“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 Today.
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 constitution.
“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 making.
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 family.”
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 independence.
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 prohibitAnishinaabeg 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 anishinaabe-ogimaawiwaad.
- 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: http://www.whiteearth.com/programs/?page_id=523&program_id=26
Chairwoman Erma Vizenor (above).