BISMARCK, N.D. — A panel of lawmakers putting the final touches on North Dakota’s new legislative map delayed action Tuesday on a proposal to create separate House districts on two of the state’s five American Indian reservations.
Some members of the 14-member Republican-led committee said they wanted more legal guidance before voting on the motion. The committee is scheduled to meet again Wednesday.
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.
Some North Dakota tribal leaders appealed to lawmakers this month to split legislative House districts that include reservations, a move they believe will increase the odds for electing American Indians to the Legislature.
Tribal leaders say such an arrangement would result in better representation and communication in the Legislature, where Republicans wield supermajority control.
Only two of the five American Indian reservation in North Dakota — Fort Berthold and Turtle Mountain — have the needed population to split House districts, which is about 8,450 people at present.
Grand Fork GOP Sen. Ray Holmberg, who has served on redistricting committees since 1981 said the Legislature may have no choice to create subdistricts on the qualifying reservations to meet federal law.
“I’m not a fan of subdistricts,” Holmberg said. “Sometimes you do have to respect reality.”
Holmberg said the subdistricts likely would be created by the courts if the Legislature fails to create them.
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 now oil-rich Fort Berthold reservation. A federal judge dismissed the lawsuit, saying a subdistrict would lack a majority of American Indian voters.
Holmberg said subdistricts on Turtle Mountain and Fort Berthold now “appear to meet that threshold.”
“At the end of the day, I believe it will happen,” Holmberg told the committee.
GOP Rep. Terry Jones, whose current district is part of the Fort Berthold reservation, urged the redistricting panel to scrap the idea of subdistricts, calling it “nothing more than an attempt to divide us, rather than unify us.”
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.
South Dakota already has special subdistricts aimed at giving American Indians a better chance at additional representation in its state Legislature. One of them includes all of the Cheyenne River and part of the Standing Rock Sioux Indian reservations. Another includes the Rosebud Indian Reservation.