Guest Opinion: White Earth constitutional reform and leadership questionable


Anyone with a fleeting knowledge of

the troubled history of the White Earth Reservation in northern

Minnesota will understand that questions over the legitimacy of

tribal membership and leadership, along with the more recent

controversy of absentee voting, are at the core of more than a

century of internal conflict. It is, perhaps, a tribute to the public

relations skills of White Earth Chair Erma Vizenor that she has been

able to push through a constitution in violation of the one, under

which she governs entirely by mail-in ballots with provisions to open

reservation enrollment to anyone with remote tribal ancestry, to the

universal acclaim of reporters, academics and activists who should

know better.

It was reported in the Fargo

Forum the day before the election that 2,000 ballot requests had

been received and sent out over the course of a month, fairly typical

of White Earth election turnouts. But when the ballots were being

tabulated, the vote count had suddenly nearly doubled in the course

of one day, to 3,492. None of the press reports the following day

took note of this mysterious spike, though some suggested the

higher-than-average turnout was evidence of heightened interest in

the historic election. If so, one would be hard pressed to find

evidence of it in the sparsely-attended public meetings, at which the

vast majority of attendees expressing an opinion spoke out against

the draft constitution. Social media sites such as the White Earth’s

Voice for a Nation reflected broad and deep opposition to the

proposed constitution.

Since taking office without benefit

of election in 1996 in the wake of her predecessor’s conviction for

financial and (absentee) vote fraud, Vizenor lost the reservation

vote in 1998, but won a special absentee election after the ballots

were seized. She was defeated for reelection as secretary treasurer

in 2002, but came back to win election as chairman in 2004, despite

losing the reservation vote to convicted former chairman Darrell

(Chip) Wadena. She won reelection handily in 2008 and set out to

rewrite the constitution, only to be delayed by an unexpectedly

determined opposition movement. Last year, she again lost the

reservation vote, but her absentee vote total was so high that she

received 55 percent of the overall vote in the primary and thus did

not have to compete in the general election.

Beyond the issue of potential fraud

(it was proven that in previous elections votes were cast in the name

of deceased tribal members), many White Earth residents complain that

their elections are often decided by those who will not have to live

under the consequences of their choice. An imperfect analogy would be

if Minnesota elections were open to all former citizens of the state,

then expanded to include all future descendants of anyone who had

lived in the state. Minnesotans would undoubtedly feel

disenfranchised and frustrated by their inability to campaign for

change with such a far-flung electorate with little personal stake in

the outcome.

But even this analogy fails to

consider the cultural consequences to an Anishinaabe Ojibwe people

subjected to one and one-half centuries of coercive assimilation

policies. Nor does it consider the effects upon the other five

reservations of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe, who have been

politically united for more than a century and share a common

constitution and mutual interest in Ansihinaabe treaty rights,

cultural integrity and tribal land. There was no authorization for

the vote by tribal referendum or approval by the MCT Tribal Executive

Committee (made up of two representatives from each reservation), the

two constitutionally prescribed means of amending the tribal


An acquaintance of mine informed me

in the wake of the constitutional balloting that he became an Indian

that morning. After I congratulated him on his racial makeover, he

explained that his father was a White Earth descendant and he was now

eligible for tribal membership. While I was dubious about the

benefits he anticipated receiving from the new policy, he pointed out

that his friend who was a White Earth descendant had obtained a

$200,000 tribal home mortgage. With neo-Natives such as this lining

up to become reservation enrollees, it is likely that the Anishinaabe

of White Earth will soon become a minority in their own tribe, as

membership is expected to double or even triple under the new


Marvin Manypenny, one of the leaders

of the MCT constitutional reform movement that arose from

then-chairman Wadena’s support for the controversial White Earth Land

Settlement Act, said implementation of the constitution would be the

death knell for the tribe and would expand and institutionalize the

dictatorial powers of the reservation government.

“If the TEC approves this, it will

have a domino effect. It’ll totally dismantle the tribe and people

won’t have anything to say about it,” Manypenny said. “What

[Vizenor]’s doing is asserting absolute power.”

When the proposed White Earth Nation

Constitution was first unveiled in 2009, it prompted tribal members

to petition under the existing constitution for the recall of its

architect, White Earth Reservation Business Committee (RBC) Chair

Erma Vizenor. After the first petition, requiring the signatures of

one-fifth of resident members, was rejected for allegedly

insufficient verification of tribal identity, tribal members

petitioned a second time complete with enrollment numbers.

Under the tribal constitution such a

petition requires a removal by the five-member RBC or an up or down

recall vote by the reservation electorate. The RBC chose simply to

disregard the petition and forcibly suppress a protest encampment

reviving the name and tactics of Camp Justice, a movement that

Vizenor joined as a springboard to political office. It went on to

enact a Prohibited Conduct Code banning tribal members from

exercising First Amendment rights (incorporated into the MCT

Constitution) of assembly, protest and free speech and subjecting

them to one-year jail terms, which had been the maximum tribal court

sentence under the federal Indian Civil Rights Act until the Indian

Law and Order Act of 2010 expanded tribal sentencing authority to

three years for a single offense and up to nine years for multiple


White Earth was one of the most

notorious victims of the late-19th century federal Indian allotment

policy, by which tribes were divested of some three-fourths of their

lands reserved under international treaties with the United States.

In the case of White Earth, the bulk of individual reservation

allotments were wrongfully issued by U.S. agents to so-called

mixed-bloods, then swindled from them – and others designated as

such by racist eugenicists – under legislation sponsored by

Minnesota politicians with intimate ties to the powerful lumber


In contemporary terms, the political

struggle within White Earth dates back to at least 1905, when

hereditary chief Charles Wright petitioned the U.S. on behalf of the

so-called full-bloods to purge from tribal membership rolls a coterie

of mixed-bloods who subsequently tried to establish themselves as the

political leaders and economic brokers of the Minnesota Chippewa and

their land. After an initial administrative victory for the

full-bloods, federal courts ruled that tribal citizens could not be

stripped of their dubious membership rights.

The issue remains a sensitive one a

century later, complicated further by erroneous blood-quantum

formulas devised by the U.S. government and the more liberal

Anishinaabe reckoning by social and cultural affiliation. Many tribal

members have expressed sympathy with families who wish to enroll

their children below the established blood quantum formula and argued

for different methods of addressing the issue. The extensive Wright

petition files indicate that there was a process, by which

individuals who wished to join the Anishinaabe community could be

accepted by councils of the people if satisfied with their loyalty

and adherence to cultural norms. Other criteria, such as knowledge of

the language, culture and history of the tribe might also be employed

to ensure that the motives of would-be adoptees are sincere.

If history has shown that it is

exceedingly difficult to remove individuals from tribal rolls, the

new constitution would make itself virtually beyond reform or

revocation. In order to amend the constitution, a two-thirds vote

would be required, but to even get such a referendum on the ballot a

more onerous threshold of 30 percent of eligible voters would also be

needed. The record turnout in the Nov. 19 constitutional ballot, if

shown to be valid, would not have met the 30 percent mark of existing

White Earth members, soon to be doubled or tripled. Furthermore, the

White Earth Nation constitution would close the door on any

grassroots attempt to recall elected officials, requiring signatures

of two-thirds of all eligible voters, an order of magnitude more than

have ever voted in tribal elections.

Manypenny said the Bureau of Indian

Affairs has declined requests by tribal members to uphold their

constitutional rights, despite its assigned role in the

constitutional amendment process. Similarly, Manypenny said, the

Tribal Executive Committee of the MCT, which claims the exclusive

right to interpret the tribal constitution, has refused efforts to

put the issue on the agenda of its last two meetings.

“We’re going to be totally

decimated by those wannabes,” Manypenny said. “We’re like a voice

crying in the wilderness and we have nowhere to turn.”

But for the first time in more than

two decades, the grassroots Anishinaabe have an attorney on their

side. Frank Bibeau, a White Earth enrollee who was twice removed by

force from his position as tribal attorney for the Leech Lake MCT

reservation due to power shifts in the governing RBC, has

independently challenged the constitutional election in tribal court

and characterized the White Earth vote as a hoax.

“The people have to understand

what their rights and powers are and no one wants to let them to do

that because in the Third World, the way you stay in power is to keep

people poor, divided and ignorant. And we have that everywhere on our

reservations,” Bibeau said in a radio interview. “I believe under

the constitution that what we would have to do is have a referendum

and I think the referendum should have two questions: Do we go

forward as one Minnesota Chippewa Tribe as we have been, as one large

group, or are we going to go in six different directions … If we’re

all going to go in one direction, then we have to act like one tribe.

And if we’re going to have one tribe, then I think we have to have

something like a constitutional convention.”

Jeff Armstrong served as interim

editor for The Circle from 1994-95. His articles have appeared in

Counterpunch, High Plains Reader, Indigenous Policy Journal, News

From Indian Country and other publications.