White Earth Band votes to end blood quantum for tribal membership

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MOORHEAD, Minn. – White Earth Band

of Ojibwe tribal members have approved a new constitution that

dramatically changes tribal government and expands membership in

Minnesota’s largest Chippewa tribe.

The new constitution eliminates the

blood quantum which requires a person to prove they have 25 percent

Indian blood and changes to a system based on family lineage. But

choosing a new constitution is only the first step in what will

likely be a long and challenging process.

White Earth Nation Chairwoman Erma

Vizenor has advocated for constitutional reform for 16 years, and

said Tuesday that when 79 percent of voters approve a new

constitution, as they just did with 3,492 votes cast, it’s a

transformational moment.

"It feels great. It is

gratifying to know that the people of White Earth have spoken and

spoken strongly," Vizenor said.

White Earth’s government will also

expand. The new constitution replaces the five-member Reservation

Business Council with independent executive, legislative and judicial

branches.

The new separation of powers will help

create economic stability on the northern Minnesota reservation,

Vizenor said. "If we look at all the research on economic

development in Indian Country, to diversify the economics of the

reservation is dependent on an independent judicial system."

But first, White Earth needs to resolve

a conflict its new constitution sets up with the Minnesota Chippewa

Tribe which is the governing body of six bands. The Red Lake Nation

is independent of the MCT.

White Earth Constitutional Reform

Manager Terry Janis says negotiations with the Minnesota Chippewa

Tribe will take time.

"There’s some significant

differences between the current MCT structure and this new proposed

constitution and so they’re going to have to engage a process with

MCT to figure out how they’re going to resolve those differences to

allow White Earth to remain a part of MCT," Janis said. If those

differences can’t be resolved, White Earth would need to decide if it

will withdraw from the MCT. The issue will be discussed at a

Minnesota Chippewa Tribe meeting next month.

Vizenor said she’s confident an

agreement can be reached because the numbers are on the White Earth

band’s side: Its members make up more than half of the Minnesota

Chippewa Tribe.

Once membership in the MCT is resolved,

White Earth will schedule an election for a president, members of the

legislative council and a chief judge. Those new elected officials

will then create the laws that define the new government roles based

on the new constitution.

That might well be a process fraught

with challenge according to James Mills, a consultant who helps

tribes across the country with constitutional reform. He has not

worked with White Earth, but said he’s helped about 50 tribes write

or amend constitutions. In his experience, reform sometimes creates a

power struggle.

"When someone writes a

constitution that divides the powers between the three branches, if

they’re not clear about who does what and when, the executive and

legislative will often argue over whose authority it is and I’ve seen

them just become stagnant as a result," Mills said.

Vizenor said she knows the path

forward is filled with challenges, but she says tribal members have

given a mandate for change and she expects the transition to be

successful.

How long that transition will take

is unclear. Vizenor says she hopes new elections can be held within a

year.

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