|Written by Dan Gunderson, Minnesota Public Radio,
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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
"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
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
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
"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
How long that transition will take
is unclear. Vizenor says she hopes new elections can be held within a
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