In the Spotlight

News & Features
On Their Own?
By Tom Robertson
July 23, 1999
Part Two of Two Parts
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For more than 60 years, the six Ojibwe Indian Bands that make up the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe have been governed by a constitution imposed by the federal government. Now the tribe is considering a draft constitution of its own making. But the document is taking harsh criticism, and some are worried that it would do more harm than good.

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Bois Fort/ Nett Lake Band
Fond du Lac Band
Grand Portage Band
Leech Lake Band
Mille Lacs Band
White Earth Band

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Mille Lacs Band
Minnesota Indians Affairs Council
FOR YEARS, THERE have been demands for governmental reform in Indian country. Tribal governments - often dysfunctional, sometimes corrupt - are regularly embroiled in political turmoil that prevents them from addressing the social and economic problems that have characterized life on the reservations. One of the most vocal and controversial critics of tribal government is Bill Lawrence, publisher of the Native American Press. Lawrence says some tribal members have lost faith in their leaders, and there's a desperate need for political reform.
Lawrence: We get to a point where, whatever happened on reservations, over 80 percent of us have left. So whatever it's doing, a lot of people have rejected it. And if the trend is going to continue, to leave the reservations, there's going to be a point down the road where there won't be anyone left to be there. And I think that if tribes are interested in seeing their membership come back, they'll look at adopting constitutions that give us rights, that make reservations places people want to live again.
Leaders of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe and its six constituent bands say they are in the process of doing just that. The Minnesota Chippewa Tribe began work about a year ago to create a new constitution. That draft document is now the subject of public forums on the reservations.

The Minnesota Chippewa Tribe is united under a constitution that was written and imposed by the U.S. Department of Interior in 1934. At the time, the Bureau of Indian Affairs took a paternalistic view of tribes, which generally lacked any political and economic clout. But Minnesota Chippewa Tribe leaders say times have changed. The onset of gaming on reservations prompted bands to become less dependant on federal dollars, and to run their reservations like the multi-million dollar enterprises they've become.

Some say the current constitution makes the tribe vulnerable to corruption. It lacks a separation of powers clause, says little about the civil rights of band members, and dictates the type of government for individual bands. Minnesota Chippewa Tribe executive director Gary Frazier says one of the biggest gripes about the current document is the power given over to the federal government.
Frazier: In this current constitution, the Secretary of the Interior has to approve your legal contracts and it has the right to step in on elections and things like that. And this basically takes the Secretary of the Interior out of this constitution and all future constitutions, where we don't need their approval for revision.
Those involved in writing the draft say it's designed to make the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe less a governing body, and more of a lobbying arm, promoting the tribe's political interests, and providing technical assistance with running various programs.

Leech Lake Reservation executive director Bruce Baird says the document shifts power to the individual bands.
Baird: The major provision is putting the governmental authority back in the hands of the bands, and each band can form its own form of government. They can do it by constitution. They can do it by ordinance. They can change the number of representatives. They can do all sorts of things to their government, whatever meets their needs.
But while Minnesota Chippewa Tribe officials say there have been lots of positive comments about the draft constitution, there appears to be growing criticism. Leech Lake Band member Robert Fairbanks is an Oklahoma attorney and is the founding editor in chief of the American Indian Law Review. He calls the document "an abomination."
Fairbanks: To be straightforward about it, I do not think that I could convey in words how ridiculous, how corrupt and how inept this offering of a constitution to the body politic by the Tribal Executive Committee could possibly be. They've taken a very poor constitution, and made it into something incredibly worse. And what really is astonishing is that they have, through some very convoluted language, concentrated absolute total power in the Tribal Executive Committee, which is an unelected body.
Fairbanks says the draft lacks checks and balances and any mention of a separation of powers. And while Minnesota Chippewa Tribe officials say the intent is to shift more power to the six bands, Fairbanks says it does just the opposite; giving the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe executive committee ultimate power and authority by inclusion of one specific clause, which reads, "The Minnesota Chippewa Tribe can interpret this constitution by such means as it sees fit. Such interpretations, once committed to writing and numbered, shall be the final and conclusive interpretation as to the meaning of the provisions of this constitution." Fairbanks is also critical of the draft's membership provisions. Like the current constitution, the draft retains a one-quarter-blood quantum requirement for tribal membership. He calls the requirement "archaic."
Fairbanks: I think this document, if it were - God forbid - adopted, it would insure the destruction of the tribe within a very short period of time. It's wrong. Legally, it's political suicide, because what that does is guarantee, if you just think about it, over a period of time the number of people who will be one-quarter will dwindle away, and there will be no Minnesota Chippewa Tribe.
Top reservation officials, who also serve on the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe's tribal executive committee, the TEC, have been critical of the draft, too. They say the public-comment process has been hurried and poorly advertised.

Leech Lake Tribal Chairman Eli Hunt says that although his reservation plans to revamp its government to include separate executive, legislative and judicial branches, he thinks it should be in the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe constitution.
Hunt: I think it has areas of strength and, like any draft, there are some weak points and there are some, I don't want to say loopholes, but some issues that fall between the cracks. I think the intent of this work group was to come up with a draft and kind of hit on some key issues, take it to the communities and get input where gaps can be filled in. That's a process I think the TEC has not achieved.
At the White Earth Reservation, Chairman John Buckanaga says he's confident a separation of powers clause will find its way into the final document, but he predicts a slow process. While the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe's original timeline called for a special election on the draft in mid-November, Buckanaga expects it will be at least three years before a new constitution is approved. But in the meantime, White Earth is bypassing the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe and moving forward with a new constitution of its own. He believes that as the six bands become more and more self-sufficient, there will be little use for the umbrella structure of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe.
Buckanaga: Eventually, we'd like to pull away from the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe and let every tribe go their own direction, and govern our own, ourselves. We don't need them telling us what to do.

Of the six Minnesota Chippewa Tribe bands, White Earth is the largest, geographically, and has the largest population. If it were to secede, it would change the face of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe, and likely weaken its political power.
Tribal human rights activists who oppose the draft constitution are calling for a grassroots summit to challenge what they describe as the threat of further erosion of civil liberties. Meanwhile, Minnesota Chippewa Tribe officials say no timeline has been set for when citizens of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe will get the opportunity to vote on a new constitution.