BISMARCK — Several tribal leaders have urged lawmakers charged with redrawing North Dakota's political map to subdivide state House districts around reservations, which they say would give American Indians a better chance to win seats in the Legislature.

The state redistricting committee met in Bismarck on Wednesday, Sept. 15, to solicit input from tribal representatives as the decennial process ramps up. The committee of 14 Republicans and two Democrats, none of them Native American, must create new districts that are roughly equal in population using fresh figures from the 2020 census.

Collette Brown, the Gaming Commission director for the Spirit Lake Nation, said sticking her tribe's reservation in a larger district with predominantly white rural areas has a "dilutive effect" on the Native American vote and prevents tribal members from electing the candidate of their choice.

To remedy the issue, Brown suggested the panel split the full district in two to include a House district that encompasses the reservation. The practice has already been employed in South Dakota, where two districts are split to accommodate reservations.

Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Chairman Mike Faith made the same request of the committee for the North Dakota portion of his tribe's reservation, noting that several Native American legislative candidates, including himself in 2014, have lost elections to candidates with more appeal to white voters elsewhere in the district. Having a candidate elected from Standing Rock would provide "better representation" for the reservation, where residents have different interests compared to those living in Mandan, a larger city that currently makes up a piece of the district, he added.

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"We’re asking from the Native point of view, at least give us a fighting chance,” Faith said.

The Legislature currently has three members who consider themselves to be Native Americans or Alaska Natives, but only one, Belcourt Democratic Sen. Richard Marcellais, lives on a reservation.

Mark Fox, chairman of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation, has previously advocated for subdividing the Fort Berthold Reservation into a separate House district, though he was not present at Wednesday's meeting. No representative of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa testified on Wednesday.

Committee chairman Rep. Bill Devlin said, for him, creating split House districts is a matter of mathematics. The committee is planning to divide the state into 47 districts, each with a population around 16,600 residents.

Devlin, a Finley Republican, said he supports subdividing House districts for more populous reservations like Fort Berthold, which has more than 8,300 residents, and perhaps the Turtle Mountain Reservation, which has about 5,100 residents.

However, Standing Rock and Spirit Lake each have fewer than 4,000 residents, according to the census, so the reservation populations wouldn't make a majority even in a split House district. For that reason, Devlin said he's not in favor of subdividing districts around the less populous reservations. He noted that the rest of the committee may feel differently.

Members of North Dakota's redistricting committee sit in a meeting at the state Capitol on Aug. 26, 2021. Jeremy Turley / Forum News Service
Members of North Dakota's redistricting committee sit in a meeting at the state Capitol on Aug. 26, 2021. Jeremy Turley / Forum News Service

West Fargo Republican Rep. Austen Schauer questioned whether split House districts would make for better representation since the subdivided area would be losing one of its House members. Bismarck Republican Rep. Mike Nathe also expressed an aversion to the idea, saying split districts have seemingly become popular overnight because national activist groups are pushing them.

Longtime Sen. Ray Holmberg, a Grand Forks Republican who shares Devlin's perspective on split districts, said the Legislature has considered the concept before but shown little interest in implementing it.

Due to pandemic-induced delays in the national headcount, the panel has only a few short months to generate a map before the full Legislature considers the plan, likely during a special session in November.

The committee also reviewed plans Wednesday to redraw districts in the Bismarck area, the Dickinson area and the eastern half of the state. The proposals can be viewed at https://www.legis.nd.gov/assembly/67-2021/session-interim/2021-legislative-redistricting-maps. The panel will meet again Thursday to discuss plans to redistrict the Fargo area.

North Dakota's population has boomed since 2010 as the Fargo area and western Oil Patch saw massive growth. Troy Becker / Forum News Service
North Dakota's population has boomed since 2010 as the Fargo area and western Oil Patch saw massive growth. Troy Becker / Forum News Service