Tribes across the country are re-examining their constitutions

Modernized constitutions can contribute to clean elections and economic development.


Erma Vizenor is not exactly a revolutionary. But like America’s founders, she’s on a mission to ratify a new constitution in her homeland — the White Earth tribal nation.

Most Americans don’t realize that tribes have their own constitutions, which set down rules for everything from tribal government to citizenship. But many were built on models written by the U.S. Department of the Interior nearly 80 years ago.

Times have changed, tribal leaders say. Today many Indian nations are expanding their economies, experimenting with gaming and hoping to include their own cultural touchstones and collective priorities in the document that governs them.

As Minnesotans celebrated Independence Day last week, tribes across the nation were re-examining their own constitutions and looking for ways to recreate them for the 21st century.

“We are governed by the Indian Reorganization Act, written by the federal government in 1934,” said Vizenor, chairwoman at White Earth, the state’s largest tribe. “[Our constitution] doesn’t have an independent judicial system. It doesn’t have separation powers. And there are about 27 references about asking permission from the Secretary of Interior in order to do something.”

A new constitution, Vizenor said, could be the key to attracting new businesses, running clean elections, creating an impartial judiciary — and creating a place where more people want to live, work and invest.

White Earth is the movement’s leader in Minnesota. Its Ojibwe members will vote in September whether to adopt a new constitution. Last week, its constitutional reformers began training hundreds of tribal employees about what’s at stake.

“And the new constitution does not have blood quantum [a requirement that citizens have one-quarter Ojibwe blood],” Vizenor said, “which will ensure that the White Earth nation will continue forever.”

Tribes and U.S. law

About 250 of the 333 tribal constitutions in the United States were based completely or partly on the Indian Reorganization Act, according to David Wilkins, professor of American Indian studies at the University of Minnesota. The U.S. Constitution doesn’t apply to Indian Country because tribes are sovereign nations that existed before the constitution was drafted, he said.

Tribal constitutions determine how tribes govern themselves internally and how they relate to other government entities such as counties and states. Having stronger checks and balances in place can help prevent the favoritism and corruption that has prevented some tribes from prospering, supporters say.

Research has shown that tribes with the most capable governments are more successful economically than others, said Steve Cornell, co-director of the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development and a professor at the University of Arizona.

That rings true to Vizenor.

“If we have an opportunity for an industry to come to White Earth, and it looks at the tribal courts, they see the courts are directly under the control of the tribal council,” she said. “If the tribal court system is not independent, it will not have any credibility.”

About 60 tribes in the United States and Canada are re-examining their constitutions, Cornell said. In Minnesota, Red Lake tribal leaders have thrown their support behind the concept and the Leech Lake band is exploring it. The Mille Lacs band created a draft constitution in 2010, but is no longer actively pursuing it — underscoring the challenges of priority changes within tribal leadership.

Many tribes are taking guidance from nation-building programs at Harvard University and the University of Arizona, which train hundreds of native leaders in effective governance.

Meanwhile, the Bush Foundation of St. Paul has carved a unique philanthropic niche by offering financial support to the efforts through its “Native Nations Rebuilders Program.” That’s helped put Minnesota on the map, said Cornell.

“I look at Minnesota as one of the places most active in this,” he said.

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  • Drummers shared a laugh during a celebration for Ojibwe language revitalization at the Red Lake Indian Reservation last week. The tribe is exploring rewriting its constitution, to better reflect both its cultural values and modern government.

  • Anna Gibbs, an elder on the Red Lake Indian Reservation, filled out a survey on what she would like included in a possible new constitution.

  • Sam Strong, director of economic development at the Red Lake Indian reservation, held his niece Sarah, as Justin Beaulieu, the tribe’s constitutional reform coordinator, visited during a feast in Ponemah.

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