Brenda Child: The Red Lake Nation: Laying a Solid Foundation for Constitutional Reform

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In this informative interview with NNI's Ian Record, Brenda Child, member of the Red Lake Constitution Reform Initiative Committee, discusses how the Committee has worked methodically to set in place a solid foundation upon which to engage Red Lake citizens about the Red Lake constitution and whether and how they should strengthen it through reform. She also shares how the Committee began by educating itself about Indigenous constitutionalism in general and the origins of Red Lake's current constitution in particular.

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Child, Brenda. "The Red Lake Nation: Laying a Solid Foundation for Constitutional Reform." Leading Native Nations interview series, Native Nations Insitute for Leadership, Management and Policy, University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona, April 2, 2014. Interview.

Ian Record:

"We're here with Brenda Child who's from the Red Lake Nation, Red Lake Band of Chippewa, and we're here to talk a little bit about constitutionalism and constitutional reform. In addition to being an academic -- as we were just discussing -- a professor at the University of Minnesota, you also have the honor of being a member of Red Lake's newly formed or somewhat newly formed Constitutional Reform Committee. And I guess if you can just start by telling us a little bit more about yourself and how you came to be on...become a part of the committee and then we'll sort of delve into what the committee does as they move forward."

Brenda Child:

"So the committee that formed at Red Lake is a...it's a committee apart from the tribal council, but it was their...the tribe's economic development office was in charge of soliciting applications from tribal members to be part of the committee and so I applied as did everybody else and a dozen or so of us were selected to be on the committee. I was very happy about the way...when they asked me to kind of apply to the committee because they said, you...because I teach in the Twin Cities they said I could apply as the representative from Minneapolis or I could apply from my reservation district, my hometown, which is Redby, and that made me happy because I think we're trying to get away from that, "˜Those of you who work in the city or in urban areas...,' because there's so much fluidity now between people who live in urban areas and on the reservation. But at Red Lake maybe some of that might be particularly strong because we do...Red Lake is one of those places that, as you know having visited there, we didn't lose our land or our land wasn't allotted in the course of the late 19th and the early 20th century. So we have a very large homeland and there is some significant part of our population that does live on our homelands at Red Lake."

Ian Record:

"So can you give me a nutshell overview of what the charge of the committee is? So basically this committee is formed and then they're telling you, "˜Here's your job, here's your task, here's how we expect you to carry it out.'"

Brenda Child:

"The great thing about our charge for the constitution committee at Red Lake is that we were able to secure a really nice grant from the Bush Foundation, which allowed us to have a staff on the reservation to kind of organize a lot of our regular meetings and our community meetings, the first leg of which we've just passed in the last week or so where we've been attending public meetings with the community. But we...yeah, so the idea was...we didn't...because we have a staff and because we had this grant from the Bush Foundation, we were able to really focus and think about this as a long term project, not just something, "˜Let's get in and out, think about a new constitution, write it up and see if we can get a tribal referendum.' And so we've tried to be very thoughtful about how we've approached this work and in the first year...so our committee has been meeting for about a year. Fortunately, we're a very kind of congenial group of people who are very supportive of one another. We've been meeting twice a month over the last year. Usually we meet on the reservation and we meet usually for about four hours at a time. We tend to be very deliberate talkers and we listen very carefully to one another. So initially we thought of our charge as being to learn as much as we could about the history of our own constitutions at Red Lake, to learn more about constitutionalism and then to eventually write a new tribal constitution that will be put forward for tribal referendum."

Ian Record:

"You just mentioned one of the tasks, as you see it and as your fellow committee member sees it, is to understand the history of Red Lake's constitutionalism if you will."

Brenda Child:

"Yeah."

Ian Record:

"Let's talk a bit more about that. Why -- from your perspective and based upon what you've been learning from others and from the elected leadership who saw fit to create this committee -- why now for Red Lake? What is, I guess, in play that has prompted this conversation that, "˜We need to revisit our constitution. We need to make sure that it's going to be capable of supporting the direction that we want to take as a nation into the future.'"

Brenda Child:

"So at Red Lake it's sort of interesting, because we have a constitution that dates from 1918 was the year of our first written constitution. So as a committee we've spent time thinking about why...what was going on with our people in the early 20th century for them to decide to write a constitution at that particular moment in time? And when you look at that document, which isn't particularly long, you can see that people were very concerned about...the government was still trying to allot Indian reservations in the 1920s and even though we eventually escaped allotment at Red Lake, which is an amazing story in itself, that...you can sort of see that's what our ancestors were thinking about in those years and so the fear was very real and present that our reservation would be allotted. So I think that's maybe some of the reason why our people at that time decided at that time decided, "˜Let's commit to writing, think about governance on the reservation.'

And Red Lake has this history of hereditary chiefs and at that time there were seven hereditary chiefs who appointed a general council and so that was what governance was at Red Lake in the early 20th century. So the hereditary chiefs played a very important role. Our tribal constitution was revised in 1958 and this is like, for example, when the first mention of citizenship comes up because 1918 everybody knew everybody in the community, it was a very friendly time, there were probably fewer than 3,000 people that lived in all of our communities on the reservation, so times were changing in the late "˜50s. And at the same time, Red Lake has always been very independent of the other...politically very independent of the other Ojibwe people and other bands within the state. And so at that time they wanted to confirm again that they were a separate political entity and independent of the other Minnesota Ojibwes and so that was part of the 1958 constitution. But I think the feeling at Red Lake now among people on our council as well as in the community is that it's time for a new constitution because a lot has changed in Indian Country since 1958."

Ian Record:

"And obviously you're...I would assume along with that that your needs have changed, the challenges you face today have changed and is that part of the conversation to say, "˜We need to make sure that our governance...our foundational governance document is equipped to meet the times,' if you will?"

Brenda Child:

"Yeah. I think that people feel that the document isn't adequate. People feel that there are areas that need to be strengthened in our constitution. When I was mentioning our 1918 and '58 constitutions and how motivated people were at the time to think about the importance of preserving our land, I think that that sentiment is still very strong. We've just finished our first round of community meetings on the reservation and in urban areas in Minnesota as well. And so that concern is still there but maybe it's expressed a little differently than perhaps it was earlier in the 20th century. For example, people today use terms like, "˜Well, what about the sustainability of our forests?', "˜What about the quality of our water?', "˜What about preserving our lakes?' We were talking at our community meetings last week about because we have not only Upper and Lower Red Lake, but a lot of smaller lakes on the reservation, people were talking about the issue of invasive species. Some of those invasive species have been present in other bodies of water within our region in the Great Lakes, but not in Red Lake. And so these are...there are new ways of thinking about how we need to protect our land and a lot of that would be what you would call environmentalism, conservation, the desire to protect our resources. So I think our concerns are the same as our ancestors 100 years ago when they first wrote a constitution, but it's being expressed in new ways because we have new worries right now."

Ian Record:

"So let's delve a little bit more into these community meetings. I know they're fresh in your mind. I believe some of them happened as recently as last week."

Brenda Child:

"Right."

Ian Record:

"Paint a picture for what that environment, what that dynamic was like. I always use the analogy of Jay Leno when he was on "The Tonight Show." He'd do the 'Jaywalking,' where he'd walk around and ask the average citizen on the street about the U.S. Constitution or some other U.S. civics-type question and most people don't know a lot."

Brenda Child:

"True."

Ian Record:

"And I would imagine that that's part of the challenge you face in engaging the community on this and trying to first and foremost get them to care about this and educate them about the role that the constitution plays, good and bad, in their daily lives and how them contributing to a new constitution could actually improve their lives. Is that kind of where you guys are at in the process right now?"

Brenda Child:

"Yeah. So we just finished our first round of community meetings and we decided that we would...I think this was just a scheduling fluke, but we started in Minneapolis and so we had a large meeting in Minneapolis and then we went to the four reservation communities of Little Rock, Red Lake, Redby -- which is my hometown -- and then Ponemah and all of those communities are very different from one another. We ended up in Duluth on just last Saturday and we still have one more meeting that's going to take place in Bemidji, which is the town 30 miles off the reservation. So in some sense that kind of border town, there are a lot of our tribal members whose kids go to school in Bemidji and who work in Bemidji and live there so we're going to have another meeting there as well. And I guess what I saw with our first round of community meetings is that we as a committee work to be on the same page before we started any round of community meetings. I'm a college professor and so I talked a lot about how we organize discussions in the classroom, that we're...that means you don't just come in and show up. You're very well prepared to run a discussion. We talked about questions in common that we were going to pose. We really prepared ourselves and on the evenings of our community meetings on the reservation and in Minneapolis as well, we did everything the same way.

So we started out with a prayer by one of our elders who's on the committee. We started out with a meal, so everyone ate together. And then we showed a short film that the committee had put together, a short eight minute film called "Aangwaamas!," which is the story of our...kind of the history of our constitution. And so we wanted people to be kind of ready to go to get a little bit of history before we started asking any questions. And I think we...it was very important to kind of set the tone in a good way to establish, "˜We are here not to tell you our opinions, we're not here to be divisive in any sort of way. None of us are running for political office,' that kind of thing, "˜but we're here to really engage the community. We're here to listen. We're here to listen to your ideas and to write them down and we're going to bring them back to the committee.' So that's how we tried to set the tone.

It was really great because we have a member of our committee, Tom Cain, Jr., whose father was on the 1958 committee who last drafted our constitution at Red Lake and he talked about, in this little short film we made called 'Aangwaamas!,' he talked about what it was like to be a five-year-old boy and his father's work at that time when politics was mostly conducted in the Ojibwe language and he talked about, as most of us would be as a kid listening to adults. That was his view of our last constitution, but he said...he described it and it was really kind of a very beautiful political process that his father went to every home on...in his district because he was a representative for the Ponemah District at the time and talked about politics, what should be in the new constitution. And he said when his dad would leave the house he would say, "˜Aangwaamas,' like it's time, it's time. So that's kind of become our...that's become our sort of slogan for our constitution, that it was time for our ancestors in 1918 to write a constitution, it's time in '58, it was for them to revise it and times have changed so aangwaamas, it's time for us again."

Ian Record:

"It's interesting you mention that. In working with a lot of other nations we often hear that one of the strategies, one of the many strategies -- and I think the fact that a lot of the tribes we've worked with have succeeded when it comes to reform is because they've employed different strategies -- but one of the strategies they talk about is going to the people, that you can call a community meeting, you can advertise it, but particularly when you haven't built up that awareness of why this matters yet, that it may require you to go out and seek out the people, seek out the particular... the influential people in any community and make sure that they understand what's going on and they're onboard. Is that something that you guys have as part of your formula moving forward?"

Brenda Child:

"In the past year, even before our community meetings started, we...when we would have any kind of public gathering, we would give our surveys at those gatherings and from those initial surveys we learned the areas that were sort of most...areas of pressing concern to our tribal members and those ended up being land and natural resources, language and culture, jobs and environment and also citizenship enrollment and the blood quantum issue. And so when we started our community meetings, and we're going to have several rounds of them, I sort of suggested at the outset, "˜Let's start with land and resources and language and culture,' because I thought it would be important for us...again, this is setting the tone for community engagement...to start with issues that bring us together as a people. It's sometimes...we know we're going to get to difficult issues that people feel very passionate about, but it's important to really be very thoughtful about how you proceed with community meetings because you want to bring your community together and before...and sort of learn how to work together so that when it's time to deal with these more difficult issues, that we're there, we're ready to go, we feel united and we feel like we're ready to make...have those conversations when it's time to do that."

Ian Record:

"On issues I would assume like citizenship which is the..."

Brenda Child:

"Blood quantum."

Ian Record:

"Blood quantum."

Brenda Child:

"Yes, yeah, when we're going to hear a lot of stories from people who say, "˜This is how it should be' or "˜My grandchildren are enrolled' or "˜This is how we've always done it at Red Lake.' We want to be ready for that and also, even when we engage those topics that are difficult, we want to have already established that we're good listeners. We're not here to dictate, we're not here with a specific political agenda, but we're here to listen to the community."

Ian Record:

"So let's follow up on that political agenda question because often we see where reform fails is because whatever...if it's committee or whatever body is set up to essentially lead the nation on reform is either politicized or is perceived to be politicized. How...I guess how important is it and how freeing is it for you to be on firm ground when you say to a community member, "˜We have no political agenda here. Yes, the council established us. Yes, they created the process by which this committee was created, but we have independence, we have autonomy to lead this process in a deliberate fashion that we think is going to work well'?"

Brenda Child:

"Maybe I'm at a stage of things after just the first year where I still feel very optimistic, but I really do believe in maybe this term we use so much now in organizations, in the university and wherever and that's transparency and that's just to be very up front about what we're trying to do, how we're there as ordinary citizens just like all of you and we're here to listen and engage in thoughtful conversation. But I think behind that thoughtful conversation is just the preparedness, to show people that you know what you're talking about, to establish that you're very serious about this business, but also to kind of establish that you're ready, you're going to be ready with the community at some point to write a new constitution for the tribe."

Ian Record:

"You mentioned earlier that you intend to engage in several rounds of community engagement."

Brenda Child:

"Right."

Ian Record:

"And you mentioned I believe in your first response that getting the financial support you did to conduct this effort has given you the flexibility you feel you need as a committee to be very deliberate, to take however much time is needed. Is there a sort of drop dead date for this or is it sort of you're just going to let the organic process unfold and then when that crystallizing moment is there when there's sufficient agreement or consensus in place then you'll know you're ready?"

Brenda Child:

"We have a date for when the grant runs out, but we don't have a date for when we have to put this to tribal referendum. We know that we could do it in a couple of years from now, that would be probably the earliest opportunity, but none of us feel rushed. The committee feels like we needed...we had so much to learn and then we have to engage the community and that there are just many steps and I know when you're involved in a process like that where you're working with your own tribal community, the process is just as important as what we eventually come up with as a written document."

Ian Record:

"Correct me if I'm wrong, but has not a lot of the...some of the initial conversations of the committee and others at Red Lake focused on one particular aspect of your constitution and that's the clause there that says that whatever changes that you make to the constitution must be approved by the federal government, must be approved by the Department of Interior in the person of the Secretary [of the Interior]. Where is that conversation right now and do you expect action on that particular aspect of your constitution before perhaps the rest of the constitutional change that you foresee taking place?"

Brenda Child:

"Yeah. It's possible we could take action on that Secretary of the Interior clause before the final writing of the constitution and some of that we just need to kind of seek out legal expertise. Some people have advised us to "˜just take it out,' and we assuredly will not write that into our next constitution, that we need to have the approval of the Secretary of Interior, but whether we do it now and by special referendum because we'd heard that, some of us didn't even recall this, that during the "˜90s we voted on this at Red Lake and it was not a successful referendum and some of that has to do with I think people didn't understand what it meant. Did that mean, "˜Well, we're going to go without these federal resources if we do this,' and so we're also approaching that in...we're being...we're still taking under consideration the best way to get that message out to the community."

Ian Record:

"You mentioned a little earlier that...you mentioned a little earlier around this issue of the timetable and the timetable you have for reform and that it could be two years, it could be perhaps longer before you see the end of the path on this process and you mentioned one of the reasons for that is because you as a committee have so much to learn and is that...I would imagine that's not just from your own community, that you have a lot to learn from what other nations are doing in this area. For instance, on citizenship for example, that's a hotbed area of activity when it comes to constitutional reform among other nations. So is the committee actively sort of seeking out other tribes or is it..."

Brenda Child:

"Yeah, the committee has...in terms of thinking about learning about tribal constitutions, we've been able to watch what some of our neighbors are doing. The White Earth tribe, not very far from us, are undergoing constitutional reform and so we've been watching what's going on there. We have talked to other tribes who have been successful or not at writing a new constitution and having a tribal referendum. We've also just sought out legal experts and folks that we think would be interesting to speak with on these issues.

One of the people that we had in was my colleague John Borrows who teaches at the law school at the University of Minnesota and I think it was really great to bring him up to have a long conversation with the tribal council or not the tribal council, the committee. So John Borrows came up to really specifically engage with the Constitutional Reform Committee and he was very generous with his time and spent hours speaking with us. And I think it was interesting to our committee because when you say, "˜This is a law professor who teaches federal Indian law at the University of Minnesota,' they're not really expecting John Borrows who's deeply philosophical, who studies and is a student himself of the Ojibwe language and thinks about stories and Ojibwe concepts of law. And so we've wanted to think about those ideas too because at Red Lake, even on the Constitutional Reform Committee, we have people who speak the Ojibwe language and we're very aware of our kind of unique history at Red Lake, having held onto our land as we have over the generations and that this is kind of a stronghold of the Ojibwe language on the U.S. side of the Great Lakes. So all of those things are things that we talk about and...

So I wouldn't just say that we look at just what's going on with other tribes as they write their constitutions but we try to think about practical issues, community engagement, but we also have to think of who we are as Ojibwe people as we proceed through this path of meeting with our community and writing a new constitution because we really want what we ultimately do throughout this whole process to be a very positive work in our community and a positive reflection of who we are as Red Lake Ojibwe people."

Ian Record:

"From your vantage point, isn't that part of what you ideally would hope to see in the final document is something that evokes that unique identity, that unique language, that unique history and if it's not explicitly taking steps to preserve that it's at least acknowledging it and saying, "˜This is how we've gotten as far as we have'?"

Brenda Child:

"Right. It's great to see all the energy out there in Indian Country right now about tribal constitutions, but we kind of live in time where it's sort of a global Indigenous world at the same time. So when I read the constitution of Bolivia, I was just like really greatly appreciative of that amazing document and so we've been looking at that a little bit in Red Lake. So we're interested in what our colleagues are doing around Indian Country, but also what other Indigenous people are doing around the world as they think about constitutions."

Ian Record:

"Well, Brenda we really appreciate you taking some time to share your thoughts and experience and wisdom with us and good luck with the effort."

Brenda Child:

"Yeah. Miigwetch."

Related Resources

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Produced by the Red Lake Constitution Reform Committee, "Aangwaamas!" provides Red Lake Nation citizens and others a short overview of the the nation's constitutional history and why it is now time to develop a new constitution capable of supporting Red Lake in the 21st century and beyond.