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UMD's Jill Doerfler Works with the White Earth Nation on Historic Process


Jill Doerfler and Visenor

Jill Doerfler, UMD associate professor of American Indian Studies and Erma Vizenor, White Earth Chairwoman

White Earth Citizens Vote to Adopt New Constitution

On November 19, 2013, the White Earth Nation became the first member of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe to adopt a new constitution. The constitution passed by a landslide with nearly 80% of those ballots cast being in favor of the proposed constitution. Jill Doerfler, associate professor of American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD) played a strong role in the process leading up to the vote.

According to Doerfler, the goal of the constitutional reform was to support Indian nations' sovereignty, specifically "the creation of a constitution for the White Earth Nation that would enact Anishinaabe values and envision a perpetual future as well as create an effective governance structure." White Earth has had several efforts for constitutional reform in the past few decades. The current effort began in 2007.

In 2013, the Bush Foundation provided funding of nearly $400,000 to support the final stages of this effort, including the referendum. Doerfler was involved in the process beginning in 2007, sharing her research on citizenship and identity as well as being a part of writing the document. She also helped to create education materials and co-facilitated more than 50 constitution education sessions from June – September 2013.

The Minnesota Chippewa Tribe constitution lacks a separation of powers and an independent judicial system. In addition, the constitution contains dozens of references to having to ask the secretary of the interior for permission to do something.

One of the biggest issues during the reform effort was the issue of tribal citizenship. In 1961, the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe adopted a one-quarter Minnesota Chippewa Tribe blood minimum for citizenship. "The old citizenship standard was divisive among families, with some members having children or grandchildren who couldn’t become citizens," said Doerfler. “Many people also felt that blood quantum conflicted with Anishinaabe values and wanted a system that was based on family.”

"There are currently about 19,000 enrolled citizens, but independent studies project that within 30 years under the "blood quantum" enrollment requirements, the population will be cut by more than half," Doerfler said. "By about 2080, there wouldn't be anyone alive who has the one-quarter blood quantum," she said. "So essentially at that point, the nation would disappear." Under the new constitution, "lineage citizenship won’t be automatic," she said. "People will still need to apply to become citizens, but it will some time before that process is in place." While Doerfler notes that there isn’t a simple or easy answer regarding how citizenship should be regulated for any nation, she believes eliminating the blood quantum requirement will ultimately strengthen White Earth's sovereignty and ensure the tribe's survival.

The White Earth Nation, book

Doerfler noted that her recent work on the White Earth Nation project was supported by both a UMD Strategic Initiative Grant and by the White Earth Nation via UMD’s developing Tribal Sovereignty Institute (TSI). Tadd Johnson, department head of American Indian Studies, noted, “We are very excited about the TSI. We are still engaged in the tribal consultation process but we anticipate that the TSI will be a place tribes across the region will look to when they need assistance for a wide range of projects.”

"It has been an honor to be a part of the constitution project," said Doerfler. Now White Earth will begin the process of transition and implementation, which will be a complex task.

Doerfler spoke about the new White Earth Nation constitution and the transition on Minnesota Public Radio on Friday, Nov. 22, 2013.

Doerfler wrote The White Earth Nation: Ratification of a Native Democratic Constitution (University of Nebraska Press) with Gerald Vizenor.

Story by Cheryl Reitan, November, 2013.

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Cheryl Reitan,

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