NMU Trustee Brigitte LaPointe-Dunham did not have to look far for inspiration on effective leadership qualities when she became CEO of the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community (KBIC) in July 2021. She had two prominent role models within her own family. Her grandfather, Donald LaPointe, formerly served as president and CEO and guided the KBIC through some pivotal moments of progress and growth. Her paternal grandmother, Myrtle Tolonen, had blazed a trail as the first female tribal council president.
“I grew up with a servant leadership mindset that emphasizes relationship-building,” LaPointe-Dunham said. “I'm fortunate to continue their legacy and I ask them for guidance a lot.
"My grandfather was involved in a number of firsts for the KBIC. He was around when the first-ever tribal casino was established on our reservation in 1985. He was very involved in starting new programs and services and getting members enrolled. He wrote the first grant for the tribe to get a comprehensive health clinic on the reservation—the first tribal facility of its kind in Michigan—so that physical, mental and dental health would be housed under one roof. The entire health facility is now named after him. My grandfather also taught me that education is important, and that it's something no one can ever take away from you. I listened to him and really believe that.”
The proof that LaPointe-Dunham took his words to heart can be found in the long list of academic credentials she accumulated after graduating from Baraga High School in 2003. She had been raised on the KBIC reservation by a single mother of five, including a twin sister, and gained three more siblings through her mom's marriage. She has five additional siblings on her paternal side.
LaPointe-Dunham played college basketball at Finlandia University while earning an associate degree. She went on to complete her bachelor's in sports science at Northern, where she was also an assistant coach for the women's basketball team.
Despite her affinity for the sport, LaPointe-Dunham had a desire to spread her wings professionally. She stepped away from coaching to serve as the KBIC's tribal employment rights officer for three years. She later completed both an NMU master's certificate in performance improvement-training and development and a master's degree in exercise science. After grad school, LaPointe-Dunham landed at Upper Peninsula Health Plan in Marquette. She was able to gain work and leadership experience in a professional setting.
“Something I really enjoyed at UPHP was the ability to sit and learn from the leaders in place and understand how to treat employees, develop policy, and create a work environment that people want to be a part of.”
All of this intrigued Brigitte and motivated her to learn more about leading others and how to do it at a high level.
“Leadership in general is really centered around creating relationships and connections with others," she said. "It is about being vulnerable enough to open your mind and heart to others and utilize past experiences to make decisions. Growing up with the servant leadership mindset assisted me with this as I moved through my early career. As I grow as a leader, I am understanding that you can have more than one trait of a certain leadership style. When it is all said and done, I hope to be that servant leader with vision who was a part of transformational change.”
Brigitte received a Masters Degree in 2020 from Michigan State University's Broad School of Business in Management, Strategy, and Leadership. “I never want to stop learning. I feel the more you know, the more you have to gain. And that is where value is seen, anywhere you go or end up.”
She said gaining the knowledge and skills in a pretty quick timeframe made it an easy decision for her to apply for the KBIC CEO position when it was posted in Spring 2021.
As CEO, LaPointe-Dunham is involved in strategic planning, along with personnel and budget management. She oversees all tribal government operations that includes health and human services, community, youth, elder, and licensing services, police and fire, HR and marketing. She also reports to the tribal president and provides weekly updates to the tribal council. The KBIC government, not including casino operations, currently employs more than 320 people.
LaPointe-Dunham said she was appointed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to the NMU Board of Trustees at an exciting time—on Feb. 2, one day after the official start date of President Brock Tessman.
“He provides so much energy and a desire to get things done. He also gains the trust and confidence of those around him,” she said.
It was at NMU that Brigitte met her wife, Mariah Dunham, who is now a physical education and health teacher at Baraga High School. Mariah is also an assistant coach on the Michigan Tech women's basketball team, which provides a healthy rivalry in the household.
In their free time, the LaPointe-Dunhams like to cook, travel, exercise and spend time outdoors together, often on their boat. They are also parents to a 6-year-old daughter, Amya, whom they officially adopted on Nov. 14, and three fur babies: one dog and two cats.
Brigitte's term on the NMU board runs through Dec. 31, 2030.