Syngen Kanassatega Legal and Policy Counsel for the Office of the Chief Executive
Some leaders from other constituent Tribes of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe (MCT) have challenged
the Band on a few issues this year at its quarterly and special meetings. The Office of the Chief Executive has encouraged Band members to attend those meetings to voice their opinions on those issues and continues to encourage Band members to attend all upcoming meetings. The next MCT meetings will be a special meeting at 8:30 a.m. on June 29 and a quarterly meeting at 8:30 a.m. on July 10. Both meetings will be held at Northern Lights Casino in Walker. Several Band members have asked about these issues and what the Band’s relationship with the MCT is. Here is a guide that hopefully provides a concise understanding by answering four questions.
First, what is the Band’s relationship with the MCT? Second, how was the MCT created? Third, what are
the contentious issues between the MCT and the Band? And fourth, why do these issues matter to Band members?
The Relationship Between the MCT and the Band
The Band is one of six constituent Tribes that collectively make up the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe. Bois Forte, Fond du Lac, Grand Portage, Leech Lake, and White Earth are the other constituent Tribes.
The Revised Constitution and Bylaws of the MCT governs the constituent Tribes in specific areas of governance. The Constitution requires that each Tribe be governed by Reservation Business Committees (RBC). Each RBC must consist of at least three members and no more than ve members. Each Band must elect a Chairperson, a Secretary-Treasurer, and between one and three committee persons. Here, the Chairperson is the Chief Executive, and the committee persons are the three District Representatives of Band Assembly.
The Constitution provides that the MCT consists of two governing bodies: the Tribal Executive Committee (TEC) and the six RBCs of the constituent Tribes. The TEC is a 12-member body that consists of the Chairpersons and Secretary-Treasurers from the six Tribes. The TEC makes decisions for the MCT as a whole in the areas of land management, business, and distributing any money appropriated from the federal government to the six Tribes. The TEC elects from its 12 members a President, Vice President, Secretary, and Treasurer. Chief Executive Melanie Benjamin serves as the current Secretary. The six Tribes are generally free to govern themselves in all other ways not mentioned in the Constitution, such as creating and enforcing criminal laws and providing governmental services to its members.
The Constitution requires the TEC to meet every three months to conduct MCT business and permits the
TEC to meet in between those quarterly meetings at “special” meetings. The quarterly and special meetings are often held interchangeably at Bois Forte, Fond du Lac, Leech Lake, and Mille Lacs. These meetings are open to all members of the six Tribes, and these are the meetings the Office of the Chief Executive refers to when it encourages Band members to attend.
How was the MCT created?
The MCT is organized under the laws of the United States, specifically Section 16 of the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 (IRA). With the help of the Department of Interior’s Bureau of Indians Affairs, Congress passed the IRA for a number of reasons. The United States was in the middle of the Great Depression, and President Roosevelt and Congress enacted the “New Deal” to create growth within the American economy. The IRA is often considered the Indian equivalent to the New Deal in that the IRA also sought to create economic growth on reservations.
The most important component of the IRA vital to tribal economic growth focused on reversing the allotment policy of the General Allotment Act of 1887. The General Allotment Act opened reservations to non-Indian settlement. It resulted in disastrous consequences for tribes, as it reduced total Indian land holdings throughout the country by two-thirds. This led to the term “checkerboard reservations”: reservations that consist of sometimes enormous amounts of non- Indian land sporadically located throughout them.
The IRA permitted tribes to organize under federal law, and, in exchange, the IRA would give tribes the power to stop tribal members from selling their lands to non-Indians. The IRA also permitted tribes to draft constitutions. However, those constitutions required the Secretary of Interior’s approval. After organizing under the IRA, tribes could borrow money from the federal government and lend that money to tribal members who wanted to start their own businesses or otherwise put their lands to productive economic use. The IRA first required each tribe to hold elections to determine whether to organize under the IRA. Out of 258 tribes, 181 voted to organize under the IRA.
The six Tribes voted to organize under the IRA in 1936 and create the MCT for the purpose of stopping land loss within their reservations and to receive federal funds for economic growth. Red Lake, on the other hand, voted to reject the IRA so that it could continue to govern itself traditionally.
What issues does the MCT face in relation to the Band?
There are primarily three issues that have arisen over the past year that raise questions regarding the MCT’s and the Band’s authority. The first issue deals with the Band’s authority to operate under a division of powers form of government. This is not the first time the TEC has questioned the Band’s form of government. In 1983, a Department of Interior Field Solicitor issued a memorandum concluding that the Band’s form of government did not violate the MCT Constitution, including the Band’s decision to refer to its Chairperson as Chief Executive and give the Secretary-Treasurer the additional title of Speaker of the Assembly. However, some members of the Band, members of the five other Bands, and of the TEC continue to question whether it is constitutional.
The second issue is the Band’s current moratorium on transfer enrollments. The Band imposed a moratorium in 2005 that prevents members from the other five Tribes from transferring their enrollment to Mille Lacs. The Band imposed the moratorium in response to a sudden rise in transfer enrollments following the Band’s economic success from its casinos at Mille Lacs and in Hinckley. The Band imposed the moratorium because the sudden enrollment growth would decrease the quality of services provided to Band members.
The third issue is the upcoming constitutional convention. Some TEC members have called for a constitutional convention to occur within the next year to reform the current Constitution. The goals of the constitutional convention include not only addressing the first two issues, but also include addressing what additional governmental powers the MCT should have.
Why do these issues matter to Band members?
Each of these issues could have a profound impact on the Band’s future, and it is important that Band members participate in the debate as to each of them so their voices can be heard and help determine that future.
The Band defends its division of powers government because Band members decided in the 1970’s that governmental power should not be centralized in one five-member committee. The Band members of that time decided to divide governmental power between the five RBC members to prevent against abuses of power. In response to the current challenges against the Band’s form of government, some Band members have expressed a desire that the Band should separate from the MCT to preserve the Band’s sovereignty and advance the Band’s self-determination.
Band members also have expressed concerns regarding enrollments. Some Band members’ children have
been denied enrollment because their children’s blood quantum does not meet the MCT Constitution’s one-quarter MCT blood quantum requirement. Many of these members have children with members of Tribes other than the six MCT Tribes and feel that their children should be enrolled because they are Indian children. Other Band members support the Band’s moratorium and oppose the MCT’s current proposal to expand upon the current MCT blood requirement to include all Ojibwe blood in the one-quarter requirement.
There is also disagreement amongst TEC members regarding the relationship between the MCT and the six Tribes. Some TEC members argue that the MCT is the only Tribe and that the six Tribes are not sovereign Tribes by themselves. The opposing viewpoint is that the six Tribes retain all aspects of sovereignty not delegated to the MCT through the 1936 vote to organize under the IRA and adoption of the MCT Constitution.
The Office of the Chief Executive encourages Band members to attend and participate in all upcoming MCT meetings. For more information regarding the Constitution’s structure, the Constitution is available for download on millelacsband.com under the “Statutes” link.