Questions linger after White Earth reform vote
WHITE EARTH, Minn. – Questions and concerns are flying after members of the White Earth Indian Reservation voted for a new constitution Tuesday.
Tribal leaders and constitutional reform delegates are fielding a lot of phone calls and emails wondering what will happen from here.
Acceptance or withdrawal?
There is speculation circulating that White Earth needs to get approval from the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe, both of which are governing bodies for the reservation, to change its newly approved constitution.
The reality is the reservation is not necessarily looking for approval, rather informing both agencies of what it has done and essentially waiting to see what happens after that.
Although the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe, of which the White Earth band is a part, does not currently allow for separate constitutions, the goal for White Earth leaders is to see that changed.
"It's always been White Earth's intention to remain a part of the MCT," said White Earth Tribal Chairwoman Erma Vizenor, who plans to sit down with MCT leadership next month.
The idea is to discuss the possibility of a referendum vote "that would allow all six bands (of the MCT) to have their own constitutions."
So will White Earth's actions be embraced by the other tribes that also may be contemplating constitutional reform on their own reservations, or will the White Earth band ultimately be forced to withdraw from the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe?
So far, nobody seems quite sure.
"Other reservations across the country (and Minnesota) are already looking at this," said Terry Janis, White Earth's constitutional reform director. "Almost all are operating under a constitution that was forced upon them in the 1930s by the federal Indian Reorganization Act, and almost all are looking at reform of some kind.
"Some are looking at complete overhauls like White Earth; others are looking at simple amendments to their existing constitutions."
The Minnesota Chippewa Tribe is set to meet next month, at which time White Earth leaders will likely get a much better sense of which way other MCT representatives are leaning.
Another issue being raised on the reservation is wording within the new constitution stating that the White Earth Nation will have jurisdiction over "the whole of the land."
This wording has some skeptical of the constitution's legality, as White Earth only owns about 10 percent of the land within the reservation's boundaries.
Those same skeptics also suggest that if the MCT or Bureau of Indian Affairs found parts of the new constitution incorrect, the entire thing would need to be deemed invalid.
"Not true," Vizenor said. "Everything in that constitution has gone through legal review – nobody has anything to worry about with that."
Jill Doerfler, an American Indian studies assistant professor at the University of Minnesota Duluth, strengthened Vizenor's argument when she called that particular statement regarding jurisdiction an "aspirational statement."
"It is White Earth envisioning what it wants the nation to be," Doerfler said, "... where you're going, what are your goals and the fight with the federal government for land jurisdiction has been going on for a long time. And it changes over the years, so nobody knows what it will be 20, 30, 100 years from now."
Because the newly approved constitution is eliminating the blood quantum law – which stipulates that one must have at least 25 percent native blood to be an enrolled member of the reservation – people who have not previously qualified are now wondering when they can sign up.
"We have a lot of families who are really excited because they have been divided for many years with some being enrolled and some not," said Doerfler, adding that a lot of people are calling and emailing tribal leaders about this.
"But people have to understand that implementing an entirely new constitution requires setting up a whole new system, and those changes will take a lot of time," she added.
That means it may take anywhere from one to three years for the enrollment process to begin for family members who meet the new requirement.
It's been estimated that White Earth's population of nearly 20,000 could double when this happens, which now has many worried about what that will do to the reservation's resources, including housing, which is already scarce.
"But just being a citizen doesn't mean you automatically qualify for services or benefits," Doerfler said. "Nutrition programs have low-income requirements, housing programs are often governed under federal guidelines – all these different benefits and services will continue to be governed under a range of policies that not everybody will qualify for."
White Earth may be breaking ground for other Ojibwe bands in Minnesota regarding constitutional reform, but it's not the first in the country, and White Earth will be tapping into the expertise of some other Native American tribes that have already gone through the process.
"It's going to take a long time," Vizenor said, "but the best days are ahead."