Proposed White Earth constitution revives enrollment controversy
Friday, July 24 2009
Written by Jeff Armstrong,
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Critics of a proposed constitution for the White Earth Band of Ojibwe say it threatens to do to tribal government what allotment did to the reservation’s land base, which was for the most part swallowed up by non-Native individuals and governments early in the 20th century. They also warn that the move by White Earth, the largest of the six Minnesota Chippewa Tribes, poses a direct threat to the political existence of the tribe and potentially jeopardizes White Earth’s federal recognition.

One of the principal objections to the draft constitution is that it institutionalizes a process that began in 1996 of allowing descendants of tribal members to partake in some benefits of tribal membership.

The issuance of “green cards” allowing tribal descendants who do not meet the blood quantum requirements of the constitution to exercise hard-won tribal treaty rights was controversial in its own right. When the state and its courts refused to recognize the green cards, however, many thought the issue was resolved.

But at a grassroots community meeting in April, several White Earth tribal members were startled to learn that the governing Reservation Business Committee (RBC) had secretly passed a resolution in 1997 stating that the RBC “hereby determines its members to include children and grandchildren of enrolled members with the full benefits to participate in rights of members, as may be from time to time determined by resolution of the Tribal Council.” On a reservation where tribal housing demands are well in excess of supply, the assignment of tribal homes to descendants has fostered considerable resentment.  
Yet now White Earth members are demanding to know how many descendants have been granted full membership rights, including, presumably, the right to vote in tribal elections. The 1996 trial of three White Earth RBC members revealed that some remote relatives of RBC members with little awareness of tribal politics were placed on tribal rolls to cast ballots for their relatives. Allowing the tribal government to enroll the grandchildren of members at its discretion and without regard to residency would seem to open the door to a quid-pro-quo relationship in which enrollment would be traded for the votes of individuals with few if any ties to the reservation.

The draft White Earth Constitution would go still further, allowing any individual related to a reservation member “by linear descent” to claim full membership.

Marvin Manypenny, a longtime activist in the land recovery and constitutional reform movement, said that although the blood quantum standard is problematic at best, it is the only present means to preserve the integrity of the tribal membership rolls and is enshrined in  the constitution under which the RBC governs. Manypenny said the draft constitution is a deeply flawed document that amounts to an end run around the existing constitution. Reservation officials refuse, he said, even to release the membership rolls on grounds of confidentiality.

“Before the White Earth RBC can change the membership requirements of the constitution, they must comply with the amendment process enumerated in the constitution and submit it to the Tribal Executive Committee (TEC) and to a tribe-wide vote. If we’re going to allow people with 1/60 Anishinaabe ancestry full membership rights, much less withdraw from the MCT, we have to have inclusive discussions at the reservation and tribal level at the very least,” said Manypenny. “This has all been done behind our back and in direct contravention of the constitution.”

The issue of who belongs on White Earth tribal rolls has deep roots that go to the heart of Anishinaabe identity. Intermarriage between the Ojibwe and non-Natives dates back to the fur trade era. Historian Melissa Meyer points out in “White Earth Tragedy” that the Anishinaabeg considered the offspring of mixed marriages “white mixed-bloods” or “Indian mixed-bloods,” depending on their respective affiliation. In 1905 hereditary chief Charles Wright, an Episcopalian minister, journeyed to Washington to present a petition signed by 376 White Earth members protesting the allotment of reservation land to 300 Lake Superior mixed-bloods with no right to the land. When that failed, Wright petitioned in 1911 to remove 86 individuals from tribal rolls.

Meyer observes that the petition selectively targeted leaders of the mixed-blood faction, excluding many of their relatives. The Indian Office suspended the membership of the 86 named individuals, but later reinstated them. Many of those named in the petition went on to claim tribal leadership roles in the Minnesota Chippewa General Council they formed in 1912, prompting a political conflict between full- and mixed-blood councils that competed for legitimacy vis-a-vis the federal government for more than a decade.

On May 14, 1961 the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe drew the line for enrollment at “one-fourth degree Minnesota Chippewa Indian Blood,” but the ordinance was not made retroactive. Thus, no one has ever been purged from the rolls, despite the longstanding controversy.

Meyer argues that the struggle for political power in the General Council era consumed the energies of the tribe, limiting its ability to challenge the seizure of the bulk of reservation lands. “Even though the federal government had confiscated thousands of acres of Ojibwe land, the mixed-bloods loomed as the larger threat in the full-bloods’ minds. They cast their lot with the Indian Office as their only defense against the mixed-bloods, whose ethics they rejected.”

Manypenny said the Ojibwe find themselves in similar position today, calling on the Tribal Executive Committee and the Bureau of Indian Affairs to exercise their constitutional oversight responsibility by blocking a proposed referendum on the White Earth draft constitution until tribal members can determine if they want to move toward dissolution of the MCT and dilution of tribal membership requirements. In a May 15 letter to TEC president Norman Deschampe, Manypenny called for a special TEC meeting on the issue and said White Earth chairman Erma Vizenor should be subject to tribal censure.

“All of us have some relatives that can’t meet the current membership requirements. But the answer is not to grant blanket authorization for so-called descendants to claim equal rights to our resources. We’re already a minority on our own reservation. We could end up being a minority within our own tribe,” Manypenny said.

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