White Earth Nation vote could end 'blood quantum' tribal membership requirement

Mike and Julie Smith
Mike and Julie Smith sit on the floor with their children, from left to right, Tristan, 7; Kya, 1; and Blayne, 2, in their rural Ponsford home on the White Earth Indian Reservation. Mike is a citizen of the tribe, but Julie and the children don't qualify for citizenship because they don't meet the one-quarter blood quantum requirement. A proposed new White Earth constitution would change that.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

The White Earth Band of Ojibwe in northwestern Minnesota could become the first member of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe to revise its constitution and completely change the rules for who can be a tribal member.

Since the 1930s, Minnesota Chippewa Tribe members have operated under "cookie cutter" constitutions that contain no separation of powers. The proposed White Earth constitution would add checks and balances and place term limits on elected officials.

The proposed constitution also contains a controversial measure that would change the way the White Earth Tribe determines who qualifies for tribal citizenship, providing a boost to a shrinking population.

Membership in the White Earth band of Ojibwe is based on "blood quantum," a rule used by many Indian tribes in the United States. The federal government pressured tribes into adopting the concept decades ago, and White Earth and the rest of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe accepted it in 1963.

Under the blood quantum rule, tribal members must be at least one-quarter Indian to register. It's a system that has excluded members of some families, among them Julie Smith, who lives on the White Earth Indian Reservation with her husband and three children.

The Smiths try hard to keep Indian cultural traditions alive in their home.

They have a drum. They dance at powwows. The couple's oldest son, Tristan, 7, is learning from his dad how to harvest wild rice, and how to snare rabbits and fish and hunt deer. But soon, Tristan won't be able to legally hunt or fish on tribal lands.

"I haven't had the heart to tell him that, you know, 'when you turn 12 and can legally hunt, well, you can't anymore, because you're not Indian enough,'"she said. "It just breaks my heart to have that conversation with him. And I haven't yet, because I'm hoping it will change."

Because Julie Smith does not qualify for membership in the White Earth tribe, neither do Tristan and his brother and sister.

Julie's husband, Mike, facilities director at the Shooting Star Casino in Mahnomen, Minn., is considered one-quarter Indian and meets the White Earth citizenship requirement.

But Julie Smith and their three children do not have enough Indian blood to be considered part of the tribe. Although Julie's mother meets the minimum blood requirement, her father is white.

Smith, a school counselor on the reservation community of Wauben, has long been aware that the tribe treated her differently because she was not an enrolled tribal member.

"You sometimes feel like you don't belong and you're not sure where you fit in," she said. "I always knew I was Native, but everyone's, 'well, you're not enrolled.' So what does that make you?"

Smith's status made her ineligible for education scholarships for Indian students, which her enrolled friends qualified for. She recalls summer education programs that were off limits to her. Now, her children don't qualify to attend one of the local schools, which requires students to meet the one-quarter blood requirement.


The rule, which Julie Smith contends isn't fair, could be scrapped in a proposed new constitution, approved by delegates at a tribal convention in 2009.

"My grandmother went so far as to tell me, 'I don't care who you marry, I don't care who you fall in love with, but when you have children, you'd better have them with a full blood or your grandchildren won't be Indian.

If adopted by tribal members in a vote later this year, the new constitution would change the tribal definition of membership. Instead of the old blood quantum rule, tribal enrollment would be based on family lineage. Anyone whose parents or grandparents were tribal members would also be part of the tribe.

The change would fully connect families like Smith's to the Indian culture they feel a part of. The new enrollment criteria also could double or even triple the membership of White Earth, said Jill Doerfler, assistant professor of American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota-Duluth. She has advised the tribe on the constitutional reform process.

"I think we're definitely in a historic moment for the White Earth Nation," said Doerfler, who grew up on the White Earth Reservation, but doesn't meet the tribe's enrollment requirement. "Creating a new constitution is... nothing short of monumental, essentially."

Doerfler's mother is a tribal member but her father is white.

The enrollment requirements, Doerfler said, are slowly destroying White Earth. There are currently about 19,000 enrolled members, but independent studies project that within 30 years, the population will be cut by more than half.

"By about 2080, there won't be anyone alive who has the one-quarter blood quantum," she said. "So essentially at that point, the nation will disappear."

Some tribal members think limiting membership has been a good thing as it has kept pressure off of already limited financial and natural resources.

A larger population might makes things worse, said tribal member Sharon Enjawdy-Mitchell, who served as a constitutional delegate. She agrees that the tribe needs to do away with the blood quantum rule but is not comfortable letting people become tribal members who aren't familiar with the Indian way of life.

Enjawdy-Mitchell worries that doing so might dilute the Indian culture she grew up with.

"My grandmother went so far as to tell me, 'I don't care who you marry, I don't care who you fall in love with, but when you have children, you'd better have them with a full blood or your grandchildren won't be Indian. That's the way the law is,' " Enjawdy-Mitchell recalled. "So I did exactly what she told me to do... Those are the choices that people make."

The blood rule is being examined as many tribes are ditching the weak, boilerplate constitutions the federal government gave them in the 1930s.


However, the real spark for constitutional reform at White Earth wasn't over tribal membership, but corruption. The reform effort began in the 1980s, when tribal members learned that then tribal chairman Darrell "Chip" Wadena was running a corrupt government. In 1996, Wadena was convicted in federal court of bid rigging, money laundering and stealing from his own people.

Erma Vizenor
When Erma Vizenor was first elected to the office of secretary-treasurer at White Earth in the late 1990s, she promised she would work toward constitutional reform. Now, Vizenor is the tribe's chairwoman. She plans to give tribal citizens a chance in the coming months to comment on a proposed new constitution that was approved at a constitutional convention in 2009. A referendum vote on the document is planned for August.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

Erma Vizenor, who led the group of activists who ousted Wadena, now serves as White Earth's tribal chairwoman.

Vizenor supports the new constitution, which she said protects individual civil rights and outlines a judicial system that's not subject to political pressure. She said a stabilized government is essential to encourage economic development.

White Earth is the largest of six Ojibwe bands that make up the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe, which serves as an umbrella organization. If White Earth approves a new constitution, it would likely mean it would leave the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe.

It's unclear how that would affect the larger group. The Minnesota Chippewa Tribe's administrative director declined to comment.

But it would certainly require complex negotiations between White Earth and the larger group, since some of the land on the White Earth reservation is technically under ownership of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe.

Vizenor believes eliminating the blood quantum requirement will ultimately strengthen White Earth's sovereignty and ensure the tribe's survival.

"We should not fear the unknown; we should not fear change," she said. "We should be looking for a vision that will ensure the perpetuity of our people forever.

White Earth leaders plan to hold community meetings in the coming months to educate tribal members on the constitution and obtain their feedback. A vote on the constitution is planned for August.