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Vizenor, Heisler face off for post in White Earth tribal election

Members of the White Earth Band of Chippewa will fill three seats on the band's tribal council Tuesday. Voters on the west-central Minnesota reservation will hit the polls to elect a secretary-treasurer and two district representatives. In th...

Members of the White Earth Band of Chippewa will fill three seats on the band's tribal council Tuesday.

Voters on the west-central Minnesota reservation will hit the polls to elect a secretary-treasurer and two district representatives.

In the most high-profile race, Erma Vizenor faces a stiff test from challenger Frank "Bud" Heisler for the post of secretary-treasurer.

Heisler finished with the most votes -- 805 -- in the tribe's primary election April 16 while Vizenor, the incumbent, received 617.

However, Vizenor believes she has gained ground on Heisler, and she's counting on her history in office to carry her to victory Tuesday.


"I've done a good job during my time in office," she said. "I stand for and with the people of White Earth."

Meanwhile, Heisler said he's running for the tribal council to bring strong, honest leadership to a post with which people are dissatisfied.

"I can bring honesty to the position," he said. "I want people to feel good about working for the tribal government again."

Six-year incumbent

The 56-year-old Vizenor, who lives near Ponsford, has served as White Earth's secretary-treasurer since 1996.

She was appointed to the post in June 1996 and elected to the same position during a special election in March 1997. She was re-elected to a four-year term in June 1998.

Vizenor said she's proud of her accomplishments during her tenure in office.

She helped launch primary elections on the reservation and assisted Pine Point in its efforts to build a new school.


Also, Vizenor was on the tribal council when the band's Shooting Star Casino in Mahnomen completed its $31 million expansion in 2001.

She lists housing, safe communities, law enforcement and health care as top issues in Tuesday's election.

If elected, Vizenor wants to create a task force to target youth violence and depression and improve wages across the reservation.

"Everyone on this reservation knows I'm not afraid of challenges," Vizenor said. "I have integrity. I'm well-qualified and I'm a strong visionary leader."

She had harsh words for Heisler's ability to lead.

"He's a nice person with no substance," Vizenor said, referring to her opponent. "I see him as naïve and without the kind of leadership it takes to move the tribe ahead."

Vizenor also hinted Heisler may have political ties to former tribal chairman Darrell "Chip" Wadena.

Wadena served as chairman for two decades until 1996, when a jury convicted him of rigging construction bids for the Shooting Star.


He served two and a half years in prison before returning to White Earth.

Strong challenger

Heisler said he's heard the rumors linking him to Wadena, but that they're untrue.

The 63-year-old said his only tie to the former chairman is Wadena's tenure in office coincided with Heisler's career at White Earth Indian Health Service.

Heisler had served as director of the White Earth Indian Health Clinic for 18 years before retiring in 1998.

He chose to run for the tribal council at the urging of supporters who thought he'd be a good leader, he said.

Heisler was surprised at his first-place finish in the primary election.

"I didn't expect to do that well," he said. "But people came to the polls and spoke."


If elected, Heisler said he'd work to bring more jobs to the reservation and fairness to hiring practices.

He said tribal police need to be more visible in their communities and additional housing is needed across the reservation.

The band's health care system is excellent and should continued to be supported by the tribe, he said.

Heisler said tribal members have become unhappy with Vizenor's leadership.

"I have nothing against Erma, but I think people are dissatisfied," he said. "I'm sure that's why I got the votes I did in the primary."

Heisler vowed to be a team player on the tribal council if he's elected.

"I'm a 'we' person," he said. "I want a government that can work together."

District races


Voters also will be asked Tuesday to select District I and District II representatives on the tribal council.

Incumbent Irene Aug-inaush and Steven "Punky" Clark will square off for the District I seat.

Incumbent Terrance Burnett and Tony Wadena will vie to represent District II.

The secretary-treasurer and district representative seats are all four-year terms.

The tribal council positions pay $75,000 per year. The secretary-treasurer position pays $85,000 annually.

For more information on the election, call the White Earth General Election Board at (218) 935-5567.

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Cole Short at (701) 241-5557

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