White Earth members approve new constitution
By Paula Quam
Forum News Service
MAHNOMEN, Minn. -- It is a monumental milestone for the White Earth Reservation, as voters there said “yes” to an entirely new constitution.
The mail-in votes were counted Tuesday night, with results showing 79 percent approval. Of the 3,492 ballots counted, 2,780 were in favor and 712 against. It was a voter turnout twice that of a normal tribal election.
“I am very gratified that the people of the White Earth nation have spoken,” said White Earth Tribal Chairperson Erma Vizenor. “And we move forward now to transition and implement.”
The simple majority means things will change significantly at White Earth, as the old Minnesota Chippewa Tribe Constitution from 1936 will no longer be the law of the land for the reservation.
A new constitution created by a White Earth Constitutional Reform Delegation will now be implemented. This means the White Earth Reservation is essentially breaking away from the larger Minnesota Chippewa Tribe made up of five other tribes in the state.
And according to White Earth’s newly approved constitution, requirements for enrollment will also change. Until now, all enrolled members had to prove they were of at least 25 percent native blood. This has been an emotionally charged issue for years, as younger generations born with less “native” blood were excluded from enrollment privileges, including benefits, services and hunting or fishing on the land.
Enrollment will instead be determined by family lineage, opening things up to many more children and grandchildren of tribal members who will now be accepted as rightful members of the reservation, regardless of blood quantum.
This is expected to translate into a big jump in reservation enrollment, a fact that had opponents of the plan fearing it would change the authenticity of the tribe’s culture and put a strain on the reservation’s benefits and resources.
Proponents of the change are celebrating, including Vizenor, who spearheaded the idea several years ago.
“People have talked about constitutional reform for years, but so far very few have managed to do it,” she said.
Other changes on the horizon with a new constitution include a revamping of the reservation’s governmental structure. The Tribal Council that currently holds all the power on White Earth will be disbanded, and a three-branch system similar to the federal system will take its place, separating powers.
There will now be an executive branch with an elected president, a legislative branch made up of elected representatives from each of the newly mapped out districts, as well as a judicial branch. Term limits will also be implemented. The new constitution lays the groundwork for more jurisdiction on crimes and cases on the reservation as well, should it petition the state for more independence in the future.
So what happens now? According to Vizenor, not much at first.
“It will be the same business tomorrow as it was today,” she said, adding that the same laws will be in effect until a transition team is formed and can decide how to best go forward in a slow, methodical way.
Eventually an election will be held for district representatives and reservation leadership, but at this point, Vizenor says there is no time frame for that. She does, however, suggest that she will be one of the enrolled members of White Earth running for a position in the new system.
“Of course I have to run, otherwise I would be a lame duck,” she said, laughing.
Although officials expect the transition to be a slow one, right now the knowledge that constitutional reform is finally coming to fruition is enough to inject a good dose of optimism into tribal leaders such as Vizenor.
“Since the White Earth Reservation was established in 1867, this is the most monumental, historic moment in our history,” she said. “It ensures that our great White Earth Nation will endure in perpetuity forever.”