See more of the story

DULUTH — Citizens of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe have weighed in on the decades-old question of whether tribal blood should be a requirement to belong, and the answer is a definitive "no."

The MCT announced recently that about 65% of voters say the blood quantum requirement should be removed as a prerequisite to membership of the tribe, made up of six reservations. Nearly 60% say each reservation — Fond du Lac, Mille Lacs, Bois Forte, Grand Portage, White Earth and Leech Lake — should be allowed to determine its own enrollment requirements.

Less than a quarter of the tribe's roughly 32,500 eligible voters took part in this summer's seminal vote, which was meant to gauge whether tribal leaders should hold a binding referendum that could result in a constitutional amendment. The tribe's controversial constitution, forced upon them by the federal government more than 60 years ago, dictates its citizenship, rights, elections and governing body.

Since 1961, membership in the six-nation tribe requires a minimum of 25% Minnesota Chippewa Indian blood, or blood quantum, stemming from 1941 membership rolls kept by the federal government. The requirement has had the effect of shrinking the tribe's enrollment, with many children not considered members despite parents who are.

"It's really very emotional," Fond du Lac citizen Cheryl Edwards said of the vote's results.

Edwards is part of the MCT's constitution reform group, and for her, the results put the tribe a step closer to restoring treaty rights to non-enrolled descendants who can hunt, fish and gather only until they turn 18. It's a group that has included her children and grandchildren.

"Traditionally, we have counted on our young people to provide those things our elders cannot," she said. "We can't all go out and get in the canoe and harvest the wild rice. … This will open their freedom."

But some worry that accepting more citizens will spread thin already limited federal or casino-generated funds, or that more people taking advantage of treaty rights will make resources scarce.

In the 1940s and 1950s, the Bureau of Indian Affairs pressured the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe (MCT) to adopt a blood quantum requirement for tribal enrollment. It was done with the hope that, over time, Native American nations would eventually disappear, relieving the U.S. of treaty obligations. The MCT has long seen signs of a diminishing citizenship. A Wilder Research study commissioned by the MCT about a decade ago concluded that under current enrollment criteria, each member nation and the tribe as a whole would experience "steep population declines" throughout the century, and a "substantial" number would be over age 65 toward the end.

Today, only about 15% of the MCT's roughly 39,000 citizens are under age 18.

MCT Executive Director Gary Frazer said next steps include a presentation and recommendations by the constitution reform group to Chippewa Tribe leaders in October.

If leaders decide to move ahead with what's called a secretarial vote, ballot language would need to be approved by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs. At least 30% of MCT citizens must vote in such a referendum for a constitutional change to be made, meaning at least another 3,000 citizens beyond who cast a ballot earlier this summer.

Key to garnering a wider group of voters, Frazer said, is citizens updating the Chippewa Tribe with new addresses and death certificates. About 8,000 ballots were returned last month because of outdated addresses, he said.