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By Jason Adkins, Detroit Lakes (Minn.) Tribune, Published April 03 2009

White Earth sets final convention on constitution

The White Earth Reservation’s government could see the most drastic change since 1934 if a proposed constitution is approved.

That constitution is set to be ratified by delegates at the reservation’s final constitutional convention beginning today and finishing Saturday at the Shooting Star Casino in Mahnomen, Minn.

White Earth Chairwoman Erma Vizenor said this constitution addresses several main concerns, but the most important is the separation of powers between the judiciary and the tribal council.

“It’s subject to abuse,” Vizenor said of the current situation in which the tribal council appoints judges, as well as clerks.

How that judiciary will be set up is still up for debate.

Vizenor said an independent judiciary goes a long way in helping people feel comfortable about how the rule of law is applied on the reservation.

“When people go to the court, they will feel like it is an independent judicial system that allows for due process and appeals,” Vizenor said.

A strengthened and independent judiciary is important for economic development, Vizenor said. She said that any disputes need to be heard in neutral venues.

“It’s a basic premise of good governance,” agreed Chief Tribal Judge Anita Fineday, who was on the committee that wrote the draft constitution.

Vizenor said the constitution doesn’t have to copy the U.S. Constitution.

“We know the U.S. system is not perfect, but it has checks and balances,” Vizenor said.

Membership issues loom

Another tribal issue is membership, Vizenor said. The White Earth Reservation is seeking to eliminate blood quantum rules requiring that tribal members need to have one-quarter Chippewa blood to be a member of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe.

Under the current system of tribal government, the White Earth Reservation is one of six reservations grouped together under the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe.

Current tribal membership rules will decimate membership, Vizenor said.

“It’s designed to ultimately eliminate the tribe,” Vizenor said, adding that there are projections that the White Earth Reservation would lose half of its membership in 20 years with current blood quantum rules.

If the White Earth Reservation eliminates the blood quantum rules, that puts the tribe into conflict with the federal government and could lead to tiered tribal membership.

Those members who are enrolled into the tribe but don’t meet blood quantum requirements would be ineligible for federal Bureau of Indian Affairs programs.

Regardless, Vizenor said the tribe must press on.

“We may have to deal with that for a while,” Vizenor said. “We cannot stand still and not move forward.”

The constitution

Deciding these issues, and others, are delegates selected by Vizenor. She said she was open to anyone who wanted be a delegate to the constitutional convention.

If the constitution is ratified as expected, Vizenor plans to hold a referendum on its approval in the next year.

The new constitution could put the White Earth Reservation at odds with the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe. Vizenor said she wants to present it to the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe for approval, but secession is on the table.

She said the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe doesn’t see a need for constitutional reform, though.

Messages left for Gary Fraser, executive director of the tribe, were not returned for this story.

But first, she said she has to raise the estimated $40,000 to hold the vote, as well as hold public meetings to discuss it.

There was concern that Vizenor doesn’t have the authority to call a constitutional convention. However, she said she has a mandate from the people on the reservation to reform the constitution.

The draft constitution will be presented to the public at the constitutional convention.

The Detroit Lakes Tribune and The Forum are both owned by Forum Communications Co.