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Leech Lake, Red Lake Ojibwe bands moving on constitutional reform

By Zach Kayser

Forum News Service

BEMIDJI, Minn. -- Tribal members of the White Earth Nation voted resoundingly Tuesday to adopt their own constitution and eventually split from the 80-year-old Minnesota Chippewa Tribe constitution that dictates the laws of many Ojibwe tribes in the state.

Neighboring Ojibwe bands at Leech Lake and Red Lake may not be far behind in similar constitutional reform efforts. Reformers with both bands said Wednesday that they are working to gauge what the people want in their new framework.

LeRoy Staples Fairbanks III, a Leech Lake Tribal Council member, said band members agree that Leech Lake needs its own constitution but that officials still need to identify what specific changes have support.

“As with any government, things take a little bit of time,” he said.

However, Staples Fairbanks said his band’s reform efforts would go faster than White Earth’s since the Leech Lake band has a smaller population and thus a smaller job of trying to get a sense of what that population wants.

“They have a tribal enrollment that’s twice as much as Leech Lake,” he said. “I’m sure they had to do a lot more consulting.”

Staples Fairbanks said he plans to seek counsel with White Earth members as he works toward reforming Leech Lake’s constitution.

“White Earth took a huge step (in reform) yesterday,” he said. “It’s probably going to … pave the way for other tribes to do the same.”

Staples Fairbanks said a key advantage in having a separate constitution would be the band’s ability to define its own criteria for membership. The Minnesota Chippewa Tribe constitution bases its criteria on “blood quantum,” or the degree of “native blood” in one’s heritage. Although a new constitution wouldn’t necessarily replace that system, Staples Fairbanks said whatever is decided upon will be based on the desires of the Leech Lake band rather than the old Minnesota Chippewa Tribe constitution.

“It wouldn’t be the MCT defining that or dictating our enrollment, it would be us,” he said.

Samuel Strong, an official with Red Lake, said the band has had a Constitutional Reform Committee since last December, taking the pulse of public interest and educating voters on the importance of reform to individual members. Red Lake doesn’t follow the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe constitution, but its members are still working toward a brand-new framework.

“We’re doing community meetings, we’ve been doing surveys, we have a website that’s just being launched right now to basically get community input (on) what the new constitution could be,” he said. “The key component for us is engaging, educating and then incorporating the people’s desires for this constitution.”

Strong said the reform effort has a tentative goal of putting a constitution to referendum in 2016.

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