Fears of federal recognition loss and
hopes for enrollment increase at play
“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
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
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.”
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
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
- 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
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.