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Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska To Vote On Membership Requirements

Martha Gradolf, contemporary Ho-Chunk weaver, displayed a rush pouch in progress.

The Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska will likely vote later this summer on changes to its membership policy. The tribe has a reservation that straddles the Iowa-Nebraska border.

Currently to enroll, someone must be at least a quarter Native American, and have somewhere in their ancestry a Winnebago relative. The proposed change would require all new members be at least one-eighth Winnebago and one-eighth of any other tribe.

"The tribe does have a pretty good reputation and there are certain benefits to being enrolled in the tribe, that some other tribes might not have," says the tribe’s attorney Danelle Smith. "So that could be the motivation for some people, I mean I couldn't say that for everyone. But it's a concern that somebody would be, spend there whole life with another tribe and then choose to come here, to Winnebago." 

The tribe broadened its membership requirements in 2009 to give children of members Winnebago status. Prior to 2009 members where required to have a quarter Winnebago blood.

As a result, Smith says the tribe’s population grew from 4,143 to 5,260. Of the 1,117 new members, 582 were adults. 

Smith says due to intermarriage, all tribes are grappling with how to determine membership.

"We have to make conscious decision about who we are going to identify as a Winnebago person and how that’s going to be established. Our tribe is critically dependent on this issue for its survival," she says.

Anyone who joined the tribe under the current rule would be grandfathered in, and not lose membership.