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As voting-rights advocates in Indian Country look to boost Indigenous representation in politics, some say redrawn political maps in Oregon will dilute the power of many Native American voters to elect the candidates who best understand their communities.

At issue is how the state legislative maps, finalized in late September, were drawn for some Oregon tribal communities. Tribal advocates who submitted maps or worked to increase engagement with the process in Indian Country say the new districts will make it nearly impossible to elect candidates representative of those communities at a time when voter-engagement efforts were beginning to make that a possibility.

In Washington, the redistricting commission revised some maps after its initial proposals prompted pushback from tribes and voting-rights advocates.

The criticism comes as groups in Indian Country have been trying to ensure that the nationwide redistricting effort leads to voting districts that are more fairly constructed or allow Indigenous voters more power in electing candidates they believe will best represent them. Redistricting happens only once every 10 years following a U.S. Census effort.

In Oregon’s redrawn House District 57, the finalized maps, which take effect for 2022 elections, essentially eliminated the chance to elect a person of color or tribal member, said Brian Smith, a political consultant and citizen of the Muscogee Nation of Oklahoma. Smith said trends in the district, which includes the Warm Springs Reservation, suggested that a person of color or tribal member had an increasing chance of being elected to the state Legislature. He had hoped that the new maps would even improve those odds, or at the least continue the status quo for Indigenous voting power.

“I didn't expect it to get worse,” he said. “Now you’re definitely not getting someone elected anytime soon.”

Smith worked on behalf of a group, Better Together, to submit map proposals that would better represent tribal nations in Oregon. The focus, he said, was on three of the state’s tribal nations — the Klamath Tribes, Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation and Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs.

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, a Democrat, signed off on the new maps in late September. Although court challenges were discussed as an option during an Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians (ATNI) redistricting briefing on Oct. 14, no litigation was filed on behalf of Indigeous voters in Oregon by the Oct. 25 deadline. Conservative-leaning groups, however, have sued over the new maps. One lawsuit is asking for an Oregon Supreme Court review of the new districts, claiming that the boundaries were politically gerrymandered in favor of Democrats and violate state law.

A history of disenfranchisement in Indian Country

Concerns over the redistricting process disenfranchising tribal communities and Indigenous voters aren’t new, and some groups have worked to raise awareness about the importance of the once-in-a-decade process.

The Native American Rights Fund (NARF) launched an effort this year in six states — Alaska, Arizona, Montana, New Mexico, North Dakota and South Dakota — to help tribal leaders and organizations better advocate for districts that would improve the chances of electing candidates who best represent their interests.

“Historically, we’ve seen a fair amount of gerrymandering within Indian Country,” said NARF staff attorney Matthew Campbell. “Such an important piece of democracy is how the district lines are drawn.”

Redistricting, according to a report by NARF, is just one of the ways Indigenous voters have been disenfranchised. For example, limits on ballot-collection efforts make it more difficult for rural Indigenous people to cast a ballot, and voter-identification requirements sometimes don’t allow for tribal IDs. NARF says the redistricting process has contributed to those obstacles in several ways: by splitting up communities of interest or groups of similar people, packing those same groups into districts to dilute their voting strength and using at-large districts in elections.

“Such an important piece of democracy is how the district lines are drawn.”
-Matthew Campbell

While Campbell, who is an enrolled member of the Native Village of Gambell in Alaska, said NARF’s effort has helped increase awareness and engagement, it’s too early in other states’ redistricting processes to gauge the impact of similar efforts. Concerns over proposed maps have also surfaced in states such as South Dakota and Washington.

In Washington, the state’s redistricting commission, which is tasked with narrowing down proposals to one to submit to the state Legislature, introduced maps that raised concerns from some advocates in Indian Country, like Julie Johnson, chair of the Native American Caucus of the Washington State Democrats. Johnson said the maps, as initially drawn, would have preserved vote-diluting splits on some reservations and removed Debra Lekanoff, a Democrat and the Legislature’s lone Native American lawmaker, from her district, forcing her to run in a new district and face off against an incumbent.

But amid pushback, and tribal consultation, some of the proposals were revised in late October and now keep Lekanoff in the 40th District, though its boundaries were expanded much farther to the east than before. All of the maps also unite the Yakama Indian Reservation into one district, as requested.

The Colville Indian Reservation, however, is now divided into two districts. Johnson, who is Nez Perce, said the split boundaries could result in a situation where tribal members who live on the reservation can’t all vote for a tribal citizen running for office, a situation that Johnson could recall happening at least twice in recent years: when Joe Pakootas noted that only “half” his tribe could vote for him when he ran for Congress in the 6th District in 2016, and when Yvette Joseph confronted the same scenario in her run for state representative.

New maps push out a legislative candidate

At its annual conference in September, ATNI, a nonprofit organization that represents 57 Northwest U.S. tribal governments from Oregon, Washington, Northern California, Southeast Alaska and Western Montana, passed a resolution objecting to the Oregon maps on the grounds that they discriminated against tribal communities in the state. Then, during ATNI’s redistricting briefing on Oct. 14, presenters like Smith and Jaylyn Suppah highlighted how the new maps would dilute voting power for many Native American voters. No court challenges arose out of the concerns, however.

For Suppah, a member of the Confederated Tribes of Warms Springs and a Warm Springs resident, the new maps have forced her to reconsider a run for the state Legislature. Suppah, who narrowly lost a race for a school board seat last year, said the new map for House District 57 would mean running for a seat that includes The Dalles, but not nearby Madras, which is adjacent to the reservation and where many tribal citizens work, live, shop and attend school. Previously, the Warm Springs Reservation and Madras were part of the same district.

“I have decided not to go that route, because of the way the lines are drawn,” said Suppah, who also worked for We Draw Oregon to increase engagement during the redistricting process. “As a leader, I don't feel comfortable trying to represent folks I don't know. I am not a part of those communities.”

U.S. Census workers at a September 2020 drive-through tally in the community of Warm Springs. Brutis Baez/KWSO-FM

Because Madras — where about half of the city’s residents are Latino or Native American — was cut off from the Warm Springs Reservation, it will now be nearly impossible to elect an Indigenous or Latino candidate, Smith said. If not for the new maps, that could have been possible, he said, thanks to years of coalition building, increased voter turnout, registration and election engagement in area communities of color, especially in state legislative elections.

“We’ve actually had our eye on this for a while,” Smith said during the Oct. 14 ATNI briefing. “We were excited about the opportunity for the future in the next 10 years. That didn't happen, clearly.”

Elsewhere in Oregon, Smith told attendees that there appeared to be at least two other instances of racial gerrymandering affecting tribal communities that would dilute their voting power. Voters on the Umatilla Reservation, which sits in House District 58, were cut off from a population of Latino voters broadly sharing similar values in neighboring Hermiston, which was put in House District 57. Farther to the south, the Klamath Tribes had their voting power diluted with the city of Klamath Falls split in two between House Districts 55 and 56 instead of being kept in one district with the town of Chiloquin, where the tribes are headquartered.

There are opportunities, Smith said, when it comes to local, school board and county elections. But instead of running campaigns for Latino or Native American candidates as he had hoped, he’ll pivot his focus for the next decade to educating people about the importance of the redistricting process. His goal is to ensure that individuals, tribes and organizations are more engaged and aggressive in pushing for maps that make it easier to elect candidates who will best represent tribal interests.

Suppah, who also worked to increase Census participation in Indian Country, said she and other advocates have established a solid base to build from to better prepare others to participate in the redistricting process. Work for the next decade, she said, will especially be geared toward youth.

“We need to be ready for redistricting in the next 10 years,” she said. “I think that really comes [down to] bringing that education and awareness into our communities, and then also working with our youth because, in 10 years, those youth are going to be voting adults.”

Lead photo: 2020 Census advertising and outreach campaign launch in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 14, 2020. (Photo by Jourdan Bennett-Begaye/Indian Country Today)

This story is co-published by and Indian Country Today, a news partnership that covers Indigenous communities in the Pacific Northwest. Funding is provided in part by Meyer Memorial Trust.

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ContributorChris previously covered tribal affairs in the Pacific Northwest for Underscore and ICT. He is an enrolled member of the Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians and descendant of the Leech Lake Band...