Push to Include Native Voices in ND Redistricting

Mike Moen

FORT BERTHOLD, N.D. - North Dakota next week is expected to choose lawmakers to serve on a panel that will guide the state's redistricting process. As these plans come together, Native American activists are pushing for the inclusion of tribal voices.

Redrawing a state's political boundaries is required after each formal census count every ten years. Native American advocates say the process often leaves their communities with inadequate representation in the state Legislature.

Nicole Donaghy, executive director of the group North Dakota Native Vote, said they've requested public hearings on each of the state's five reservations, rather than a handful of other sites not accessible to their members.

"We need the committee members to realize," she said, "that not everybody can drive, like, 80 miles one direction to go to a hearing."

She said broadband is another access issue, so not everyone can attend the hearings virtually. A key legislative member has said the panel won't have the time to honor the meetings request, but Donaghy said they're trying to coordinate with tribal governments in hopes they will be consulted as the new legislative maps are created. Being told there isn't enough time, or that tribal members should participate virtually, Donaghy said, only underscores the need for more inclusion. She said she sees it as a reflection of non-Native settlers' attitudes since they first arrived in the region - a tone she says has persisted.

"They think that we're only interested in the federal policy because it affects our tribal lands," she said, "but state legislation also affects our lands."

Donaghy said tribal areas often end up being represented by a legislator with the opposite views on important policies, including environmental issues. Native Americans make up roughly 5% of North Dakota's population, but only 1% of state lawmakers. She said the state should look to Montana as a redistricting model, where the process is overseen by an independent commission.

K. William Boyer is the Managing Editor of the Devils Lake News Journal. He can be reached at kboyer@gannett.com, or by phone at (701) 662-2127.  

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