Vote could eliminate 'blood quantum' rule for White Earth Band of Ojibwe

Mike and Julie Smith
In this photo taken in January 2013, Mike and Julie Smith sit on the floor with their children, from left, Tristan, Kya and Blayne 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 (Read the story here). A tribal vote could eliminate that requirement.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

Should blood determine who is in the White Earth Band of Ojibwe? Tribal members on Tuesday will get the final say.

Votes will be counted on a proposed constitution that would do away with "blood quantum" -- the requirement that tribal members be at least one-quarter Indian.

It's a system used by many U.S. Indian tribes, but it's long been controversial. The federal government pressured tribes into adopting the concept decades ago. White Earth and the rest of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe accepted it in 1963.

If approved, the new constitution would scrap "blood quantum" and instead use family lineage to decide who is a member. It would make more people eligible for tribal membership, providing a critical boost to the tribe's shrinking population in northwest Minnesota. The band would be the first in the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe to revise its constitution and completely change the rules for who can be a tribal member.

The new enrollment criteria could double or even triple the membership of White Earth, Jill Doerfler, assistant professor of American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, said in January.

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

"I think we're definitely in a historic moment for the White Earth Nation," said Doerfler, who grew up on the reservation, but doesn't meet the tribe's enrollment requirement. Her mother is a tribal member but her father is white.

"Creating a new constitution is... nothing short of monumental," said Doerfler, an adviser to the tribe on constitutional reform.

There are currently about 19,000 enrolled members of White Earth, 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, though, support limiting membership, arguing that "blood quantum" has kept pressure off already limited financial and natural resources.

A larger population might makes things worse, tribal member Sharon Enjawdy-Mitchell told MPR News earlier this year.

Enjawdy-Mitchell acknowledged the tribe needs to do away with the "blood quantum" rule but added that she was not comfortable letting people become tribal members who are unfamiliar with the Indian way of life and the tribe's culture.

The current White Earth constitution dates to the 1930s when it was put in place by the federal government. It has a tribal council form of government with no separation of powers.

Along with the change in determining membership, if approved, the new constitution would create executive, legislative and judicial branches of government, adding checks and balances to the government and placing term limits on elected officials.

White Earth leaders traveled the region this summer to promote the constitutional reform plan. That included a trip to the Iron Range, home to a large group of tribal members who moved there for jobs during the boom days of iron mining.

The election has been through mail-in ballot only. Votes will be counted starting late Tuesday afternoon.

This story includes historical MPR News reporting from Tom Robertson