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ND Activists: Lack of Tribal Inclusion in Redistricting Runs Deep

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In addition to calls for more inclusion of Native Americans, North Dakota lawmakers are facing demands to not draw new political maps behind closed doors. (Adobe Stock)
In addition to calls for more inclusion of Native Americans, North Dakota lawmakers are facing demands to not draw new political maps behind closed doors. (Adobe Stock)
 By Mike Moen - Producer, Contact
June 3, 2021

BISMARCK, N.D. - As redistricting takes shape in North Dakota, lawmakers are pressured to give tribal communities a fair shake in the process. Those trying to establish more inclusion say the impact of previous maps still is being felt, and worry it will happen again.

When state leaders redraw political boundaries after each census, they're required to ensure districts have equal populations so representation is fair. But Cheryl Kary, executive director of the Sacred Pipe Resource Center in Mandan, said reservations have been gerrymandered many times.

She said a number of tribal nations feel they don't have elected officials who are aligned with their concerns.

"On Fort Berthold, for example, there's quite a few tribal members that are very concerned about the environmental degradation of fracking," said Kary. "And the representative that represents the area voted completely contrary to any concerns that they had."

Activists point to North Dakota electing state representatives through at-large seats as opposed to single member districts as part of the issue. They say the maps dilute the voting power of tribal nations, while deterring community members from seeking office.

Rep. Bill Devlin - R-Finley - who is poised to sit on the redistricting panel, says he's open to hearing these concerns, but says delays in getting census numbers could limit chances for additional meetings with tribes.

Samantha Kelty is a staff attorney with the Native American Rights Fund, which is assisting North Dakota activists in accessible redistricting. Aside from hearings on reservations, she said she wants the state to adopt more criteria, including communities of interest.

"For example, when its members may live within a 30 mile radius outside of the reservation - that may be a community of interest," said Kelty. "Or, there may be a nearby town that, while it doesn't consist of Native Americans, they may share some of the same cultural beliefs."

As for census numbers, which are used as a guiding tool in redistricting, Kary said it underscores the need for inclusion because last year's outreach for counting Indigenous residents was severely impacted by the pandemic.

"I do think there was likely an undercount, typcially there is," said Kary. "But I think in the pandemic, that created some additional barriers."

She said she worries that a larger-than-usual undercount will hurt tribal nations even more when the maps are redrawn.

Next week, members of the redistricting committee are likely to be selected. Because Republicans control the Legislature, they will oversee much of the process.

The maps will be voted on later in the year.

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