White Earth Police State
By Jeff Armstrong
Patience is wearing thin on the White Earth Reservation, where tribal members submitted for the second time a petition to recall Erma Vizenor, Chair of the governing Reservation Business Committee (RBC).
Representing the 568 tribal residents of the reservation who have signed a petition to remove Vizenor, a group of about 30 Anishinaabeg gathered June 28 at the $25 million reservation headquarters, an incongruously lavish facility naturally shielded from the impoverished White Earth village below.
Their grievances were many and varied, from the arbitrary removal of children from their homes to police misconduct and alleged RBC corruption. What they had in common was the simple, if old-fashioned, notion that legitimate government requires the consent of the governed, which the RBC is intent on revoking. In particular, they maintain that the existing tribal police and court system is unconstitutional in the absence of a referendum vote. Vizenor’s recent statements opposing the assertion of off-reservation treaty rights only added fuel to the fire.
“They’re nothing but a business committee. We’re the sovereigns,” said Ray Bellcourt, a longtime tribal activist who once worked with Vizenor in the democratic reform movement known as Camp Justice.
Old and young, the petitioners came from all corners of the 1296-square-mile reservation to make their voices heard by a reservation government they say is neither willing to listen nor to brook dissent.
The first time they brought their petition, on April 22, Vizenor motioned for tribal police to remove a spokesman for the petition, Harvey Bonga. Tribal members instantly rose to their feet and stood down the White Earth officers, which also blocked Vizenor from adjourning the meeting. A YouTube video of the RBC meeting (http://tiny.cc/RBC-HPR), recorded in defiance of a posted ban on video recordings, has attracted nearly 2,000 viewers, presumably mostly White Earth members.
Forced to consider the petition, the RBC appointed a committee that invalidated more than 100 names on the basis that they printed, rather than signed, their names. Another 45 were stricken because the signatures were allegedly illegible. Since the Constitution of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe (MCT), of which White Earth is one of six constituent reservations, holds that recall petitions must be signed by 20% of all resident eligible voters, the petition itself was thrown out.
Like most tribal constitutions, the MCT’s does not provide for an independent judiciary or any other countervailing branch of government, effectively reducing judges to the level of tribal employees subject to being overruled, or even fired, by the RBC for not ruling as expected. In 1998, White Earth Chief Judge Anita Fineday told an MPR reporter that hers would in the future be an elected position, but no such vote has been held in the 12 years since.
Undaunted, perhaps enlivened by the confrontation with tribal police, Anishinaabe volunteers combed the reservation and quickly gathered the necessary signatures, this time replete with signatures, printed names, and enrollment numbers. Pat Scott of Naytahwaush, who canvassed door-to-door in his hometown, said White Earth employees were the only ones hesitant to sign the petition, a fear he said was quite justified given the widespread perception that a “blackball list” of political non-persons is circulated to all departments on the reservation by the RBC. Scott, who has degrees in business and carpentry, said he was most recently denied a job as a garbage collector.
On June 28 the tables began to turn, as the only ones showing signs of fear were the reservation elites and their hired guns. This time, the RBC met in closed session in a small room, agreeing to admit one person to represent the petitioners when the committee finished other business. After waiting in the halls outside for more than half an hour, however, the Anishinaabeg decided to rally their forces and enter the meeting room. They did so without interference from the tribal police or objection from the RBC, who by now were acutely aware of the limits of the absolute power they possessed on paper. Vizenor scurried across the hall for sanctuary from her determined constituents.
Outgoing Secretary Treasurer Franklin Heisler accepted the petitions, initialing each page. Heisler told HPR that the RBC would appoint a five-member verification committee with representation for the petitioners. Under the tribal constitution, the RBC has 15 days to set a hearing on the charges, at which time it can decide whether to remove Vizenor or schedule a recall election—an up or down poll on whether she should remain in office. If the RBC fails to act, as seems likely, the Bureau of Indian Affairs is constitutionally obligated to conduct a recall vote.
The outcome of such a vote would be unclear. Vizenor garnered some 66% of the vote in the 2008 elections, yet the 568 petition signatures alone constitute 2/3 of her reservation vote total of 782. While the results of a recall election would be uncertain, any failure of the BIA to uphold its constitutional duty out of misguided deference to tribal “sovereignty” would almost certainly exacerbate the political crisis on White Earth and compel the Anishinaabeg to resort to extraconstitutional means.
Vizenor told the Detroit Lakes Tribune that she would respond to the petition by initiating unspecified legal action against unspecified individuals. “It’s a malicious, personal, vendetta that has absolutely no basis at all,” said Vizenor. More ominously, she suggested that the RBC may raise the minimum number of signatures required beyond the 542 they used to reject the first petition - perhaps an implicit acknowledgement that the signatures are valid.
A fiery flyer announcing the June 28 event suggests the depths of the political crisis into which the RBC has plunged itself, originally by proposing to break away from the MCT and adopt a reservation constitution that would open enrollment to anyone with a trace of Anishinaabe ancestry. Referring to the denial of the first petition, the flyer states: “Erma made the statement that our signatures were forged[;] this is an act of desperation from a wom[a]n of despair. She also said she was not going to put money up to fight for treaty rights but she will take money to give up our treaty rights….We cannot allow any elected official to sell out our sovereignty at any price. If we keep allowing their regime to violate our constitutional bylaws there will be no future for our children.”
For now, a significant segment of White Earth is in a state of resistance, refusing to recognize the authority of reservation police and courts. The result, according to Harvey Bonga, is an anomalous situation in which the White Earth police target those who acknowledge them as legitimate officers. “If any of us tribal members recognize your authority, then you guys (tribal officers) really go after those people….They won’t attack the ones who know their rights. They never arrest me and I can ride around with no [license] plates and everything.”
For excerpts of the June 28 event, see: http://tiny.cc/RBC2-HPR
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