White Earth Chairwoman Erma Vizenor under investigation, tribal hearing set

White Earth Chairwoman Erma Vizenor is fighting to keep her job amid allegations she violated the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe (MCT) constitution. The allegations include Vizenor's continued work on implementing White Earth's new, independent constit...

Erma Vizenor, White Earth chairwoman

White Earth Chairwoman Erma Vizenor is fighting to keep her job amid allegations she violated the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe (MCT) constitution. 

The allegations include Vizenor’s continued work on implementing White Earth’s new, independent constitution (voted in two years ago, but not yet put into effect), despite the tribal council’s resolution on April 20 that stated she could not. That resolution essentially halted all transition work on the new constitution and stripped Vizenor’s authority to work on behalf of the tribe to get it implemented.

Now, the MCT Executive Committee, which is a group of 12 representatives from the six Chippewa bands in Minnesota, is holding a hearing on Dec. 9 in Mahnomen to determine whether or not the chairwoman violated the law by disregarding that resolution and working outside her scope of authority and pushing forward with the constitutional reform. The Minnesota Chippewa Tribe is the umbrella organization under which all six tribes operate.

White Earth Secretary/Treasurer Tara Mason brought forth the motion on Oct. 29, and if the MCT Executive Committee votes to censure Vizenor, it opens up the door to possibly get her thrown from power.

“If we’re successful (in getting Vizenor censured on the MCT level), then we’ll hold a hearing with the White Earth Tribal Council for the removal of Erma,” said Mason, who has been against the Vizenor-led efforts for independent constitutional reform on White Earth since she was voted in a year and a half ago.


Vizenor says that while she is now stuck defending herself, she has “not violated any constitution, ever.”

“I have followed procedure approved by the tribal council and the mandate of 80 percent of the people who voted in that election for a new constitution,” said Vizenor. “These are totally trumped up allegations by people who oppose the (new) constitution.”

Vizenor says immediately following the referendum two years ago, there was a court case brought against her challenging the legality of it. The judge in that case ruled in Vizenor’s favor, and that, she says, gives her the authority to push forward with the new constitution.

“Yes, that’s true,” said Mason. “But that was a White Earth judge appointed by Erma. See what I’m saying here?”

The new constitution would completely revamp the governmental structure at White Earth, doing away with the Tribal Council and implementing a three-branch system to separate powers to eliminate what Vizenor calls “widespread corruption” on the reservation. It would also do away with the blood quantum requirement that limits membership to those with at least one-quarter Chippewa blood. It would instead go to lineal decent, opening up enrollment to thousands more family members who do not meet the blood quantum requirement.

Vizenor, who had the support of the majority of the five-person White Earth Tribal Council two years ago when the new constitution was passed, no longer does. Mason and two other representatives were voted in during the last election, and since then, the voices of opponents to the new constitution have grown louder and more powerful.

“We were excluded from the (constitutional reform) process,” said Ray Bellcourt, a White Earth tribal member who is very vocal about his opposition to Vizenor and her plight. “We tried to get on the committees, but she (Vizenor) wouldn’t allow us; we’d bring up the fact that this was wrong and unconstitutional, but she had the machinery behind her.”

Joining Bellcourt and others in their attempt to stop Vizenor over the past two years is fellow White Earth member Marvin Mannypenny.


“We’re not just talking about a constitutional violation but we’re talking “sedition” - trying to do away with a government that is already in existence,” said Manypenny.

The group also challenges the way in which the election for the referendum was carried out, and Mason is giving those arguments some volume as well.

“They (new constitution advocates) keep saying that it passed by 80 percent,” said Mason. “But only 17 percent of the enrolled members voted, and there were a lot of problems surrounding that election process.”

Problems, Mason said, that included the voting being done by mail-in only ballots (no polling places), ballots not being notarized like what was outlined by law and enrolled members not receiving ballots that they requested.

“There were a million different ways this could have gone astray,” said Mason.

The letter

Part of the evidence being presented against Erma in a couple of weeks includes a letter that was discovered from the Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Kevin Washburn, addressed to Vizenor. It is a letter that Mason said Vizenor had been keeping private until a tribal council member stumbled upon it and made it public.

In it, Washburn acknowledged a request Vizenor submitted to him May 12 (after the April 20 censorship date), asking Washburn to hold a special Secretarial election that would essentially recognize White Earth’s right to have its own constitution separate of the MCT. In the letter, Washburn denied that request, stating there was a process already outlined for constitutional reform in the MCT constitution and encouraged Vizenor to “engage those processes.”


This letter may prove to be a double-whammy to Vizenor and her supporters because it not only denies federal recognition of the new constitution (if or unless requested by two-thirds of the MCT executive committee), but also indicates Vizenor was still working on the cause without the knowledge or support of the rest of the White Earth Tribal Council.

Vizenor says she was simply seeking a “yes” or “no” answer on federal recognition from Washburn, whom she says she had met with three times before and after the referendum.

“He was always reluctant to recognize or endorse or make a decision on this constitution simply because it didn’t follow the process laid out by the MCT, and I think he was worried about being sued,” said Vizenor, who says she did try to go the route of finding constitutional change through the MCT Executive Committee but had no luck there.

“There’s not the appetite for constitutional change with the executive committee; there is in the tribal membership, but not in the leadership, so I had exhausted my options there,” said Vizenor. “So yes, I did go to the assistant secretary to say, give a decision so that we can move beyond this stalemate - I wanted an answer - yes or no.”

And while Washburn’s answer was “no,” her second option of going the MCT route did, indeed, also appear to go nowhere.

“There is only one constitution, and it takes a secretarial election to change it,” said Gary Frazer, executive director of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe. “There is no provision in the current constitution that allows one of the six constituent bands to adopt a separate constitution.”

When asked what White Earth could possibly do to get constitutional reform, Frazer said, “I cannot comment on what I think White Earth should do.”

Now stuck between a rock and a hard place with her job on the line, Vizenor may be frustrated, but she isn’t giving up.


“I have been at this for 17 years now,” said Vizenor of constitutional reform. “People don’t like change; they’re scared of what they don’t know.”

Vizenor goes on to say that historically all nations that have adopted new constitutions have taken many years to do it.

“So I expected this, and I don’t know exactly where we go from here, but there is always a solution - you just have to have the perseverance.”

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