stopped payments in 2009 and the court battles began. The Indian Gaming Commission and several subsequent court rulings agreed with the tribe. In June 2016, the tribe and city came to a settlement under which the tribe would pay $150,000 annually to cover city municipal services connected to the casino, which employs 235 people.
As a special assistant to the president and as part of the Domestic Policy Council, Diver assisted with policy and regulatory decisions that affected the 567 Native nations.
In her March 25 speech, Diver said that movements for justice by different racial groups—Native, Black or Latino—do not diminish each other. “I will stand up for them with my last breath.”
She pointed, too, to the recent election of President Donald Trump as a bellwether that racial justice is not the only challenge facing the United States. “The haves keep having and the have-nots have less,” she said. “It’s not just about race, it’s about economic equality. … It’s not just color anymore.”
She ended by thanking all of those who made it possible to fight the good fight. When she was a single mother, “allies gave me chances to do better.” She recalled her family and people like the bus driver who let her child ride for free. She cited the scholarship programs that brought higher education and, most recently, her husband, Arnie, who told her: “You go to Washington, hon, I’ll take care of things here.
“Let’s remember,” she concluded, “that we have each other.”
After receiving the Clayton Jackson McGhie honor, Karen Diver answered a few questions about her time in Washington, D.C., the current political landscape and her future projects.
What was something positive you took away from your time as a special assistant to the president? Was there any interaction or opportunity that stuck with you?
I was struck by the enormous commitment of federal career staff. Under the supportive Obama Administration, Native staff and allies were able to promote a robust agenda to support Indian country. From updating ICWA guidelines, land-into-trust acquisitions, and designation of monuments, this administration was historic in its support. Hopefully, the White House Council on Native American Affairs will continue to be the strong vehicle that keeps a cohesive focus among the agencies.
Was there anything particularly frustrating about working at the national level?
Obviously, Standing Rock was a huge issue that involved so many federal agencies. There were also limitations on the role the White House could play. There were balcony-level issues of dealing with infrastructure projects that needed long-term guidance, while also figuring out a process for dealing with how things were playing out on the ground.
Do you envision progress or setbacks for Indian country under the new administration—or are there opportunities for both?
Tribes and advocates will need to be diligent in requiring consultation, while simultaneously keeping relationships and strong advocacy with Congress as a fail-safe against any adverse administration actions. There is both worry and opportunity. The most pressing need is for transparency in the current year's budget finalization, and 2018 budget development.
Are there any areas you’ll be focusing on politically? Or are you thinking of running for office on a local, state, or national level?
I have no current plans for elected office.
Tell me about your work at UMD and how different it is to be teaching after the governmental work that you’ve done for so many years?
The Master’s in Tribal Administration and Governance Program at the University of Minnesota Duluth had an immediate need for a faculty member to take over a class, “Applied Ethics and Leadership.” I was able to fill in. It’s been fun to try to nurture current and emerging leaders in Indian country and talk about the more practical implications of governance.