Red Lake Nation, a northwestern Minnesota Chippewa band of 16,673 citizens, expects to dwindle to just 1,000 in the next century.
A St. Paul-based Wilder Research study commissioned by Red Lake this year lays out population scenarios based on varying enrollment criteria, and the near extinction that would result if the band continues to require one-quarter Red Lake blood to enroll as a treaty right-holding citizen. The six-nation Minnesota Chippewa Tribe, which Red Lake is not part of, is also grappling with this issue.
As the Red Lake band looks forward, leaders say it faces practical challenges like strengthening its economy amid a labor shortage, along with much deeper issues, such as preserving its history, identity and future. It will hold outreach meetings next week with the intention of educating citizens about what's possible and hearing their concerns.
"The government has used the divide and conquer strategy to alienate our own people," said Samuel Strong, Red Lake Nation tribal secretary. "Blood quantum is a tool in that fight to eliminate us — a policy to terminate us over time. Our goal is to reverse those perceptions."
The study shows population projections for a range of enrollment-boosting scenarios, from an eligibility requirement that allows other Ojibwe tribal blood to count to a change to lineal descent, which would make a citizen of anyone born to a descendant from the 1958 federal roll of citizens. Incremental changes show continued loss, but less over time. The most sweeping change — to lineal descent — would lead to a projected population of Red Lake citizens between 56,000 and 82,000 in the next 100 years, the study says.
Historically, measuring blood quantum wasn't an accurate practice, said University of Minnesota Duluth American Indian Studies professor Jill Doerfler in an earlier interview. It was created by the federal government at the start of the 20th century and later was used to determine tribal citizenship, intended to phase out Indigenous populations and relieve the federal government of its treaty obligations, she said.
In 2019, Red Lake took steps to address the problem of population loss, but it was a "stopgap," Strong said.
Everyone on the 1958 membership roll was deemed full-blooded, increasing citizenship by 3,000 people. Tribal nations have the ability to adjust their enrollment requirements through a constitutional change, but it's a complicated process that ultimately needs strong citizen approval, along with that of the federal government.
If Red Lake citizens were to choose lineal descent using a phased approach and enroll people over time, the outcome would be the same, but it would allow the tribe time to manage the influx of new citizens, said one of the study's authors, Nicole MartinRogers.
"It's very complicated, and there are good reasons why people are nervous to change it, even though they see the writing on the wall," she said.
Red Lake doesn't offer much in the way of monthly or yearly payments to its citizens, but some are concerned about new members not tied to traditional Ojibwe traditions, language or ways of life. It could mean strain on tribal assets and systems, with more people vying for housing, health care and sacred resources. Conversely, more citizens leads to more funding, but there is typically a lag before that's realized, Strong said.
Combating those issues with language and culture instruction for new citizens not already practicing traditional ways and staggering new enrollment over 10 to 15 years are potential solutions. For many, an enrollment change would simply mean a citizen's children or grandchildren can be included.
Annamarie Hill's daughter, Alanna Hill, was battling breast cancer when she received her enrollment certificate following the 2019 adjustment to citizenship.
"She said, 'This is one of the happiest days of my life. I am forever part of grandpa's home,' " said her mother.
Alanna, who lived in Circle Pines and is a mother to three young children, died in January at age 30, not long after her citizenship became official. Called Mooka'amikwe — Sunrise Woman — she had lived her life as a Red Laker, following Ojibwe traditions of hunting and attending powwows, passions nurtured by her grandfather, who lived in Red Lake.
The enrollment issue is personal for citizens and descendants, Annamarie Hill said, some fearful over past treatment of the question and for what's to come.
If her children hadn't become part of herband, "then I would become this fairy tale" to her grandchildren, with history and lineage lost as time passes, said Hill, who was executive director of the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council for several years.
"This is about so much more than paperwork," she said.
Treaties between Indigenous tribes and the federal government contain core principles that help define nations such as Red Lake, including tribal members who speak the native language and exercise their sovereign rights.
"The more we lose that, the more we endanger the tribe," Strong said, and risk cherished natural resources as the world fights climate change.
"It's only a matter of time before there is an attempt to again take our land and resources," he said. "The more people we have to fight that battle and to show we are a living nation, the stronger we will be."