The Tribal Executive Committee of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe voted to censure White Earth Chairwoman Erma Vizenor in a hearing held Tuesday at the Shooting Star Casino in Mahnomen.
This decision does not mean she loses her position as White Earth chairperson, but it does essentially strip her power to lead. That then puts things back in White Earth’s court, clearing the path for the White Earth Tribal Council to vote on whether or not to oust her. A hearing will be held at White Earth in the next couple of months to determine this, but a date has not yet been set.
The decision Tuesday was made in a vote of 10 to 1 with one member abstaining. Votes were cast by the chairpersons and secretary-treasurers of the six bands that make up the MCT, which is the umbrella organization that White Earth falls under.
They found Vizenor guilty of essentially working outside her scope of authority by disregarding a resolution that the White Earth Tribal Council approved in April. That resolution rescinded an earlier resolution passed shortly after the new White Earth constitution was voted in giving Vizenor the power to work on behalf of White Earth to implement that new constitution.
Although this meant all work on the new constitution was supposed to be halted, it was discovered that Vizenor continued the plight without knowledge or approval of the White Earth Tribal Council.
White Earth Secretary-Treasurer Tara Mason told the MCT Tribal Executive Committee Tuesday that there were several times when Vizenor “did business” with outside entities without the knowledge or approval of the tribal council. But the big violation in the hearing centered around a letter Vizenor wrote to Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Kevin Washburn regarding the constitution issue. That letter was dated after the resolution that stripped her powers of working on constitutional implementation.
Vizenor maintained she never violated MCT law - or any law. She says when the new constitution was voted in two years ago, her obligation was to follow the binding decision made by that board to hold the referendum and to follow the wishes of the voters who approved it.
“When a petition of 30 percent of council calls for a referendum, it shall be done and it shall be binding,” Vizenor told the MCT Tribal Executive Committee. “The tribal council voted and the referendum was held; it withstood a court challenge. If we respect our tribal courts, that should be the binding law, so I have only carried out the wishes of a large majority in the referendum.”
Vizenor also went on to say that it was the tribal council that was violating the law by censuring her, and that she, like the other chairpersons of the other five tribes, have always had the authority to work on behalf of the reservation.
Mason says when she and two other tribal council members took office in July of 2014, they were not in favor of the new constitution, but says they didn’t consider it a “huge matter.”
“We had considered it done, but we did need to have conversations,” said Mason, who says she tried several times to get Vizenor and the rest of the tribal council to sit down and talk about the issues surrounding the constitution, but “it never happened.”
“We were always willing to come to the table and discuss what are the major concerns, what’s the legality of all this and how do we move forward as a council together, and still to this day it’s never happened,” said Mason, who not only then worked to get the April resolution passed that prohibited Vizenor from working independently on behalf of White Earth, but was also the one to ask the MCT Tribal Executive Committee for Tuesday’s hearing.
“I do respect the position of chair; it isn’t a light matter and does lay heavily on my position and how I serve as secretary treasurer and member of the TEC,” said Mason. “We all took an oath to uphold the constitution, and we all know why we sit at this table.”
Now moving forward, the White Earth tribe as 15 days to schedule a hearing to be held within 60 days that will call for the removal or recall of Vizenor.