North Dakota Tribal Leaders Call For Split House Districts

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — Some North Dakota tribal leaders appealed to lawmakers Wednesday to split legislative House districts that include reservations, a move they believe will increase the odds for electing American Indians to the Legislature.

Mike Faith, chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, told the Republican-led committee in charge of redrawing new legislative boundaries that such an arrangement would result in better representation and communication.

“There is no guarantee to get a Native in there,” he said. “(But) It gives us a fighting chance to get representation.”

North Dakota Native Vote Executive Director Nicole Donaghy said subdistricts would allow “tribal members to elect the candidate of their choice.”

Finley GOP Rep. Bill Devlin, chairman of the committee, said he’s not opposed to considering subdistricts as the 16-member committee redraws political maps. Two Democrats are on the committee.

“I’m open to it as chairman.” Devlin said in an interview. “The committee might not be.”

The committee took no action on the request Wednesday.

Redistricting lawmakers have been adamant that none of the five American Indian reservations in the state would be divided into separate Legislative districts. Each are located within a single district.

A North Dakota legislative district now has one senator and two House members, each elected to represent the entire area. In a subdistrict, the senator would still represent the entire district. It would be split in half for House representation, with one House member representing each half.

The Legislature has previously had little appetite for subdistricts, said Grand Fork GOP Sen. Ray Holmberg, who has served on redistricting committees since 1981. Holmberg said he’s open to considering subdistricts for reservations that contain enough population to do so. Two of the five American Indian reservation in North Dakota — Fort Berthold and Turtle Mountain — have the needed population to split House districts at present, he said.

The Legislature currently has three lawmakers who claim Native American or Alaska Native heritage: Fargo Democratic Rep. Ruth Buffalo, a member of the Three Affiliated Tribes; Minot GOP Sen. Oley Larsen, a member of Alaska’s Sealaska Corp.; and Sen. Richard Marcellais, a Democrat from Belcourt and member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa. Only Marcellais lives on a reservation.

During the Legislature’s redistricting effort in 1991, the Three Affiliated Tribes filed a federal lawsuit in an attempt to force lawmakers to create subdistricts on the Fort Berthold reservation. A federal judge dismissed the lawsuit, saying a subdistrict would lack a majority of American Indian voters.

Faith, the Standing Rock chairman, said American Indians historically have been undercounted during the Census, which he said was especially true in the 2020 effort that was hindered by the pandemic.

The Standing Rock reservation is included in District 31, which contains Mandan, North Dakota's eighth-biggest city. The district is represented by a Republican senator and two GOP House members. None are tribal members.

Standing Rock tribal member Charles Walker said the reservation, which straddles North Dakota and South Dakota, is located within “some of the deepest red states we know.”

Walker called himself a right-leaning moderate but said it was no secret that “Democrats cater to the Native vote. Republicans, not so much.”

Walker, who currently lives on the South Dakota side of the reservation, said he also has lived on the North Dakota side. Republicans rarely, if ever, engage with Native voters on the reservation.

“And yet, we had Democrats pounding on our door,” he said.

Republicans, who wield supermajority control in the North Dakota Legislature, likely would find American Indian voters share some values, if only they weren't overlooked, Walker said.

“We would agree on more things than you probably would think,” he said.