Jill Doerfler: "No Easy Answer": Citizenship Requirements

Native Nations Institute

Anishinaabe scholar Jill Doerfler discusses the process that the White Earth Nation followed to arrive at their new constitution, and details the evolving debate at White Earth about which citizenship criteria it would incorporate into this new governing document.

Native Nations
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Doerfler, Jill. "'No Easy Answer': Citizenship Requirements." Tribal Constitutions seminar. Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management, and Policy, University of Arizona. Tucson, Arizona. April 3, 2013. Presentation.

"It's wonderful to be here. As I mentioned, had the privilege of being here last year, thrilled to be back this year. For the sake of time we're just going to sort of roll right into it. My presentation today is "'No Easy Answer': Citizenship Requirements," because it's a difficult topic for us. Basically I'm going to talk about a sort of case study of the White Earth Nation and focus on citizenship and how, over a number of years, we talked about citizenship and came to a decision on what we wanted. I identified four basic keys that helped us that you may find useful as well. We had an inclusive and open process, we talked a lot about the history of tribal citizenship, both how citizenship or identity was regulated prior to the Indian Reorganization Act, post-Indian Reorganization Act, and then when we came to a blood quantum in 1963. We worked really hard to integrate and practice our Anishinaabe culture and values within the governance structure and within citizenship. And then finally, perhaps most importantly, patience and perseverance. As I said, it's not going to be an easy task and as Carole [Goldberg] said, there are many, many different options and things to be weighed and considered and yet it's worth it in the end. So I'll elaborate on all of these.

I'll say briefly that White Earth is currently part of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe (MCT), which is an umbrella structure that has six nations. You'll see White Earth located furthest west there. White Earth has been very interested in creating our own constitution. We've had several different efforts for constitutional reform that have gone on for about 30 years. So it has definitely been a long process. What I'm going to focus on is our efforts from 2007 forward. In her 2007 State of the Nation address, Chairwoman Dr. Erma Vizenor noted that among the issues she wanted to address in the upcoming year was constitutional reform. Vizenor noted that a clear separation of powers of tribal government should be considered as well as requirements for citizenship stating, 'As tribal membership continues to decline under the present one-fourth blood quantum requirement, we must decide eligibility for enrollment.' She went on to note that 'White Earth members must decide these issues by referendum vote.' So she put it up right away, establishing from the outset that it has to be up to the citizens to make this decision. Tribal government isn't going to be the one to make it.

For me personally, I was elated. I had been studying tribal citizenship for several years and was in 2007 preparing to defend my dissertation, which examined citizenship regulations and cultural values among the White Earth Anishinaabe. So after the State of the Nation address, I contacted Vizenor's office and asked how I could be of assistance. We agreed that I would write a series of newspaper articles for our tribal newspaper called the Anishinaabe Today based upon my dissertation research. In the articles I delineated the ways in which Anishinaabe got White Earth conceptualized identity during the early 1900s, then I shared the history of blood quantum and then discussed the changes in tribal citizenship that had occurred within the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe. What we hoped is that the articles would both provide information, as well as encourage White Earth citizens to get involved in what was the newest effort for constitutional reform. Some people were a bit wary of having been involved for several years at this point, but we wanted to sort of revitalize them.

So basically citizens were invited to serve as constitutional delegates. There was an application process. Everyone that applied was accepted. We had the first of what would be four constitutional conventions beginning on October 19th and 20th, 2007. The convention was an open public process. Anyone who was interested could come. It wasn't delegates only, but anyone who wanted to come could. At the first convention, Chairwoman Vizenor discussed the need for reform and gave a brief history of the different attempts for change. The delegates were provided draft copies of different constitutions both a draft that had been generated in the late 1990s at White Earth, another draft, and then the current Minnesota Chippewa Tribe Constitution that we were under -- that we still are under -- at that time. There was both an air of excitement and nervousness that day when the process began. We got right into it with the topic of citizenship on the agenda. I was instructed to give a presentation to start things rolling -- I did. I gave a brief presentation about the history of tribal citizenship, explained how blood quantum came to be, the requirement for citizenship in 1963. Part of my goal was to integrate Anishinaabe values and cultural practices so I asked delegates to keep in mind the concept of mino-binaadiziwin. Mino-binaadiziwin translates as 'live well, have good health; lead a good life.' It's a concept that's not about just physical survival, but about a world view in which individuals and groups work actively together to create what we think of as a rewarding, ethical and nourishing life. So it's kind of a whole worldview outlook. In conclusion I asked that we work to restore mino-binaadiziwin in our families, our communities, and our nation at all the different levels and I noted that by working together we could create a strong nation that would both echo our traditions and create a positive future.

After my presentation, delegates were divided into small groups to discuss citizenship. The use of small groups was really effective. It allowed everyone time to share their ideas and concerns. The small groups then, after a period, reported back to the whole group. Several of the groups agreed that blood quantum was not an effective or appropriate way to regulate tribal citizenship, but at that time they found it difficult to decide what the best requirement would be. Many people noted that they had at least some children or grandchildren who could not enroll because of the blood quantum requirement. One group stated that they were confident that a strong effort to maintain our culture and language would ensure that using lineal descent would not water us down, which is something we may be familiar with, the idea that it might be a problem if we used lineal descent. There were some delegates who voiced their desire to continue to use blood quantum. So at that time we agreed that the issue of tribal citizenship would require further discussion. Delegates were encouraged to discuss the issue with their families and their communities and to go home and continue to think about these things. We weren't going to rush to come to any decision that day or anything. The convention went on, we talked about other wide range of issues, separation of powers especially. Ultimately the convention ended with optimism and a real push for positive change for the future. So we'll continue rolling.

A second convention was held January 4th and 5th, 2008. Constitutional delegates had expressed a desire for the White Earth constitution to reflect Anishinaabe values; not surprisingly, that's the main reason a lot of people were there. So we began that first evening with a presentation by White Earth citizen Natalie MacArthur and she talked about the ways in which values could be applied to and implemented within constitutions. She stressed that a constitution must reflect a society's values. So delegates were asked to write down four of their own personal core values and then a correlating belief statement: how do you put that into practice? They discussed these personal values in small groups and then reported back the common values they had identified together. Many of the values, not surprisingly, related to respect, love, truth, honesty, family and compassion. One delegate noted that 'everything we do, all the hard work, love, respect, etc., should be pointed towards future generations. Core values should be used to take care of future generations.' The core values and sentiments discussed closely parallel the Anishinaabe seven grandfather teachings, which emphasize the importance of courage, truth, respect, love, honesty, wisdom and humility as the guiding principles of Anishinaabe life, to live the good life.

Then I was up again to give a presentation. I talked about the history of blood quantum, the concept -- where it came from, the European origins -- and then how it came to be used for tribal citizenship. I explained that while blood quantum was at one time considered science in the 19th century maybe into the 20th century a little bit, today we know that it doesn't exist as a real thing. It's used kind of metaphorically, but it's not real. Blood quantum was not a requirement for tribal citizenship as I said until 1963. And I wanted delegates to have clear and concise information about how the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe came to use this one-fourth Minnesota Chippewa Tribe blood as the sole requirement for tribal citizenship. I summarized resolutions passed by the MCT in the 1930s and '40s that required lineal descent for tribal citizenship and explained that these resolutions were rejected by the Secretary of the Interior, not surprisingly. The Secretary of the Interior was not interested in those and therefore were not made part of the constitution and the Secretary sent many letters back saying blood quantum would be great, residency would be great, you guys need to keep thinking about this. I also used a variety of examples to show that elected leaders of the MCT fought really hard against blood quantum because they knew that someday their descendants would not qualify to become tribal citizens. The records on this are just absolutely spectacular -- people getting up giving long speeches about the importance of family. So I was able to quote extensively from those. I hoped that this information would empower delegates to redefine citizenship in a way that both enacted Anishinaabe values and emphasized relationships, which was something that many people had talked about wanting. I ended the presentation by acknowledging that tribal citizenship was a difficult and controversial issue, but I also emphasized that it was an opportunity to put our values into action. I suggested the delegates consider how the core values that we had discussed earlier that evening might translate into citizenship requirements. How could we put those values into action in the constitution itself? So we had that discussion.

And then the next morning we had... turning it again to the topic of tribal citizenship. We weren't coming to any conclusions just yet. Delegates were asked to examine a list of options and you see them here on the slide. I'm not going to read all of them, but basically the 1990s effort for reform constitution had created a list of citizenship options because they couldn't decide at that time exactly either. And so delegates were asked to look at that list and you see them here. Lineal descent is one option and then the other options are each based on a variety of blood calculations, some of which get kind of complicated. At that time the Chairwoman Vizenor instructed delegates to narrow down the list to one or two options. However, before that happened, one group said, 'Actually we have another option to add to this list. We're not going to narrow it down just yet.' So their idea was that, 'All those who are currently enrolled be made full bloods.' This eventually became known to us as the 'Four-Fourths Band-Aid,' which I think does sum it up. So delegates discussed this at length and then reported back to the group. Basically they reported back saying that they really felt strongly that it was a difficult issue. Some people said, 'Yes, we favor the Four-Fourths Band-Aid because basically what it would mean is that everyone who is currently enrolled is going to be able to have his or her grandchildren enrolled.' So it'll go a certain step so far. So some delegates were ready for change to some extent, but they were uncomfortable making maybe a permanent decision regarding change. They were unwilling or maybe unable to completely let go of blood quantum. They kind of wanted to manipulate and still find a way to maybe use that. As the discussion continued, the issue of family surfaced on many time and again with the delegates' comments. One delegate noted that he favored the use of lineal descent because it includes all family members and was a way of taking care of our families, so enacting some of our values. It was also noted that lineal descendants would go on forever and that if blood quantum were to continue, White Earth -- our sovereignty could potentially be in jeopardy; the Nation might not always exist. However, some delegates were apprehensive that more citizens would put an increased strain on already limited resources. Another delegate stated pretty succinctly, 'No one is happy with blood quantum,' but that person just was unsure about how White Earth should regulate citizenship, how we could move forward. So ultimately the wide diversity of comments and opinions reflect both a desire for change as well as trepidation about what change might really mean. Even though the delegates could easily identify core values, some were having a difficult time conceptualizing how to practice those values in citizenship requirements. Again, delegates were unable to come to a clear conclusion about what the best requirement would be and so, once again, we agreed that the topic would be revisited at a later date. Again, go home, keep thinking about it; keep talking about it.

We came back several months later for what would be the third convention, October 24th and 25th, 2008, focusing here again on citizenship. During my presentation, I noted that delegates had discussed values at the last convention and suggested that a good way to think about core values is to think about the things that we were taught as children or the things that we teach our children or emphasize to our children or grandchildren today. And I turned to stories for this. Stories are one of the primary ways that we teach our children their place in the family, community, nation, and even within the world. Stories also delineate proper and improper behavior. Anishinaabe scholar John Borrows argues that stories contain core Anishinaabe legal principles and traditions that continue to be important as Anishinaabe nations create legal codes and judicial systems today. So I wanted to tie constitutional reform to cultural revitalization in a very concrete way and I thought story, for us as Anishinaabe people, would be a good way to do that. I talked about our story of [Anishinaabe language]. I thought this would be a good story because it offers some interesting possibilities for interpretation with regard to core values and the constitution. So I summarized the story for the delegates and then I gave an allegorical interpretation that related to citizenship based on that story. I invited delegates to consider how to create citizenship requirements based on the positive values expressed the previous convention and in the story about [Anishinaabe language]. I ended my presentation by advocating the themes and story, which were sovereignty, resiliency, persistence, respect and [Anishinaabe language]. I thought these would be useful to consider as we moved forward with constitutional reform.

When we reconvened the next morning, we had a wonderful presentation by Dr. David Wilkins. We saw a little clip of him earlier today. He gave a great presentation on tribal governments and kinship and how kinship can be used to create responsibilities within nations, how it functioned historically and could be used today as well. Then I gave a presentation entitled "Evaluating the Options for Tribal Citizenship," so we moved back to our list and we said, 'We've got to kind of work through these.' What I did was tell the delegates what we need to do is take a closer look at each of these requirements on our list and we're going to ask this set of questions and go through item by item and think about how can we evaluate this and how can we come to a decision. So you can see the questions here that we went through. So we were going through this process. Most delegates were listening intently, weighing the options and yet you could start to feel some tensions rising in the room. Some people were unhappy, some people began talking really loudly to each other and being really disruptive. At that point one delegate was frustrated and she stood up and she said, 'Can I make a motion?' And Chairman Vizenor said, 'Yes, you can.' And so the motion was made that no options for tribal citizenship that require blood quantum be discussed any further. The motion passed. There was only one option on our list that doesn't include any type of blood quantum, which was the lineal descendancy option. Consequently the issue of citizenship was decided. It was kind of surprisingly quick in a certain way even though we had been talking about it for a long time. It was the culmination of numerous discussions on citizenship that had occurred at the previous conventions as well as conversations that delegates had had with their family outside of the conventions. At that time, I simply ended my presentation early; we were done discussing the issue.

After that convention, Chairwoman Vizenor designated a constitutional proposal team to draft a constitution based on the three conventions that we had had. She asked constitutional delegate Gerald Vizenor, who was a very well known scholar and author from White Earth, to be the principle writer for the document. I was also a member of the team and as agreed upon by the delegates, during the process, lineal descent is the sole requirement for citizenship within the constitution. So we know then that the constitution of the White Earth Nation was created through a grassroots process of open discussion and compromise. Delegate Gerald Vizenor did an incredible job of writing the document. He did a nice job of astutely balancing a wide range of viewpoints and his attention to detail was crucial for the mechanics of the constitution. The constitution is a unique reflection of the White Earth Nation. Most importantly it reflects and enacts Anishinaabe values and incorporates enduring cultural traditions while envisioning a certain future. The constitutional proposal team was satisfied with the document. We presented it to constitutional delegates in April 2009. The delegates did make some changes to the document at that time, not to citizenship. They voted in favor of ratification and so the document was complete at that time. Chairwoman Vizenor was happy with the process and reminded delegates that we would...that the delegates were done with their work, but that the document would still go out for referendum vote.

Ultimately, the ratified constitution of the White Earth Nation echoes Anishinaabe traditions and envisions a perpetual future of promise. Today, what we're doing, we're in the process of preparing for a citizen engagement and education effort, which will culminate in a referendum vote on the constitution, which will hopefully be in September or October at the very latest. So we're working on that. Ultimately, in conclusion, as I said, I think four keys that basically worked for us is: really digging into our history -- thinking about how Anishinaabe people thought about identity and citizenship in historical times; looking at our cultural values: how they could be implemented; having these open respectful discussions; and focusing on the future -- what would be best for future generations as delegates often emphasized? Miigwetch."

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Scholar Jill Doerfler (Anishinaabe) talks about the colonial origins of blood quantum as a criterion for determining "Indian" and tribal identity, and explains how the federal government imposed that criterion upon the White Earth people in order to divest them of their land. She also stresses the…


Scholar Carole Goldberg shares what she's learned about citizenship criteria from her extensive work with Native nations across the country, and sets forth the internal and external considerations that Native nations need to wrestle with in determining what their citizenship criteria should be.


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