Mark Trahant*

Republished with author's permission from Indian Country Today, December 13, 2021, https://indiancountrytoday.com/news/our-political-system-is-broken.

The last decade has mostly been amazing for the Native Americans who ran for public office. Recite the names and it’s an easy answer as to the, “why.” Deb. Yvette. Sharice. Ruth. Such amazing people and stories. And each shared a legacy: They campaigned in a district where they could win.

That’s not the case for some 390 or so House seats (out of 435 districts). Most congressional districts tip toward the Republicans or Democrats in a way that makes competition tough. It’s like running a mile uphill. A task that’s much easier on flat ground (or even downhill).

The story of Indigenous participation in elections has largely been a success story. Helen Peterson, Oglala, wrote about the transformation of pueblos that had zero voters in 1952. “But in 1956, after a voter education program, only two pueblos still clung to their traditional conservative attitude toward voting while achieving 100 percent registration.”

Peterson wrote an article on voting for The Annals of the American Academy in May of 1957. She found that the Navajo vote, for example, was dependent on geography. More than 80 percent of the Navajo vote was from New Mexico because in Arizona county and state officials went out of their way to discourage participation. Plus, she wrote, “New Mexico, unlike Arizona, does not require a literacy test for voting eligibility.”

Sixty-four years ago a literacy test was a tool limiting Indigenous participation. Today it’s more about how election lines are drawn.

As Peterson showed Indigenous communities are often divided by state lines. Navajo voters participated in New Mexico, but not Arizona, because of the rules in place.

The average congressional district is about 711,000 people — and no tribe has that large a population. But it could be closer than it is. The Navajo Nation has some 400,000 citizens. The Cherokee Nation also has about that number. Each reflects about 56 percent of a single district, far more than enough people to win.

As it stands Arizona’s congressional district one had the nation’s highest percent for Native population at about 23.2 percent. I started writing in my political blog in 2016 about the potential for a Navajo to win this seat. (There has never been a Navajo serving in Congress.)

In fact Arizona’s Congressional District 1 and the accompanying legislative districts drawn in 2011 was an example of an Independent Redistricting Commission reflecting the possibility that democracy would be best served by broader representation. President Joe Biden carried the district by 50.1 percent, and U.S. Rep. Tom O’Halleran, a Democrat, defeated his GOP opponent by a little more than 3 percentage points.

The new, likely Arizona district will no longer be competitive. The new district will favor Republicans by as much as 15 percentage points by adding Prescott and Yavapai County. (And, as a result, pitting Democratic Representative O’Halleran against Republican Representative Paul Gossar. He’s recently been stripped of his congressional committee assignments because he posted a violent video threatening another Democrat, Representative Alexandra Ocassio-Cortez.)

The Arizona Daily Mirror reported that Independent Chair Erika Neuberg said Indigenous voters will be better off in the new district. “From my perspective, I’m most thinking about how we honor the entire state and also not marginalize those northern tribes,” Neuberg said. “How far that (partisan) spread becomes may be relevant to how well that minority group may be able to advocate for themselves.”

Then it’s worth noting the policy differences on tribal issues. Gossar’s record includes calling tribes today “wards of the government” and opposes the administration on virtually every issue from the Violence Against Women Act to the infrastructure bills.

So instead of encouraging participation, and growing the number of Native voters, shrinking the base is a slap against the very ideals of representative democracy.

A 2020 report by the Native American Rights Fund and the Native American Voting Rights Coalition, “ Obstacles at Every Turn; barriers to political participation faced by Native American voters,” warned about “cracking” and “packing.” That’s when Native voters are divided to “maximize the number of wasted votes.”

Montana’s new congressional districts will do just that. The tribes are divided and in the new second district, a Republican safe seat, Native voters are slightly under 8 percent. (The new first district which is more competitive only has about 4.6 percent Native voters.)

Keaton Sunchild, political director of Western Native Voice, told the Great Falls Tribune that the new districts ultimately suppress the Native vote.

"The issue is that in either district, the Native population isn't enough to influence the vote in any direction," Sunchild told the Tribune. "So, whoever the candidates are on either side of the aisle, they can just completely disregard the Native vote in both districts.”

Native voters in Montana have a record of achievement. The state legislature reached a parity with the population, electing 4 in the Senate and 8 in the House for a total of 8 percent of those two bodies.

New Mexico’s plan is being debated in the legislature now. One plan would boost tribal representation at the state level, but critics are not sure yet about the congressional boundaries.

Keegan King, co-chair of the All Pueblo Council of Governors ad hoc redistricting committee, said the tribes and pueblos in the state have been working on this process since the beginning because “tribes know how high the stakes are.”

*Mark Trahant, Shoshone-Bannock, is editor-at-large for Indian Country Today. Email: On Twitter: @TrahantReports Trahant is based in Phoenix.