Chippewa Tribe members vote to eliminate blood quantum

A mother and son pose in front of water
Sarah Agaton Howes and her son Rizal stand in front of Lake Superior in Duluth. Howes is a member of the Fond du lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. But because of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe's blood quantum requirement, her son is not.
Dan Kraker | MPR News

Members of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe have voted in a historic advisory referendum to eliminate a requirement that enrolled members must have 25 percent tribal blood.

Out of nearly 7,800 ballots cast, 64 percent of voters said the “blood quantum” requirement should be removed from the tribe's constitution, which was adopted under pressure from the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs in the early 1960s.

In a second referendum question 57 percent said individual bands or reservations should be able to determine their own membership requirements. The Minnesota Chippewa Tribe is made up of six Ojibwe or Chippewa bands in northern Minnesota. Red Lake Nation is not part of the MCT.

The advisory vote does not change the tribe’s constitution, but it does provide guidance to the Tribe’s executive committee as it decides how to proceed.

“The main issue is they [tribal members] want something done. It’s just a matter of where do we go from here,” said Bois Forte Tribal Chairwoman Cathy Chavers, who’s also the current President of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe.

The tribe has been debating the blood quantum issue for years. Since it was adopted in the 1960s the tribe's population has dwindled as tribal members marry non-members. Many parents who are members have children who don't qualify, even though they often grow up learning and participating in the culture.

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“What [blood quantum reform] does for us is it strengthens our families and our communities,” said Cheryl Edwards, a Fond du Lac Band member who is one of the band’s delegates on the Chippewa Tribe's constitution reform committee,.

“By removing blood quantum, it's allowing our traditions and our culture to be passed on to our children to keep it alive.”

But some argue that expanding membership would stretch already scarce resources for housing and other services. Others are concerned that regular payments from casino revenues that some bands distribute to members, known as per capita payments, could be reduced if membership grows.

Edwards argues the vote results direct the tribal executive committee to hold an election to amend the tribe’s constitution to eliminate the blood quantum requirement.

Chavers said the tribe’s constitution reform committee will present a report on the vote to the tribe’s executive committee at its next meeting in October. That group, which is made up of 12 elected leaders from the six Bands, will decide what steps to take next.

“For many years enrollment has been on the table. And nothing’s really been done,” Chavers said. “I think we’re on the right track.”