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Major changes at stake in Tuesday's White Earth election

WHITE EARTH, Minn. – It’s being called one of the most important elections in the White Earth Indian Reservation’s history.

On Tuesday, mail-in ballots from enrolled members of the tribe will be counted, determining whether they embrace an entirely new constitution – one that would mean tremendous change for the people of White Earth.

The proposed constitution, created by an assembled team of constitutional delegates from White Earth, would essentially redefine who they are and how they do business.

Talks of this happening have been going on for years – if not decades – and it all boils down to Tuesday.

At the heart of the issue is determining who can and cannot be an enrolled member of the reservation. Who is native enough to make the cut?

Under the tribe’s current constitution, called The Minnesota Chippewa Tribe Constitution – which it has shared with the state’s five other Chippewa bands since 1936 – only those who have at least 25 percent native blood can be accepted as an enrolled member of the tribe.

The issue of blood quantum, or the degree to which an individual can prove a certain amount of Indian blood, been contentious for years, as it means exclusion to so many descendants who want to be a part of their families’ Anishinaabe Nation.

It means they can’t hunt or fish on the reservation with their parents or grandparents who are enrolled members.

It means they can’t vote on issues that affect other family members who do meet blood quantum requirements.

It also means that even if they’ve grown up on the reservation and call everything on it home, they can’t receive its benefits or services.

If the new constitution is passed, the blood quantum law would be dropped and enrollment would be decided by lineal descent.

Being a blood relative would suddenly mean more than the amount of native blood one has.

Naturally, this would mean the enrolled population, which currently stands at about 20,000, on and off the White Earth Reservation would jump dramatically.

Not everybody thinks this is a good idea.

“Some opponents believe that if you have a significant increase in enrollment, what does that do to benefits and resources?” said Terry Janis, who has been charged with managing election information.

“And the other argument is, what would this do to the identity of the community as a nation?”

On the flipside, Janis said proponents believe this large increase in enrollment would be beneficial, not just to the children and grandchildren currently being excluded from reservation rights, but also to the tribe as more talent and resources would be added.

Without a change in the law, many believe the reservation will soon shrivel up as native blood gets “watered down.”

“Our nation of 20,000 will be down to only 8,000 in 20 years,” White Earth Tribal Chair Erma Vizenor said nearly a year ago as she worked to push the draft constitution through to a vote. “We’re self-terminating.”

Janis said the blood quantum issue has by far been the most emotionally charged issue within the proposal. But it isn’t the only one.

A change in leadership

If the voters approve the new draft constitution, the White Earth Tribal Council that currently holds all the power on the reservation would disappear, as would the requirement to run its decisions through the larger Minnesota Chippewa Tribe.

Instead, there would be a separation of powers – a checks-and-balances system similar to the federal system:

• The executive branch, occupied by an elected president.

• A Legislative Tribal Council made up of elected representatives from each newly mapped-out district (including two legislators to represent enrolled members who live off the reservation).

• A judicial branch.

Members of the current Tribal Council may run for these positions just like anybody else, but there would be term limits.

Vizenor, too, would have to run for a position of leadership, such as president.

Advocates for the change say this is needed to ensure that corruption and abuse of power can’t take over the reservation, like some say it did for a period of time years ago.

Although White Earth is an open reservation subject to the laws of the state, the draft constitution lays the groundwork to allow more jurisdiction on crimes and investigations on the reservation if leaders there decided to build a jail and petition the state for more independence.

The vote

No polling places will be set up Tuesday, as the election will be determined by mail-in ballots only.

For the past two months, notices of the election and registration forms have been sent to residents notifying them that they would have to request that a ballot be mailed to them.

So far, according to Janis, roughly 2,000 ballots have been requested and mailed out since the 30-day window opened Oct. 19.

Voters have since then been sending their ballots to the White Earth Tribal Election Board in Mahnomen, where they will be counted come 5 p.m. Tuesday.

Janis said he hopes officials will have results available within a few hours.

“This has been very personal,” said Janis, “and I believe it really is the most important decision people here will ever make for their reservation.”

Paula Quam, Detroit Lakes Tribune

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