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Ellie Mitchell

Anishinaabe (Eagle Clan)

My most vivid childhood memories are the death threats.

I was about 11 years old, so I wasn’t given a full explanation. I was only told that I wasn’t allowed to be alone on my own reservation. I couldn’t walk to the gym after school; I wasn’t supposed to play outside at Nmishomis-ba’s house.

Nmishomis-ba (my late grandfather) was serving as tribal chief.

Nmishomis-ba had an important job but not everyone liked how he did his job. Some of those people wanted to hurt us.

This was his second term as chief. They were not consecutive terms. The first was a tumultuous time of rapid business expansion and debates over enrollment. Any business endeavor is risky, and enrollment is emotionally charged. That council was recalled mid-term and replaced with another. That was just the start of the multiyear community ordeal that saw an attempt at massive disenrollment, repeated election disputes, the Bureau of Indian Affairs presence on our reservation and in our politics, takeovers and lockdowns of our tribal government building. After elections were held in 1999, Nmishomis-ba was once again serving as chief.

This political drama was not just rhetorical. There was a serious threat of violence. A tribal member attempted to hire a hitman to kill a serving tribal council member. This was euphemistically explained to me, my siblings, and cousins, and we were given the rules outlined above.

I liked to read and snuck the local newspaper and learned what was probably too many details for a child. The settler-owned newspaper sensationalized a lot of the news and pushed a narrative of anti-Indigeneity, which added to the unease in the community.

One day, my brother and I were dropped off at Nmishomis-ba’s house, which was locked. We played outside for about an hour until one of our relatives got home and let us in. My mom started crying when she found out; she worried for the safety of her children on her own reservation.

Nmishomis-ba installed a coded garage door opener, so we wouldn’t get locked out again. It was a traumatic incident for our family, and it wasn’t the only one. There were others I’m not ready to write about. As an adult, I’ve heard similar stories from the relatives of other tribal council members. We carry a pervasive trauma that stems from the violence of our internal politics. Even today, more than 20 years later, these events are hardly spoken of and do not appear in any of our official tribal history narratives.

Following his second term as chief, Nmishomis-ba was not reelected to tribal council, so he returned to work at the tribal wastewater treatment plant, where, according to him, there was “less shit to deal with.”

Ostensibly, the community politics moved on. That risky casino investment boomed, and we reveled in the glory of economic success. We opened a trailblazing cultural center and an Anishinaabemowin immersion pre-school. We repatriated many ancestors and we built another new casino. We sued then negotiated with the state over reservation boundaries.

Despite this list of achievements, we have not actually moved on. While we promoted a narrative of industry leadership, we have quietly been cutting out our own people, using blood quantum to reduce our own population. Often this results in disenrollment though sometimes the victims remain tribal members, albeit with a lower “official” blood quantum. A lower blood quantum lowers their descendents’ blood quantum as well. This process effectively diminishes the tribal population through paperwork.

My tribe prides itself on our business prowess and our renowned economic ventures. A search of my tribe does reveal many hits on business, yet it also yields about an equal number of articles on disenrollments. It’s been nearly three decades since Nmishomis-ba first served on the tribal council and our political discourse and toolkit have not changed. We use money and tribal enrollment as rewards and weapons.

In the last year, the political discourse has worsened. Some tribal members openly endorse disenrollments on their social media and while protesting on the reservation. One family has been particularly targeted, and I feel for their anguish. The threat of violence was palpable enough that a metal detector was placed at the entrance to our annual community meeting, the first time I can remember such a thing. Most egregiously, late this summer, a child was verbally assaulted by a political protester inside a tribal building, during a tribal program.

When our children are not safe or do not feel safe, we are failing them. When we are harming our own through disenrollment or the threat thereof, we are failing them. We are failing at our most fundamental task as Anishinaabeg, to take care of each other and the land.

It’s time for our political discourse to change. We need to stop disenrolling and get rid of blood quantum. We can create parameters of tribal citizenship that are not borrowed from the colonizer, that will not guarantee our extinction, and that fit our Anishinaabe values. We need to remember that economic development is the means to a goal, not the goal itself. The goal is survival and the continuation of our relationships with each other and to the land. The realities of life under colonialism mean that we need money; it does not mean that we need to replicate how the colonizer weaponizes money. Our shares of slot machine revenues are not worth the pain we have inflicted on ourselves.

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