Guest Opinion: White Earth constitutional reform and leadership questionable
Wednesday, December 04 2013
Written by Jeff Armstrong,
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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 constitution.

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 constitution.

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 counts.

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 industry.

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.

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