WHITE EARTH, Minn. – A new constitution approved two years ago by an overwhelming majority of voters on this Indian reservation is crumbling due to efforts by officials who want to see it never implemented.

"We're going backwards," White Earth Tribal Chairwoman and constitution supporter Erma Vizenor said, lamenting how the document has been scuttled.

The constitution would bring sweeping - and controversial-changes to life at White Earth.

For one, it would eliminate blood quantum - the rule that White Earth members must have at least a quarter of Indian blood - and instead require proof of lineal descent.

The constitution would also disband the White Earth Tribal Council and replace it with three branches of government: executive, legislative and judiciary.

WDAY logo
listen live
watch live

But though it passed with 80 percent of the vote, the document has been eroded by opponents who swept a majority of the tribal council in a close 2014 election.

When they came into office, Tara Mason, Steven Clark and Kathy Goodwin set a new tone on the council. Since their arrival, a constitutional transition team has been disbanded; grant money received from the Bush Foundation to support the constitution has been returned; and the White Earth newspaper, Ashinaabeg Today, has been banned from publishing any articles about the constitution.

Goodwin said the censorship was necessary because the newspaper was being used to present only one side of the debate over the constitution.

"No one else had access," she said.

Vizenor said the censorship was unacceptable.

"They've shut down the newspaper. That's so anti-democracy," she said. "I haven't been able to write anything in the tribal newspaper for four months."

Goodwin said her opposition to the constitution was simple: the process did not follow the rules outlined by the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe, which is made up of six nations including White Earth.

But Goodwin also said she opposed the constitution's main provisions, calling them unnecessary and detrimental.

Eliminating blood quantum, she said, would bring in too many new members, which would strain the services offered by the nation.

"We have 20,000 members in our tribe in White Earth and right now we're trying to help all the members," she said. "We have a lot of people we need to try to help before we can expand."

She also said that an overhaul of the nation's judicial system-which would come with establishing a three-branch style of government-was simply not needed.

"Right now, I don't feel that our government is corrupt," she said.

Vizenor said there were problems with White Earth's courts.

"The tribal council can fire the judges, they can choose the judges, they can run the court system," she said. "That's what's happening now."

She added that over time, blood quantum would decimate the nation.

In 80 years, she said, "White Earth at least will be down to zero because of that blood quantum."

The process of determining one's level of Indian blood is also complex, she said. "How do you prove this? It goes down to the fractions you wouldn't believe."

Frustrated by the stalled process of implementing the constitution, a group of White Earth Nation members in October wrote an open letter to the tribal council, citing "grave concerns."

The letter from the Iron Range Council-which is under the White Earth Tribal Council-criticized the censorship of the tribal newspaper and said blood quantum divided families and communities.

"We can live within the White Earth Reservation boundaries and be active members of the White Earth community all our lives, our parents grandparents and even some siblings, can be enrolled members, but because of blood quantum, we will never be recognized as enrolled members of the Great White Earth Nation, nor will our children and grandchildren," the letter said.

The chairman of the Iron Range Council, Louie Johansson, said in an interview that his council drafted the letter because they decided "something's got to be done.

"The people who have voted for this (constitution) need to know what the council is doing," he said.

"It's gone to a vote. We have the people saying and the majority of the nation saying yes, we need this constitution." he said. "We will get it through, one way or another."