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Turbulent Election Nears on White Earth Reservation
by Tom Robertson
March 9, 2000
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The White Earth Tribal Council says former Tribal Chair Darrell "Chip" Wadena can't run for his old job. Wadena served prison time for stealing from the tribe, but now says he's learned his lesson. Wadena is one of six people filing for an office which has long been a center of controversy. With the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe weighing in on Wadena's behalf in the controversy, White Earth appears to be set for another turbulent election.


Location: The White Earth Reservation is located in the northwestern Minnesota counties of Mahnomen, Becker, and Clearwater. The reservation is located 68 miles from Fargo and 225 miles from Minneapolis/St. Paul. Tribal headquarters are in White Earth, Minnesota.
Land Status: An 1867 treaty with the U.S. Government established the reservation. The tribe owns 56,116 acres and allotted land to individual members.
Population: Tribal enrollment is about 21,000.
Government: White Earth is governed by a five-member tribal council. Members are elected to four-year staggered terms. White Earth is a member of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe.
Economy: The tribal council operates a fish hatchery, a freeze-dried bait operation, a sawmill, construction business, building a supply company, firewood-processing company, a garment manufacturing company, and a garage. Their own conservation department determines the hunting and fishing seasons, and regulates its natural resources. They also monitor and reseed wild rice, the fifth-leading economy on the reservation.

In 1983, the White Earth Reservation became the first reservation in the nation to have a congregate housing complex. It has its own Indian Health Service clinic and two Bureau of Indian Affairs contract schools.
Source: Minnesota Indians Afffairs Council
as White Earth tribal chairman, Chip Wadena left office in disgrace. Convicted of 15 felonies including conspiracy, theft and embezzlement of tribal funds, Wadena served more than two years in a federal prison. But when he returned home, Wadena says supporters urged him to run for chairman again. Wadena agreed.

"I had some shortcomings while I was in office and hopefully I've learned from that," Wadena said. "And maybe the next go-around, if you have some resentments against me or dislike, we can sit down and talk about that, and I can do some things that can convince you that maybe I'm not such a bad guy after all."

He hasn't convinced the White Earth tribal council. It says Wadena's criminal record makes him unfit and ineligible for tribal office, and has refused to certify his candidacy. Current tribal chairman John Buckanaga, who is running for re-election, says the council doesn't want to give Wadena a second chance to get his hands in the till.

But that runs contrary to a ruling from the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe, the umbrella organization governing elections on White Earth and five other Minnesota bands. The MCT's executive committee decided it would go against the tribe's constitution to prevent felons from seeking office. Buckanaga says he'd like to see White Earth break away from the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe, but in the meantime, he had a message for its executive committee. "Why should you come interfere with us. I'd look like hell if I came and interfered and told you what to do. I would stay the hell out, it's none of my damn business, it's your business. You run your own tribe, we'll run ours. And I still mean that. Constitution or no constitution, you stay out of our way and we'll stay out of yours."

In addition to Buckanaga and Wadena, there are four others running for chairman. One is an Episcopal priest, the Reverend Doyle Turner. Turner narrowly lost a bid for the chairmanship in 1996. He says he's tired of the unrest and oppression he says has plagued the reservation for years. Turner says the hostile political environment on White Earth has pitted large family groups against each other and made people fearful of speaking out.

Turner says people were unhappy during the Wadena administration, but he says things are little better now. He says power remains in the hands of a few, and politics influences the courts, law enforcement and other tribal programs.

Ironically, in Wadena's case, some of the people who once opposed him are now supporters. Former council member Lowell Bellanger, who once called Wadena a "dictator," claims tribal government is worse than ever, and he believes Wadena is the answer. "I wholeheartedly support him," Bellanger says. "I think that little time in prison has really changed his outlook."

Bellanger claims under the Buckanaga administration there have been mass firings, closed meetings that should be public, and a general fear that speaking out will lead to reprisals. Buckanaga says none of it is true. "That's a figure of some naysayer's imagination and that's all they do all day is figure these things out," he said.

For his part Chip Wadena says the move to disallow his candidacy is a desperation move by the tribal council. "It's not their responsibility to determine whether or not I'm fit for office," says Wadena. "It's the people's choice. And at some time during this time, you have to allow the people to have a voice in this thing."

A similar situation has unfolded on the Leech Lake Reservation, where former tribal Chairman Alfred "Tig" Pemberton tried to run for chairman but was blocked by the tribal council. Pemberton served nearly three years in prison for a 1996 conviction on three felonies, including stealing tribal funds. Pemberton and Wadena say they will appeal to the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe and, if necessary, will take the matter to federal court.