In April, I was approached by White Earth Chairwoman Erma Vizenor’s office to see if I would be willing to attend the Tribal Constitutions: Rebuilding Native Nations seminar on May 1-2 in Tucson as part of a White Earth delegation. This annual seminar is presented by the Native Nations Institute with support from the Bush Foundation and focuses on constitutional reform.
I’m a college professor, and since the seminar would take place during the last week of the semester, a very busy time, at first I said no, but then I reconsidered. If I could time the flights right, I would only have to miss one class, and a colleague had agreed to give a guest lecture for me. I called back and agreed to attend. I’m very glad I changed my mind.
I’m a first-degree descendant of the White Earth Nation and have been involved in constitutional reform at White Earth since 2007. I attended the seminar with five White Earth citizens, who are also Constitutional Delegates. We were able to attend the NNI seminar
thanks to funding from the Bush Foundation. At the seminar, we joined with people of other nations working on constitutional reform. I appreciated the breakout working sessions where we brainstormed a wide range of ideas regarding how a tribal nation can share important information about its current constitution and the proposed changes so that all its citizens can make an informed decision in the referendum.
As Frank Ettawageshik, former chairman of the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians, said: “The adoption of a constitution is just the beginning. A constitution is a living document that reflects the historic strengths and the evolving culture of the citizens who adopt it and use it to govern themselves.”
Constitutional reform at White Earth is a process that has been ongoing for decades. Donald Vizenor, one of our delegation to the NNI seminar, noted that he has been working on reform since the early 1980s, at which time I was just a young child. That gave me perspective on how complicated and challenging constitutional reform can be.
The White Earth Nation’s current constitution is shared with the other five Anishinaabe/Ojibwe/Chippewa nations that, together, form the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe. This governing document originates from the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act, which imposed on many tribal nations constitutions that did not reflect a tribe’s unique culture or lifeways. Across Indian Country, constitutional reform is aimed at changing that.
In 2007, the White Earth Nation began the process of writing a new constitution. Over a period of nearly two years, Constitutional Delegates attended Constitutional Conventions and examined many constitutional issues, including both separation of powers and citizenship requirements. In 2009, Constitutional Delegates ratified the new constitution. Citizens of the White Earth Nation have yet to vote on this constitution. This constitution is the result of years of hard work by many people. It is a document that I believe enacts our Anishinaabe values and envisions a strong future for the White Earth Nation. I am very proud of the work that we have already done at White Earth and yet, in many ways, this is just the beginning.
A next step in constitutional reform for the White Earth Nation is to provide information regarding the constitution, including answering questions about the document and addressing any concerns that citizens have. This informational campaign will culminate in a referendum on the new constitution.
The Bush Foundation is an excellent partner for Native nations seeking to create governance structures that will work for their specific situations. We are all very busy, but I highly encourage anyone who is interested in constitutional reform to make the time to attend the annual NNI conference on tribal constitutions, which reinvigorated my commitment to constitutional reform. I look forward to utilizing the resources and expertise provided by the Bush Foundation as we move forward with a plan to hold a referendum on the ratified Constitution of the White Earth Nation.
Jill Doerfler, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of American Indian studies at the University of Minnesota-Duluth who specializes in the topic of blood quantum. Her story on page 23 of the June issue of Anishinaabeg Today about the NNI conference includes more information about her experience.
Talk Back to Bush
If you’ve been involved in constitutional reform, tell us about your experience. What parts of your constitution should be changed? What successes have arisen from constitutional reform? What barriers have kept your nations from pursuing reform? We want to know what you think.