The Bois Forte Singers, including lead singer David Morrison Jr., center, performed an honor song during a ceremony at the Bois Forte Reservation in June.
The Bois Forte Singers, including lead singer David Morrison Jr., center, performed an honor song during a ceremony at the Bois Forte Reservation in June. Credit: David Holes | Star Tribune

This story comes to you from the Star Tribune, through a partnership with Sahan Journal.

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 Minnesota Chippewa Tribe announced recently that about 65 percent 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 percent 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 percent 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.

Minnesota Chippewa Tribe reservations

Members of these six Chippewa Bands will vote on membership criteria.

Minnesota Chippewa Tribe reservations.
Minnesota Chippewa Tribe reservations. Credit: Star Tribune graphic

Edwards is part of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe’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. We can’t all go out and get in the canoe and harvest the wild rice. This will open their freedom.”

Fond du Lac citizen Cheryl Edwards

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 Minnesota Chippewa Tribe has long seen signs of a diminishing citizenship. A Wilder Research study commissioned by the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe 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 percent of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe’s roughly 39,000 citizens are under age 18.

Minnesota Chippewa Tribe 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 percent of Minnesota Chippewa Tribe 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.

Jana Hollingsworth writes about the Duluth/Superior region. She joined the Star Tribune in 2021