BISMARCK — Now that the North Dakota Legislature approved subdivisions around two of the Native American reservations within the state, many leaders and advocates hope the move will be a first step toward increasing Native representation in state government.

Currently, only three of North Dakota’s 141 voting lawmakers identify as Native American or Alaska Native, one of whom resides on a reservation.

Each of North Dakota’s 47 legislative districts has one senator and two at-large representatives. Under the plan, which both the Senate and House of Representatives approved last week during their special session, the House districts around the Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation and the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation would be divided roughly in half based on population.

One representative would serve an area encompassing most of the Native American population, with the other consisting mostly of non-Natives.

The move is seen by advocates as a way to have a more inclusive state government for North Dakota’s Native American population, which encompasses about 5% of the state’s nearly 780,000 people, according to the 2020 U.S. Census Bureau count.

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“It’s a start for something to be built up on for tribal nations — a more reflective state government. It’s a step in the right direction overall,” said Rep. Ruth Buffalo, D-Fargo, a citizen of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation.

Many tribal leaders, such as MHA Nation Chairman Mark Fox, see having split districts as another step toward strengthening the relationship between tribal nations and North Dakota.

“It’s for the citizens of the state of North Dakota who now have, I hope, a better opportunity to have influence on those who go down to Bismarck to represent our interest,” Fox said.

Tribal nations do not have their own designated U.S. Congress seats, so state government is the one avenue in which tribal nations and reservations can be represented, he said, adding that split districts are an acknowledgement of tribal sovereignty.

South Dakota and Montana both have split districts to accommodate the Native American reservations with which they share borders.

Throughout discussions among lawmakers regarding the redistricting bill last week, multiple legislators expressed their opposition to split districts. Republican Rep. Terry Jones, who represents the city of New Town on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, vehemently opposed the proposal, saying on the House floor that the move would be “racial gerrymandering.”

But advocates for the plan say Native American candidates on reservations have long been shut out because of the non-Native majority.

“All it does for us is it gives an opportunity to have stronger and fairer representation at the state legislative level,” Fox said.

Although the creation of subdistricts for the Fort Berthold and Turtle Mountain Reservations is largely seen as a positive move among the Native populations who live there, advocates are disappointed split districts were not also made for the Spirit Lake Nation and the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.

The state redistricting committee, which was Republican-dominated and had no members who identified as Native American, ultimately ruled out the split districts for Standing Rock and Spirit Lake because the number of people living on each reservation was low.

Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Chairman Jamie Azure and Spirit Lake Nation Chairman Douglas Yankton wrote a letter to the editor earlier this month advocating for the Legislature to create a district encompassing both of their respective reservations because of their close proximity and similar interests.

“When you’re packed in with larger non-Native communities, it’s harder to get anybody from our own communities elected,” said Nicole Donaghy, executive director of North Dakota Native Vote, an organization aimed at bolstering equal representation for Native Americans in the state. “We get packed in these districts and our votes and our voices get diluted.”

Many tribal leaders advocated having redistricting hearings on reservations so the process was more accessible, but none of the meetings were held on the reservations. Donaghy said she’s pleased two reservations have split districts, but she feels the process was rushed and that rural areas should have been more involved.

Buffalo said it’s important to have a tribal citizen represent their own reservation because they will likely better represent constituents' interests.

“They’re going to understand all the on-the-ground issues that have been there for generations,” she said.

Readers can reach reporter Michelle Griffith, a Report for America corps member, at mgriffith@forumcomm.com.