White Earth delegates ratify new constitution

Jason Adkins, DL-Online
4/22/09

MAHNOMEN, Minn. – A 10-year process to remake government on the White Earth Reservation took a major step forward with the ratification of a new constitution in Mahnomen.

Delegates approved the draft document on a 16 – 8 vote at the end of the constitutional convention that was held in the Shooting Star Casino.

The constitution, if approved by members of the White Earth Band, would change tribal government from its basic setup that has remained unchanged since the 1960s. Currently, the White Earth Reservation’s government is based on provision in the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe constitution.

“It’s unprecedented for any tribe in Minnesota to go through this process,” said White Earth Chairwoman Erma Vizenor. “I don’t know of any other tribe that has done this. We don’t have a road map to follow, but we want to make certain, at least I do, that all voices are heard and considered.”

The document passed by delegates establishes three separate branches of government, with a separation of powers.

Finding ways to integrate Native American ideals was difficult, but important. Gerald Vizenor said that the practice of reciprocity was especially important to American Indian tribes, even before European contact.


A tribal president, elected by tribal members, would replace the current chairman’s position.

The five-person tribal council would change to a legislative council with the number of representatives in that body yet to be determined. The tribal president and a secretary-treasurer would be a part of that body, with the president only voting in case of a tie.

In addition, two members of the legislative council would serve constituencies outside  the reservation boundaries, but inside the state of Minnesota.

“It’s a major change to have tribal members that live off of the reservation to have a voice,” Erma Vizenor said.

With up to two-thirds of the White Earth Band living outside the reservation, constitutional delegates wanted to give those members a role in government besides voting rights.

That change came late in the convention process, with delegates voting in the last hour on adding the clause providing for off-reservation representation to the constitution.

There was a motion to allow for representation for tribal members throughout the country, but delegates rejected that.

Other members of the legislative council will come from yet-to-be decided communities that will send one representative to the council.

The president’s position was the subject of late controversy. The tribal president will have veto power, subject to an override from the legislative council.

There were some, including observers who weren’t delegates, who thought that matter wasn’t discussed fully. A majority of delegates didn’t see the need for any further debate on the proposed powers of the president.

The tribal court

Another focus of debate was the form of the tribal court system.

A chief judge will be appointed by the legislative council to serve an indefinite term, with the council having the power to remove the chief judge at will.

Drafters of the constitution, including noted scholar Gerald Vizenor, a professor emeritus in American Studies at the University of New Mexico, changed their minds on how judges should be selected based upon the input of others.

“My initial position, which was written down, was to have elected judges,” Gerald Vizenor said.

However, input from other drafters, including current chief judge Anita Fineday, wanted to change it to having the legislative council appoint judges.

The chief judge will appoint associate judges, with the consent of the legislative council, for a five-year term.

Erma Vizenor said separating the judiciary from the political process was important for good governance.

“They don’t satisfy all parties,” she said. “That’s the reality.”

Because of that fact, she said judges need to be depoliticized as much as possible.

The constitution also addressed membership issues by eliminating the blood quantum requirement for voting rights and other issues outside of federal BIA regulations.

Citizens of White Earth will be those who are related by linear descent to enrolled members of the White Earth Reservation.

Great beginnings?

Blending Native values with modern concepts of liberty, civil rights and government was integral to the process, said several people involved in the constitutional reform.

Gerald Vizenor looked at four documents in the drafting process.

He looked at the current Minnesota Chippewa Tribe constitution, a couple of proposed constitutions that the White Earth Reservation developed over 10 years ago, the U.S. Constitution, and the current unwritten practices that are taking place on the reservation.

He said the past drafts of a proposed White Earth constitution weren’t of great help.

“They were bad imitations of the U.S. Constitution,” Gerald Vizenor said, because they tried to fit the U.S. Constitution into modern language.

Finding ways to integrate Native American ideals was difficult, but important. He said that the practice of reciprocity was especially important to American Indian tribes, even before European contact.

“Natives established very good reciprocal practices,” he said. “There wasn’t an absolute border. Let’s work out what you need and what I need. That worked with most tribes throughout the country.”

Through reciprocity, Gerald Vizenor said that the concept of continental liberty is listed in the preamble and chapter one of the constitution.

Continental liberty is based on promoting American Indian concepts of liberty, justice and protecting common resources, which Vizenor said that American Indians had established and respected before contact with Europeans.

“That didn’t exist in Europe and still doesn’t.”

The next step

Erma Vizenor now plans on holding community meetings to discuss the constitution.

She said about $40,000 has been budgeted for the referendum effort.

“We need to have this out to the other members and have them provide feedback,” said Jo-Anne Stately, a delegate and tribal member living in Plymouth, Minn. Stately was also part of the team that drafted the constitution.

Erma Vizenor said the process needs to move forward, exhorting the delegates to at least hold a ratification vote when some in attendance asked for a delay.

“If we don’t do anything during this process, we won’t get anything done,” she told delegates.

Reprinted with permission from Detroit Lakes Newspapers.

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