February 8, 2002
Native American Press / Ojibwe News

Enrollment dispute at Prairie Island

by Clara NiiSka

Marcella Blue Stone, age 78, was born at Prairie Island when it was still Strom’s Crossing whistle-stop.  She is the daughter of Walter Jesse Leith, the first I.R.A. tribal chairman of Prairie Island, and Cora Lawrence Leith.  She is listed, #325, on the “Prairie Island base rolls”—the B.I.A.’s Indian Census Roll of April 1, 1934 of the “Purchased land reservation of the Pipestone, Minnesota jurisdiction”—as 5/8 Mdewakanton Sioux, residing on-reservation.  Marcella’s full brother, Chris Leith, is a widely-known ‘spiritual leader’ at Prairie Island.

According to Marcella’s son, Lawrence Larson, after the unrest and “uprising” in 1862-63, the imprisonment of many Dakota at Fort Snelling, and Abraham Lincoln’s execution of 38 men at Mankato, “a lot of us ended up in Santee,” but some eventually “wandered back” and settled at Prairie Island.  “My great-grandmother’s three relatives” were among those hung at Mankato, Larson said.  “There were just young boys,” Agnes Frazier Lawrence told Larson, “not even near the uprising.  They were innocent.”  “She refused to speak English,” Larson told Press/ON, because of the wrongful execution of her relatives.  Larson says that he learned his native language translating for his great-grandmother.

Marcella’s son Lawrence Larson grew up at Prairie Island.  He talks about growing soybeans there to buy clothes for school, and reminisced about the land of his childhood with deep affection.  The sixty-one year old Larson was born in February 1941, and is too young to have been listed on the base rolls.  Article III of the 1936 Constitution and Bylaws of the Prairie Island Indian Community delineates the requirements for enrollment.  It provides that “membership in the Prairie Island Indian Community “shall” include “all children of any member who is a resident of the Prairie Island Reservation at the time of the birth of said children” (section c).  There is no blood quantum requirement for Prairie Island enrollment—and nearly a third of the people on the 1934 base rolls are listed as only 1/16 Indian.

Eighty-one year old Harvey Owens was also born and raised at Prairie Island.  He is the son of Julia W. Owens, who is listed, #390, on the Prairie Island base rolls as a “fullblood.”  Harvey is the full brother of Prairie Island’s renowned spiritual leader Amos Owens.  According to Owens’s, Larson’s and Bluestone’s attorney, Gary Montana, Harvey Owens was not enumerated on the 1934 B.I.A. census because he was working at the depression-era C.C.C. camps.  Owens subsequently joined the Army, and was reportedly a “decorated World War II veteran.”

Even though the three elders’ obviously have both Dakota ancestors and clear ties to the Prairie Island Indian community, they are not included on the present membership rolls.  Despite repeated applications for enrollment, according to Larson “approved three times by the enrollment committee,” the Prairie Island Community Council declined to act on their application.  In November 1999, Wisconsin attorney Gary Montana sued in tribal court on their behalf.  In June of 2001, the case was – finally – heard by the tribal court of appeals.  At press time, the tribal court had not yet rendered a decision in the case.

Press/ON telephoned the Prairie Island community council, and was referred to their attorney Julie Ann Fishel, who declined to comment on an “active litigation matter.”  Press/ON also contacted Prairie Island Clerk of Courts Carrie Blesener, hoping to examine the court file.  “Due to the nature of the case, those records are not open to the public,” Blesener said.

This sort of secrecy—the three elders’ enrollment case before the tribal court of appeals involved questions of jurisdiction and the community council’s claims of “tribal sovereignty,” and according to Montana did not address any of the substantive issues of the case—might seem to support Fishel’s claims that governmental secrecy is “traditional” at Prairie Island.  However, the Prairie Island Constitution provides, Bylaws, Article I, Sec. 2, that “all official records … shall be open to inspection to members of the Community at all reasonable times.”

Press/ON is continuing to look into the problem of political discrimination in enrollment and “selective enrollment” at Prairie Island and elsewhere.