Power fight could cost White Earth chairwoman her job

Erma Vizenor
Erma Vizenor.
Tom Robertson | MPR News 2013

A power struggle over constitutional reform on the White Earth Reservation could cost longtime tribal Chairwoman Erma Vizenor her job.

The Minnesota Chippewa Tribe removed Vizenor from its governing board Tuesday. The MCT governs six Minnesota bands, including White Earth, and is led by a board made up of tribal chairs and secretary-treasurers from each band. Vizenor sat on that board for the past 18 years, but lost her seat Tuesday when the MCT voted to censure her.

White Earth Secretary-Treasurer Tara Mason said the censure was sparked by Vizenor's efforts to reform the tribal Constitution. Mason has opposed Vizenor since taking office in 2014.

In 2013, Vizenor and the tribal council drafted a new constitution for White Earth that would have drastically shifted the government structure and changed requirements for tribal membership.

The new Constitution was approved in a referendum vote but implementation stalled shortly after.

In May, Vizenor sent a letter to Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Kevin Washburn, hoping to jumpstart the effort. That letter, according to Mason, overstepped Vizenor's powers as chairwoman.

"Her letter violated our current Constitution," Mason said."She didn't have the authority to go outside the tribe."

In a ruling handed down at the Shooting Star Casino Tuesday, Minnesota Chippewa Tribe representatives agreed.

Vizenor said Wednesday that she did send the letter to Washburn, but called the censure vote a move to crush constitutional reform.

"The Minnesota Chippewa Tribe has no separation of powers," she said. "It's open to corruption. We need change, but they don't want to lose power."

Vizenor still holds her office on White Earth, but the MCT vote leaves her job in the hands of the White Earth Tribal Council. Meetings have not yet been scheduled, but the council could vote to either force Vizenor out, hold a recall election or take no action at all.

Vizenor isn't worried about her future with the tribe. If forced out, she said, 2016 is an election year and she'll just run again.

"I have five degrees," she said. "Two of them are from Harvard. I could be a lot of places, but I've been called by the Great Spirit to be here, because we need change."

Calls to the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe were not returned.