MAHNOMEN, Minn. - The political return of convicted felon, Darrell "Chip"
Wadena appears to be over with the victory of former treasurer Erma Vizenor
as tribal chairwoman.
Vizenor won with 51 percent of the vote over Wadena in a race that brought
out some of the worst in campaign rhetoric. Wadena called Vizenor "evil"
she called him a "crook."
Absentee ballots from tribal members who live outside the reservation gave
Vizenor the victory. She garnered 83 percent of the absentee votes for
which she campaigned heavily, she said.
The first woman to chair the White Earth Tribe said her message was an
open, honest and accountable government. "I don't believe it had taken
place before. Also there are basic human needs; housing, jobs, economic
conditions that are always issues," she said. The Harvard graduate also
puts education high on her list of priorities with cultural education
Her victory will also set an example for young women, she said.
The bitter campaign opened many wounds for some. It brought up fierce
political battles and the reminder of a contentious court fight against
Wadena was found guilty in federal court of 15 counts of misappropriation
of tribal funds. He was accused of receiving more than $400,000 filtered
through a hidden company he owned that sold dry wall to the tribe during
construction of the casino. He served two years in prison and was supposed
to repay $585,000 to the tribe. He has paid $100,000 in restitution thus
far and has been fined for non-payment of a $200 per month assessment. He
was released from prison in 1999 and most people gave up on any future
political career. He served as chairman of White Earth for 20 years.
To many of his opponents his ballot numbers were shocking. "I was shocked
and appalled that he had that many numbers and by having the following he
does," Vizenor said.
She attributed his support to the "old group of loyalists who received all
the benefits. He spent a lot on buying votes," she said.
A close race means that Wadena still has support, which could make a new
administrator's job difficult.
"It is going to be a challenge. But I will maintain an open, honest and
fair government with no retribution or revenge. I will keep the people
"There will always be opposition, but over-all I will work hard to unite
the people. I was secretary-treasurer for six years and after a time
reasonable and caring people would come to me, and I will continue to be
there," Vizenor said.
Vizenor testified against Wadena during his federal trial in 1996.
The final vote count was 1,930 to 1,319. Wadena's strategy was to gather a
high vote count from the reservation while Vizenor campaigned heavily for
the absentee votes. There was 1,770 absentee ballots sent out and 1,034
were returned. Of that amount Vizenor collected 879.
Wadena was the top vote getter among 13 primary contenders with 691 votes.
Former chairman Doyle Turner was third. Vizenor topped Turner by 22 votes
in the primary.
Wadena was allowed to run by approval of the tribal council. He received
three of the five votes needed to participate. One vote came from his son,
Tony Wadena, another from Turner, who said it wouldn't be right to not
allow someone to run for office.
Vizenor received support from Winona LaDuke, twice a vice-presidential
candidate with Ralph Nader. The two are fellow Harvard graduates.
Vernon Bellecourt, executive director of the American Indian Movement Grand
Governing Council and a White Earth member, called Indian Country Today and
said he was totally incensed at the fact that Wadena had collected the
number of votes he did.
A former U.S Attorney, David Lillehaug, who prosecuted Wadena sent letters
to surrounding newspapers reminding readers of Wadena's convictions.
One of Vizenor's important issues was constitutional reform. White Earth is
now an IRA government, which she asserts is very inadequate and obsolete. A
constitutional reform committee has worked for two-years to draft a new
document which, she said, is traditional in the way people will
"It is now a talking paper and ready for communities to discuss. The
Minnesota Chippewa Tribe has to pass a resolution on the question of the
constitution. It was thought that June 8 would be the date to vote, but,
Vizenor claims the Minnesota Chippewa Tribal executive committee is
ambivalent about the document. "I'm wondering how quickly they will move
She said if the executive committee doesn't move, the White Earth Band may
take it up themselves.
White Earth is a band member of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe, as are all
Ojibwe tribes in Minnesota. They are governed by an executive committee
with each band chairperson acting as a member of the committee.