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Erma Vizenor is not exactly a revolutionary. But like America's founders, she's on a mission to ratify a new constitution in her homeland — the White Earth tribal nation.

Most Americans don't realize that tribes have their own constitutions, which set down rules for everything from tribal government to citizenship. But many were built on models written by the U.S. Department of the Interior nearly 80 years ago.

Times have changed, tribal leaders say. Today many Indian nations are expanding their economies, experimenting with gaming and hoping to include their own cultural touchstones and collective priorities in the document that governs them.

As Minnesotans celebrated Independence Day last week, tribes across the nation were re-examining their own constitutions and looking for ways to recreate them for the 21st century.

"We are governed by the Indian Reorganization Act, written by the federal government in 1934," said Vizenor, chairwoman at White Earth, the state's largest tribe. "[Our constitution] doesn't have an independent judicial system. It doesn't have separation powers. And there are about 27 references about asking permission from the Secretary of Interior in order to do something."

A new constitution, Vizenor said, could be the key to attracting new businesses, running clean elections, creating an impartial judiciary — and creating a place where more people want to live, work and invest.

White Earth is the movement's leader in Minnesota. Its Ojibwe members will vote in September whether to adopt a new constitution. Last week, its constitutional reformers began training hundreds of tribal employees about what's at stake.

"And the new constitution does not have blood quantum [a requirement that citizens have one-quarter Ojibwe blood]," Vizenor said, "which will ensure that the White Earth nation will continue forever."

Tribes and U.S. law

About 250 of the 333 tribal constitutions in the United States were based completely or partly on the Indian Reorganization Act, according to David Wilkins, professor of American Indian studies at the University of Minnesota. The U.S. Constitution doesn't apply to Indian Country because tribes are sovereign nations that existed before the constitution was drafted, he said.

Tribal constitutions determine how tribes govern themselves internally and how they relate to other government entities such as counties and states. Having stronger checks and balances in place can help prevent the favoritism and corruption that has prevented some tribes from prospering, supporters say.

Research has shown that tribes with the most capable governments are more successful economically than others, said Steve Cornell, co-director of the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development and a professor at the University of Arizona.

That rings true to Vizenor.

"If we have an opportunity for an industry to come to White Earth, and it looks at the tribal courts, they see the courts are directly under the control of the tribal council," she said. "If the tribal court system is not independent, it will not have any credibility."

About 60 tribes in the United States and Canada are re-examining their constitutions, Cornell said. In Minnesota, Red Lake tribal leaders have thrown their support behind the concept and the Leech Lake band is exploring it. The Mille Lacs band created a draft constitution in 2010, but is no longer actively pursuing it — underscoring the challenges of priority changes within tribal leadership.

Many tribes are taking guidance from nation-building programs at Harvard University and the University of Arizona, which train hundreds of native leaders in effective governance.

Meanwhile, the Bush Foundation of St. Paul has carved a unique philanthropic niche by offering financial support to the efforts through its "Native Nations Rebuilders Program." That's helped put Minnesota on the map, said Cornell.

"I look at Minnesota as one of the places most active in this," he said.

Red Lake begins

Sam Strong, economic development director at Red Lake, and Justin Beaulieu, Red Lake's newly hired constitution reform outreach coordinator, are graduates of the Bush program. Last week, they helped launch the first community event to encourage members to think about their constitution.

The setting was an outdoor feast to celebrate Ojibwe language revitalization in the town of Ponemah. Fresh walleye and fry bread were served up, as young men pounded on drums and sang traditional songs. In the middle was a table where celebrants could get copies of the Red Lake constitution and take a survey.

"The key thing is to make sure we're doing the things people want, to get everyone involved in the process," said Strong.

People stopped by the table, bent over and filled out the survey, which asked, "What topics do you feel are most important to you and the tribe?" Options included: Jobs. Election Process. Language/cultural preservation. Terms of office for tribal officers. Land/Natural Resources.

Elizabeth E. Kingbird, 79, was among those watching. Asked if she supported reforming the constitution, she responded: "It all depends on what's inside!"

Williamette Hardy-Morrison had a specific concern, namely whether a new constitution would change the criteria for tribal membership. That's been one of the most contentious issues at White Earth.

"It's gonna take a lot of bickering," said Eugene Stillday, a Red Lake retiree, surveying the scene. "Our constitution is pretty much the same as the other reservations. We want to write our own so it's applicable here. It's could take a long time."

White Earth got started on the process in 1997, after several tribal leaders — including former chair Darrel (Chip) Wadena — were convicted of election fraud and bid-rigging related to the tribe's casino. When Vizenor was elected tribal chair in 2004, she made constitution reform a priority.

White Earth's proposed constitution contains the first term limits for tribal leaders and an independent court system. Judges must be graduates of a law school accredited by the American Bar Association, but must also have "knowledge of Anishinaabe [Ojibwe] culture, traditions and history."

It creates a legislative council, but one advised by a "council of elders." It contains safeguards guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution, such as freedom of religion, speech and press. But it also protects "freedom of artistic irony," a form of satire used in literature that "may not please some citizens."

Vizenor hopes good governance will attract and keep younger tribal members, who often leave reservations because, in the absence of clear rules, jobs can hinge on political connections.

In the past, Minnesota tribes interested in reforming their governments often lacked the expertise and finances, said Jaime Pinkham, a vice president at the Bush Foundation. That's why the foundation stepped in.

Even with funding, however, challenges remain. How do you stir up excitement over a constitution in a place grappling with poverty? How do you get buy-in from folks who stand to lose political privilege? How do you deal with the contentious tribal citizenship issue?

"Change is frightening to people," said Anton Treuer, executive director of the American Indian Resource Center at Bemidji State University. "But times are changing, and we need to change with them."

Jean Hopfensperger • 612-673-4511