‘They don’t include Native voices’: tribes fight to ensure their votes count

In a small unadorned conference room in the North Dakota state capitol, Collette Brown, a representative for the Spirit Lake Nation, stood up on 26 August to testify on behalf of the 7,559 members of her federally recognized tribe.

Speaking to a largely white, male Republican committee of lawmakers, she explained what Native American communities stand to lose with redistricting if the legislature decides to draw legislative boundaries that split Native American communities or create areas that have at-large representation, instead of single-member districts.

Brown had come “to demand that the North Dakota redistricting committee listen to tribal input and hold redistricting meetings and tribal consultations on reservations,” she said during the hearing. “The right to vote is a fundamental right in our democracy and Spirit Lake will vigorously defend that right of its members.”

Data from the 2020 censo, lanzado el mes pasado, show that the US Native American population grew by 27.1% over the last decade to the largest size in modern history. Todavía, advocates say that number represents an undercount because the census count had tight deadlines and reaching Native populations, many of whom live in remote rural areas, was difficult during the pandemic.

Por esta razón, Native groups say it’s vital that they organize to ensure they’re not left out of the redistricting process and do not end up with districts that dilute their power. Without fair representation, they worry they won’t have influence on pressing policy concerns, like suppressive voting laws or high joblessness and incarceration rates on reservations.

por primera vez, the Native American Rights Fund (Narf) has launched a project called Fair Districting in Indian Country to empower their communities to take action to help draw fair maps.

“Given the history of gerrymandering, the dilution of the Native vote, we thought it was vitally important to ensure going forward that Indian country is aware of the process and why it’s so important and that they make their voice heard,” said Matthew Campbell, a staff attorney with Narf.

As North Dakota gears up to redraw the state’s lines and determine how its citizens will be represented, Native groups are advocating for fair representation of people who live both on and off reservations. They want tribes to be included in the same districts to maximize their potential representation and they are pleading for the state redistricting committee to consider input from Native Americans in redistricting meetings.

“They don’t include Native voices in the process,” said Nicole Donaghy, the executive director of North Dakota Native Vote, who was also at the committee hearing. “They don’t reach out to the tribes.”

North Dakota is one of 33 states where the legislature plays the dominant role in redistricting. Donaghy says that makes it more difficult for Native groups to have a say, explaining that there’s a “gross imbalance of power” favoring the party in charge, currently Republicans, in the state’s redistricting process and that there are few Native people serving in state government.

“Our communities are historically forgotten and so it’s hard to get people engaged in that process, especially when we’re not welcome or made to feel not welcome there," ella dijo. “We don’t know how to traditionally engage into that system.”

In other states, tribal leaders and groups representing Native people are also getting involved in the redistricting process. In New Mexico, tribes are preparing to propose maps aimed at greater representation in future elections. In South Dakota, Native advocates are pressuring the redistricting committee to hold meetings on tribal land and with tribal governments.

En Montana, the population grew enough over the last decade that the state has been apportioned a second congressional district for the first time since 1993. Ta’Jin Perez, deputy director for Western Native Voice, said the group’s priority this year is ensuring that the independent redistricting committee considers input from Native groups.

He said that redistricting can be complicated for the average person and it’s even more difficult for Native people to figure out how they can take part in the process.

“So far with this process, we’ve been engaging with tribal governments to make sure that their voice is being heard," él dijo.

Perez said the eight tribes in Montana have not reached a consensus about what the ideal maps would look like and how to cluster Native communities to achieve optimal representation, but Narf will help them to determine what is most beneficial.

Because the Native population is disproportionately represented in Montana’s prison system, Western Native Voice is also involved in debates over prison gerrymandering, advocating for incarcerated people to be considered residents of their home district instead of where they are incarcerated.

Montana will draw its state legislative districts next year, and Perez said he hopes that by then the Native communities will be fully vaccinated and ready to provide public comment to the commission or show up at hearings. Because of the pandemic’s toll on Native people, “that’s something that’s just not feasible for us right now, unfortunately”, él dijo.

“We’re dealing with two crises – the pandemic crisis as well as the lack of representation crisis," él dijo.

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