A new tribal constitution?

The White Earth Reservation's government could see the most drastic change since 1934 if a proposed constitution is approved. That constitution is set to be ratified by delegates at the reservation's final constitutional convention April 3 and 4 ...

White Earth Tribal Chairwoman Erma Vizenor
White Earth Tribal Chairwoman Erma Vizenor

The White Earth Reservation's government could see the most drastic change since 1934 if a proposed constitution is approved.

That constitution is set to be ratified by delegates at the reservation's final constitutional convention April 3 and 4 at the Shooting Star Casino in Mahnomen.

White Earth Tribal Chairwoman Erma Vizenor said that there are several problems with the current system of government.

"It's really an incomplete constitution," she said.

There are several areas of concern for Vizenor that she said are being addressed by the proposed constitution. The main issue for her being the separation of powers between the judiciary and the tribal council.


"It's subject to abuse," Vizenor said of the current situation where the tribal council appoints judges, as well as clerks.

How that judiciary will be set up is still up for debate.

Vizenor said that an independent judiciary goes a long way in helping people feel comfortable about how the rule of law is applied on the reservation.

"When people go to the court, they will feel like it is an independent judicial system that allows for due process and appeals," Vizenor said.

A strengthened and independent judiciary is important for economic development, Vizenor said. She said that any disputes need to be heard in neutral venues.

Chief tribal judge Anita Fineday agreed that an independent judiciary is needed.

"It's a basic premise of good governance," She said.

Fineday is part of the committee that wrote the draft constitution.


Noted American Indian scholar Gerald Vizenor, a cousin of Erma Vizenor's late husband, chairs the constitution writing.

Other members of the team are Jo Anne Stately, Vice President of Development for the Indian Land Tenure Foundation, Jill May Doefler, an assistant professor of Native American Studies at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, and David Wilkins, a professor of American Indian studies at the University of Minnesota.

Vizenor said that the constitution doesn't have to copy the U.S. Constitution.

"We know the U.S. system is not perfect, but it has checks and balances," Vizenor said.

Membership issues loom

Another issue looming is one of membership. The White Earth Reservation is seeking to eliminate blood quantum rules that state that tribal members need to have one-quarter Chippewa blood to be a member of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe.

Under the current system of tribal government, the White Earth Reservation is one of six reservations grouped together under the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe.

Current tribal membership rules will decimate membership, Vizenor said.


"It's designed to ultimately eliminate the tribe," Vizenor said.

Vizenor said that there are projections that the White Earth Reservation would lose half of its membership in 20 years if the blood quantum rules stay in place.

If the White Earth Reservation eliminate the blood quantum rules, that puts the tribe into conflict with the federal government and could lead to tiered tribal membership.

Those members who are enrolled into the tribe, but don't meet blood quantum requirements, would be ineligible for federal Bureau of Indian Affairs programs.

Not daunted by that prospect, Vizenor said the tribe must press on.

"We may have to deal with that for a while," Vizenor said. "We cannot stand still and not move forward."

Land and jurisdiction of tribe on the table

Other areas that Vizenor said the constitution addresses are land issues. Vizenor wants land that is located on the White Earth Reservation, but titled to the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe, to be transferred to White Earth.


Vizenor said that amounts to 60,000 acres.

Jurisdiction is the final main focus of the proposed constitution. Vizenor said that jurisdiction encompasses a lot of areas.

It includes hunting, fishing, water, mineral, airspace and even broadcasting issues.

Constitutional reform process open

Deciding these issues are delegates selected by Vizenor. She said she was open to anyone who wanted be a delegate to the constitutional convention.

There has been a call for constitutional reform for quite some time. Vizenor said that a draft constitution was drawn up in the mid 1990s, but the process wasn't well attended.

This time around, the constitutional convention has had several sessions where there are breakout sessions, focus groups and debate.

If the constitution is ratified as expected, Vizenor plans on holding a referendum on its approval in the next year.


The new constitution could put the White Earth Reservation at odds with the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe. Vizenor said she wants to present it to the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe for approval, but secession is on the table.

She said that the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe hasn't seen the need for constitutional reform, though.

Messages left for Gary Fraser, Executive Director of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe, were not returned.

But first, she said she has to raise the estimated $40,000 to hold the vote, as well as hold public meetings to discuss it.

There was concern that Vizenor doesn't have the authority to call a constitutional convention.

"Some people said you don't have the authority to do it," Vizenor said. "There is absolutely no provision against it."

She said she has a mandate from the people on the reservation to reform the constitution.

The draft constitution will be presented to the public at the constitutional convention.

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