For more than 20 years, Erma Vizenor has been a force to be reckoned with on the White Earth Reservation. From the early 1990s, when she was a prominent member of the group that brought down the Chip Wadena-led government, to a few weeks ago, when she was forced by her political enemies to resign the tribal chairwoman’s office, Vizenor has been in the thick of the action. She came home from Harvard University in 1991 and joined the reform movement on White Earth, working for five years to help topple the patronage-based tribal council, dominated for years by Darrell “Chip” Wadena. In 1995, she said, federal indictments were issued for several tribal council members.
“Because we had fraudulent elections, when the U.S. Attorney’s Office investigated, they uncovered massive corruption,” she said. Three tribal council members were indicted along with the tribal election judge. “As you know, three of them went to prison, there were from 17 to 21 felony charges filed, embezzlement, theft, mail fraud, fraud..,” she said. Since three of five council members were indicted, “White Earth really didn’t have a government,” she said. Vizenor was appointed secretary-treasurer in 1996. She and others on the White Earth Tribal Council successfully pushed the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe to implement primary elections, and Vizenor won a four-year term as secretary-treasurer in 1998.
“The tribe was on the brink of bankruptcy,” she said. “The tribe had a debt of $22 million, $11 million of that from Gaming World,” the out-of-state company that managed the tribal casino under the Wadena administration. A 14-year court battle ended with Gaming World ordered to pay White Earth an $18.5 million settlement. “I’ve been in office as secretary-treasurer during the real, real difficult times, when White Earth employees couldn’t cash a payroll check anywhere because the tribe had no money,” she said. Vizenor and others on the council approached Bremer Bank; they were able to obtain a line of credit for the tribe, and the rebuilding period began, she said. Vizenor lost her reelection bid for tribal secretary-treasurer in 2002. “I felt bad at the time, But it turned out to be a divine loss,” she said, because two years later she ran for tribal chairwoman and won. “I didn’t promise people anything, just said I want to implement good government,” she said. “I set for myself four goals.” One, she wanted to stabilize the tribe. “I did not terminate one employee, I wanted to work together,” she said.
That went in the face of tradition at White Earth, she said. “There was always heavy turnover after an election, they’d bring in their friends and relatives – but in order to be creative problem-solvers, the work environment has to be secure for employees, they can’t feel they’re a target for termination if they disagree with tribal leaders. I understand healthy organizations and toxic organizations, and I wanted a healthy organization.” Two, she wanted to build buildings the people could be proud of, and focus on infrastructure on the reservation. The results include a new tribal headquarters building, a reservation-wide transit system, new powwow grounds, a new Circle of Life school, a charter school in Naytahwaush, and the remodeling of the former headquarters into a health facility, with a dialysis unit and a home-health unit with 40 nurses “to help people in their home,” she said. Also, a new fire station and ambulance garages appeared, and Vizenor is proud of creating the White Earth Tribal and Community College.
In the last legislative session she helped push through increased funding for Indian education. She helped create the tribal police and court system in White Earth, and the system of community councils. She helped right the tribe’s finances through sound fiscal management and refinancing, and saved $1 million a year in property taxes by placing the Shooting Star Casino in trust status. “We went from 300 to over 750 well-paid employees, I say that’s growth,” she said. Three, she sought to heal the tribe. “There was so much division, I wanted to bring people together.” She also wanted to confront the substance abuse problems on White Earth. Towards that end, she was instrumental in the tribe creating a 40-acre, $6 million comprehensive youth treatment facility at the former Archdeacon Gilfillan site in Bemidji. She was also instrumental in the 2011 legislation that transferred health and human services responsibilities for tribal members and their families to tribal government. “We have transitioned about three-quarters of all cases in Mahnomen, Becker and Clearwater counties,” she said.
It will save money for the state over time, since tribes are reimbursed by the federal government at 100 percent, while states are reimbursed at 50 percent, Vizenor said. She also helped bring about tribal veteran service officers – similar to county veteran service officers. “Because our veterans have served proportionately higher than other populations, and have been underserved in benefits,” she said. As for her fourth goal: “I wanted to be the hardest working, most principled leader that White Earth has ever had. Those are lofty goals, but I believe I accomplished all of them.”
But there is much yet to do, and most important for Vizenor is constitutional reform – the issue that brought her down. Under the current system, all power rests in the hands of the Tribal Council. She favored a model based on the U.S. Constitution, with separation of powers and checks and balances. But White Earth is only one of six bands that form the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe, and it operates under the overall tribal constitution. Vizenor was not able to convince the other bands to join her push for reform, but moved on with a stand-alone constitution for White Earth, which was approved by voters there.
The end result was that she was recently censured by the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe’s Executive Committee, made up of leaders from the six member bands. After that, her political foes – the three most recently elected members of the five-member White Earth Tribal Council – were poised to remove her from office for continuing work on the new constitution after being ordered by them to stop. Vizenor opted to resign instead. She plans to run for White Earth secretary-treasurer in two years. “I will continue to stand for constitutional reform on White Earth,” she said. “Only with checks and balances will we become a strong nation for all.”