White Earth constitutional reform stalled by infighting


Fears of federal recognition loss and

hopes for enrollment increase at play

white earth constitutional reform stalled by infighting-council-web.jpg“The people of White Earth voted for

a new constitution, and a judge upheld the validity of that

referendum. So why don’t we have a new constitution at White

Earth?” For Lorna LaGue, White Earth’s Director of Constitutional

Reform, the question is rhetorical. After all, she’s had a front

row seat to the clash taking place on her reservation between those

who support the new tribal constitution and those oppose to it. Both

sides are polarized, passionate, and deeply entrenched after years of

infighting which surfaced in conjunction with the first White Earth

Constitutional Convention in 2007.

The latest dust-up — between White

Earth Chairwoman Erma Vizenor, who supports the new constitution as

“the will of the people” and those who oppose her efforts — has

taken place in the pages of White Earth’s newspaper, Anishinaabeg


In the December issue Vizenor used her

monthly column to explain that a gag-order had been imposed to

prevent the tribal newspaper from printing information about

constitutional reform efforts.

“The White Earth Tribal Council

voted to censor the press from printing any more information or

updates on the Constitution of the White Earth Nation,” Vizenor

wrote. “The vote took place on Nov. 24 following a motion by

Secretary/Treasurer Tara Mason and a second by Kathy Goodwin to

suspend all information on the Constitution in this tribal newspaper.

I am deeply grieved that censorship and repression of information

important to the entire White Earth tribe have taken place. What does

such action say about democracy? Regardless of whether you are for or

against the approved Constitution of the White Earth Nation, you

should have access to all information regarding this important and

historic issue.”

The gag-order

came at a curious time, given the new Constitution was ratified in

2009 by delegates of the White Earth Constitutional Convention. Four

year later, on November 19, 2013, in a historic referendum, the White

Earth Nation in northwestern Minnesota became the first member of the

Minnesota Chippewa Tribe (MCT) to adopt a new constitution.

Of the 3,492 ballots counted, the vote

was 2,780 in favor and 712 opposed, a 79 percent rate of approval.

With a membership of nearly 20,000, the low participation seems to

reflect apathy on the part of many tribal citizens. Still, the

turnout was twice that for most tribal elections.

Despite the effort to quiet her

opinions, Vizenor has circumvented the gag-order and continued to

communicate with her constituents.

“When people in power in tribal

government suppress information it is no different than when North

Korea, or other countries run by dictators, suppress information,”

Vizenor told The Circle. “Our constitution puts into place a

system of checks and balances which will prevent the kind of

dictatorship we’ve seen within our own council.”

In February, Vizenor produced a full

color pamphlet that she direct-mailed to White Earth citizens. In it,

the chairwoman addressed her critics and assured supporters that

constitutional reform is on track.

“For those of you who believe

efforts to transition to governing under the approved Constitution of

the White Earth Nation have stopped, please know, I am doing

everything within my authority to carry out the will of the White

Earth people,” wrote Vizenor. “While the Tribal Council voted to

censor any news or articles regarding the Constitution in the

Anishinaabeg Today, this action did not erase the vote of the people

to approve the Constitution.”

The White Earth Constitution, the

first in its 148-year history, provides for the White Earth Nation a

foundation for self-government, including the power to decide

qualification requirements for its members. When implemented, the

Constitution will change the prerequisite for tribal citizenship from

the MCT-mandated one-fourths blood quantum, to open enrollment for

lineal descendants of tribal citizens.

Opposition fears loss of recognition

Those seeking to prevent its

implementation have argued that, under the new system tribal

membership will grow exponentially, spreading already scare resources

even thinner.

White Earth Secretary/Treasurer Tara

Mason, the council member who motioned for the gag-order, says the

council’s focus should be on social issues and not on implementing

new laws which, Mason said, could put White Earth at risk.

“White Earth is recognized by the

federal government as a member of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe, not

as an independent nation. There’s a chance we could lose our

federal recognition and never get it back. I will not jeopardize

anyone’s federal recognition.”

Mason was elected in 2014 along with

her mother, Kathy Goodwin, and Steven “Punky” Clark. The three

new representatives have formed a majority voting bloc on the

five-member council. After her constituents received Vizenor’s

direct-mailing late last month, Mason says she received many angry

phone calls. “They’re saying, ‘We elected you to stop her. Why

is she still doing this?’”

Mason says it would take “an act of

Congress” for her to feel comfortable moving forward under the new


“A majority of our land on this

reservation is held in trust by the federal government. If we pull

out of the MCT what happens to that land? There has not been enough

discussion about that and the legal people I’ve spoken to have

varying opinions on what could happen. I think these questions

weren’t raised before people had a chance to vote.”

Lineal descent to shore up numbers

“Constitutional reform will happen

whether or not the current council (serving two-year terms) supports

it,” Lorna LaGue said. “This is not a debatable issue. The

debates happened before the referendum.”

Proponents of

constitutional reform say the new rules are necessary to prevent the

eventual extinction of the White Earth Nation. Independent research

backs this assertion.

White Earth is a member band of the

Minnesota Chippewa Tribe and has been governed by its constitution

since the Tribe’s inception in 1934. Six of the seven Chippewa

bands in Minnesota, representing some 41,000 enrolled citizens, make

up the MCT. White Earth is the largest band in the state.

The Red Lake Band of Chippewa is the

only Anishinabe Nation in the state not currently part of the

Minnesota Chippewa Tribe. In 1934 it declined to participate, as its

citizens didn’t want to give up the band’s system of hereditary

chiefs. The Red Lake Band developed its constitution in the 1950s,

electing its first chairman in 1959.

In 2012, the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe

contracted with Wilder Research to conduct a study and produce

population projections for its six member bands: Bois Forte, Fond du

Lac, Grand Portage, Leech Lake, Mille Lacs and White Earth.

Leaving the tribal enrollment criteria

as is (one-fourths blood quantum), Wilder Research found the

projected membership declines from just over 41,000 in 2013 to just

under 9,000 in 2098. During that same 85-year period, White Earth’s

enrolled citizenship is projected to decrease from around 20,000 to

just over 2,000.

According to Wilder Research, once

White Earth implements the new rules defined in its constitution, its

enrollment will double within the first 12 months, assuming most of

those who are eligible apply for tribal citizenship. By 2098, under

the lineal descendant standard, Wilder said White Earth will boast a

citizenship from 80,000 to 130,000 (depending upon birth rates).

Clyde Bellecourt, the American Indian

Movement founder and a member of the White Earth Nation, is a

supporter of Constitutional reform, which he calls, “a return to

traditional rule, when tribes decided their membership for

themselves, when there was no such thing as blood quantum.”

Bellecourt recently formed the White

Earth Circle of Survival Tribal Council, a statewide coalition of

White Earth members who support independence. He says they are

motivated by self-preservation; under the current system, many people

are unable to enroll their children and grandchildren.

“We have to stop thinking about

ourselves. We have to start thinking about the seventh generation,

like our ancestors did for us. And we can no longer blame the white

man for trying to terminate the tribes,” Bellecourt said. “Now

we’re terminating ourselves.”

Clyde’s brother, Vernon Bellecourt,

started the reform movement after he was elected White Earth

Secretary/Treasurer in the mid-1970s. In the ensuing years, AIM

remained active on White Earth; it built a school, fought for hunting

and fishing rights and wild rice protection. Clyde Bellecourt sees

the new Constitution as the fulfillment of a dream 40 years in the


Process to sovereignty

Once its new constitution is

implemented, says LaGue, White Earth will assert full sovereignty and

withdraw from the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe.

The White Earth Constitution was

crafted over a two-year period (2007-2009) during which four

conventions were convened. LaGue says all interested adult tribal

citizens were invited to participate. Forty delegates were sworn in

by a tribal judge to represent the wishes of families, reservation

communities and the White Earth diaspora (which, is scattered

throughout the state with concentrated populations in the Twin

Cities, Duluth and on the Iron Range).

Delegates engaged in a visioning

process to define the values and aspirations of the White Earth

Nation. Following that visioning process, Vizenor appointed a team of

legal experts and scholars of various disciplines to write a draft

constitution. Delegates ratified each article before it was included

in the final document.

Among those participating in the

process were renowned writers of the White Earth Nation: Gerald

Vizenor, who crafted the final, lyrical prose of the document; and

Anton Treuer who translated its preamble into the Ojibwe language.

“I approached Gerald Vizenor because

I know he is a beautiful writer who would do justice to the ideals

our constitution espouses. At first he backed away from the idea,

saying he had never written a constitution before. Finally, he

agreed,” Erma Vizenor said, who says she’s not related to the

writer but, “would be honored to have such a man as part of my


white earth constitutional reform stalled by infighting-vizenor-web.jpg

While Erma Vizenor and other tribal

officials lobby the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe to take a final vote on

the White Earth Constitution — the last step before it is formally

adopted — LaGue and other tribal officials, with the support of a

$380,000 grant from the Bush Foundation, are making their way around

the state of Minnesota, holding town hall constitutional forums to

educate their citizens on the changes that will come with


Gag-order lifted, reimposed

Supporters of the White Earth

Constitution remain frustrated by the snail’s pace of the

implementation process. Following a March 16 meeting of the White

Earth Council, however, LaGue says there is hope for progress.

Council members voted to lift the four-month gag-order that had

sought to prohibit Anishinaabeg Today from printing

information about the constitution.

“I don’t like to call it a

gag-order. I imposed the suspension because I hoped it would bring

Erma to the table to discuss the proposed constitution,” Mason

said. “It didn’t work; she didn’t come to the table. So I

lifted it and many of my constituents are really angry.”

Mason reversed course in late March,

however, voting once again with a bloc that included her mother and Clark, to re-impose the prohibition against information on

constitutional reform appearing in Anishinaabeg Today.

White Earth Chairwoman Erma Vizenor

remained defiant. “When we take office as tribal leaders we swear

an oath to uphold our own laws and the constitution of the United

States,” she told The Circle. “What our council has done in

suppressing freedom of speech is a clear violation of the First

Amendment. This incident is a cry for constitutional reform.”

Preamble to the White Earth

Tribal Constitution

The Anishinaabeg of the White Earth

Nation are the successors of a great tradition of continental

liberty, a native constitution of families, and totemic associations.

The Anishinaabeg create stories of natural reason, of courage,

loyalty, humor, spiritual inspiration, survivance, reciprocal

altruism, and native cultural sovereignty.

We the Anishinaabeg of the White Earth

Nation in order to secure an inherent and essential sovereignty, to

promote traditions of liberty, justice, and peace, and reserve common

resources, and to ensure the inalienable rights of native governance

for our posterity, do constitute, ordain and establish this

Constitution of the White Earth Nation.

Gaa-waababiganikaag dazhi-anishinaabeg

obimiwiidoonaawaa gaa-izichigenid ogitiziimiwaan ishkweyaaang

ji-giitaashkaagoosigwaa bimaadiziwaad, odinawemaaganiwaan,

odoodemiwaan. Geyaabi odibaadodaanaawaa Anishinaabeg keyaa

enendamowaad, zoongide’ewaad, baapinendamowaad, zhaabwiiwaad,

wiidookawaawaad wiijanisginaabemiwaan, miinawaa go


Niinawind sa anishinaabewiyaang

Gaa-waababiganikaag wii-kanawendamaang keyaa bimiwidooyaang

indoogimaawiwininaan, ji-biitaakoshkaagoosiwaang,

ji-mino-doodaagooyaang, ji-bizaani-bimaadiziyaang, ji-ganawendamaang

indakiiminaan, miinawaa ji-ganawendamaang keyaa ina’oonigooyaang

ji-ogimaawiyaang, indinaakonigemin miinawaa indoozitoomin o’ow

Ogimaawiwin Enaakonigaadeg Gaa-waababiganikaag.

The White Earth Constitution may be

read in its entirety at:


PHOTOS: White Earth Council (left to right): Tara Mason, Secretary/Treasurer; Steven "Punky" Clark, District I Representative; Erma Vizenor, Chairwoman; Kenneth "Gua" Bevins, District III Representative; and Kathy Goodwin, District II Representative (Top).

Chairwoman Erma Vizenor (above).

EDITOR’S NOTE: The printed version of this story indicated Steven "Punky" Clark as Tara Mason’s father-in-law, which is unverified,  this story has been corrected.