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Delegates at the Constitutional Convention held in 2009. File Photo

White Earth to vote on constitution

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White Earth to vote on constitution
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What makes a Native American a real Native American? Is it a certain amount of native blood or is it family ties?

That is only one of the complex and controversial issues being addressed at what appears to be a constitutional crossroad on the White Earth Indian Reservation.

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Tribal leaders there are getting ready to lead the fight for a new constitution that would change a lot of things on the reservation, including eliminating the blood quantum law that currently restricts enrollment eligibility to only those who are at least one-quarter native.

"This is about our own ability to define who we are ... our right to determine for ourselves who are our people as opposed to being told who we can accept," said Pam Aspinwall, an enrolled member of White Earth and one of the delegates who helped craft the new draft constitution in 2009. But like any monumental movement, its roots go much further back.

It's a fight that unofficially started in the 1980s during the Chip Wadena era of leadership, when some natives claim corruption and abuse of power dishonored the reservation and talks of change began to rumble.

It then officially began for White Earth in 1997 when then Secretary-Treasurer of the White Earth Tribe, Erma Vizenor (now tribal chairwoman) began an initiative to change the law of the land.

The Minnesota Chippewa Tribe Constitution (MCT) had governed the White Earth Nation and five other Chippewa (also called Ojibwe or Anishinaabe) nations since 1936, and Vizenor was determined to scrap it for something new -- something more evolved.

"I brought it out to community meetings then (in 1997), and it received a poor reception," said Vizenor, who not only continued to believe in the need for a new constitution for White Earth, but made it a platform priority as she ran for tribal chair.

"And I truly believe that's why I was elected," said Vizenor. "I told them I would do it, I made a promise."

Vizenor stayed true to that promise, as she facilitated a Constitutional Delegation that would convene three times in 2009. A lot of research, debate and compromise went into the groundwork, and with the help of a scholarly team of writers, including principal writer, professor and author Gerald Vizenor, a new draft constitution was not only born, but ratified.

Now, the White Earth Reservation has gotten the financial shot it needs to boost this new draft constitution to the polls, as the Bush Foundation recently awarded the White Earth Nation with $379,771 (with a $10,394 match from the reservation) for the sole purpose of holding a constitutional campaign and a referendum, possibly as early as August.

Until then, proponents of the change will be busy with a marketing campaign to educate the public on how the new constitution will change life as it is on the reservation.

Blood quantum

While tribal members debate amongst themselves whether or not having a blood quantum is a good thing or bad thing for their nations, experts say it wasn't even a native idea to begin with.

"The Minnesota Chippewa Tribe adopted it in the early 1960s because of pressure from the federal government, which was looking for ways to reduce spending," said Jill Doerfler, an assistant professor of American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth.

"The less people there were (as enrolled tribal members) the more economic benefits could be cut from the federal government ... tribes never even wanted it."

Blood quantum has had its upside for some enrolled members, as hunting, fishing and harvesting has been plentiful with less people able to take advantage of it, and critics say this new draft constitution would lead to reservation land being swallowed up by non-natives.

But for many, blood quantum has been a source of pain as children and grandchildren of Native Americans are denied enrollment into the reservation.

"I'm an enrolled member because I am a quarter, but my children are not," said Donald Vizenor, who lives off the Reservation but was a Constitutional delegate. He's also one of the earliest reform advocates.

"I've thought about this so much, and it's like I'm living in a make-believe world being something my children can't," he said, talking about how he had always wanted to harvest rice and hunt and fish with his children on the reservation, but couldn't.

Although Doerfler is more versed and educated in Native American ways than most, under the current constitution, she is also not "native enough" to be a recognized member of White Earth or any Chippewa tribe in Minnesota.

"I am a White Earth descendent, but I am not enrolled like my mother," said Doerfler, who still ended up lending her collegiate talents to writing the draft constitution, which she hopes will be the answer to a quickly shrinking tribe.

"By 2080 White Earth would essentially disappear; there would be nobody living that would have the one quarter blood quantum for citizenship," said Doerfler. "It was designed to eliminate Indian people and it will work if we continue."

Erma Vizenor agrees.

"Our nation of 20,000 will be down to only 8,000 in 20 years; we're self-terminating," she said, emphatically.

Checks and balances

Right now there are essentially two groups of powers that make all of the big decisions at White Earth -- the White Earth Tribal Council, and the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe that ultimately has to give its stamp of approval whenever reservations councils want to change or implement something new.

It's a lot of power and very few people. Many on the reservation believe this combination can easily lead to corruption and favoritism if left unchecked.

"Right now we do have a stable council with a good track record, but that wasn't always the case and I think we do need to break that power up," said Donald Vizenor, says he believes there is a way to move forward with these changes while still staying true to native ways and values.

"We need to bring our culture and community into this, so I'd like to see the elders and youth councils that are old, traditional groups worked into it," he said.

With checks and balances built into the system, the Tribal Council (which would act as the executive branch) would be stabilized, and according to Erma Vizenor, more appealing for economic opportunities.

"Who is going to want to develop and partner and invest money on a reservation where the court system is under the Tribal Council?" she pointed out. "The current constitution is an incomplete, obsolete document that is an impediment to economic development."

The new constitution would also lay the groundwork for increased jurisdiction at White Earth, but because it currently has no jail and is subject to state law (because it is an open reservation), the criminal court system would likely go unchanged -- at least for now.

That is, unless White Earth successfully petitions to break free of Public Law 280, which gives the state jurisdiction over criminal offenses and the feds opportunity to step in for gun and drug crimes, White Earth will remain handling only its own civil cases.

Adopting its own constitution would also mean White Earth would be free of the MCT and would no longer have to answer to the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe, although leaders say they would still have a relationship with the other Chippewa nations.

Off-rez representation

Something else that would change under the new draft constitution would be that for the first time, Native Americans who are enrolled at White Earth but live off the reservation would have elected representatives who also live off the reservation.

This has become increasingly important to many Native Americans as now there are more enrolled members living off the reservation than on.

How many will depend on constituent population, but if descendants formerly ineligible to enroll are allowed to claim citizenship, that number is expected to jump significantly.

And while Erma Vizenor would be the big reason a new constitution would become reality, the real reality is, it would also eventually send her out of power. Two-term limits would be implemented for both the Tribal Chair and Tribal Council members as well as impeachment opportunities.

Although she says change can be scary for some, she believes education of what the constitution will mean to people is all that needs to be done in the upcoming months.

"I've done what I said I would do; I'm delivering this to the people, and now it is in their hands," she said.

"This is a historic opportunity," said Doerfler. "The amount of work we have put into this is monumental, and now I think a moment like this is one that only happens once in an individual's lifetime."

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