Mary Annette Pember
Indian Country Today


Native people’s dramatic population increase is unlikely to bring them more political power.

The 2020 census showed a whopping 86.5 percent jump in the Native population from the numbers recorded in the 2010 census.

Overall, 2020 U.S. Census data shows that the U.S. has grown more racially diverse. The non-Hispanic White population dropped for the first time on record, according to the Census Bureau.

Since Census data is used to redraw the country’s political maps, one might assume that Native people and other voters of color will gain more power in electing congressional representatives who reflect America’s population. There is a 0.747 percent Native representation in Congress. Currently, 77 percent of both chambers’ voting members are non-Hispanic White.

But that’s not necessarily so, according to Native voting rights advocates. The reasons are complicated, some related to alleged undercounts by the 2020 Census of Native people living on tribal lands and some by states’ redistricting rules.

Every 10 years, states and local governments use census data to redraw voting districts. Since 2020 census data was released six months late because of COVID-19 and how the Trump administration ran the survey, states have only a few weeks to act before the 2022 elections formally kick off with deadlines to file to run in state primaries.

Both Republicans and Democrats are planning for major showdowns in court over how the maps are drawn.

Unfortunately, redistricting is often waylaid by racial discrimination and partisan manipulation, as those in power draw maps to manufacture outcomes to their own advantage — a practice called gerrymandering, according to the nonprofit Brennen Center for Justice in New York.

Traditionally, state legislatures have been responsible for redistricting, which unsurprisingly lends more authority to the political party holding the majority of offices in a state. Although the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a series of decisions in the 1960s that states should redistrict in a way that ensures equal populations among districts, the process often lacks transparency and opportunities for citizen input.

 In the redistricting process, states redraw new congressional and state legislative districts using a variety of methods to do so. In drawing congressional districts, 33 states use legislatures, eight states use commissions and two use a hybrid system in which legislatures share the authority with commissions. The remaining states contain only one congressional district. In state redistricting, 33 states use legislatures as the dominant players, 14 states use commissions and three use a hybrid method.

 South Dakota, for instance, uses its legislature to redraw state districts, since the state contains only one congressional district, congressional redistricting is unnecessary. In some states, including those with large Native populations, voters are calling for creation of redistricting commissions rather than leaving the job to legislatures. A group led by the League of Women Voters is calling for South Dakota to adopt an independent redistricting commission.

Montana uses an independent commission to draw both congressional and state districts. “In Montana we have a five-member redistricting commission, two are selected by the majority party, two by the minority; the fifth member is picked by the other four. The state supreme court serves as a tiebreaker,” said Ta’Jin Perez, deputy director of Western Native Voice, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization based in Billings, Montana, that is working to increase Native American participation in voting.

A handful of states require redistricting to be carried out in a way that groups together “communities of interest.” Communities of interest is a broad term that defines people who share historical, economic and cultural similarities.

Matthew Campbell, staff attorney with the Native American Rights Fund, said tribes are communities of interest and should be kept together.

“Some communities may be off or near a reservation; some cities or towns may be near to reservation boundaries and should be included,” said Campbell, a citizen of the Native Village of Gambell.

Although gerrymandering by race is constitutionally illegal, the Supreme Court ruled in 2019 that claims of unconstitutional partisan gerrymandering are not subject to federal court review in the case, Rucho v. Common Cause.

Both Democrats and Republicans are preparing for a complex legal battle over redistricting. Federal courts, newly hostile to claims of unconstitutional partisan gerrymandering, and state courts could create a patchwork of rulings. Democrats are at a significant disadvantage this year. They control line-drawing in states with 75 House seats, while the GOP controls the process in states with 187 seats.

“After there is a big voter turnout by either party during an election, you see the losing party engaging in partisan gerrymandering,” said O.J. Semans, executive director of Four Directions, Inc. a Native voting rights advocacy organization. Semans is a citizen of the Rosebud Sioux tribe.

This year is especially contentious in states with large Native populations. Record turnout of Native voters in several states helped tip the scales in favor of President Joe Biden in 2020. In Arizona, a state that hasn’t supported a Democrat in the White House since 1996, it was the Native vote on tribal lands that helped propel Biden to victory.

“Native people vote on issues not parties; the reason you see a lot of blue (Democrats) in Indian Country is because they are the people who are addressing Native issues,” Semans said.

Although Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham announced a total response rate to be more than 99 percent, many Native leaders and voting advocates expressed concern that the 2020 Census severely undercounted people living on tribal lands.

“The undercount of Native people in Montana is significant; there are many rural tribal nations that were undercounted despite what the census claims,” Perez said.

Many tribes closed their borders to outsiders during the pandemic, and the Census Bureau failed to hire local people from tribes, according to Perez, a citizen of the Tutunacu tribe of Mexico. He blamed the bureau’s upper-level bureaucracy for creating policies that often deterred local people from getting jobs, requiring them to apply online and travel long distances to get fingerprinted.

Native people make up about 7 percent of the population in Montana.

“Even outside of the pandemic, many people in our tribal communities are unlikely to open the door for outsiders; they’re going to think the census workers are process servers or missionaries,” he said.

“Anecdotally, we’re hearing that the Census Bureau closed out cases after one or two attempts to make contact,” Perez added.

In tribal communities where more than one household may live in a single home, this amounts to a significant undercount.

Western Native Voice is also advocating for the prison population to be allocated to their respective home districts rather than the location of the facility. “According to our databases, there is a disproportionate number of Native people in prisons,” Perez said.

Western Native Voice and other Native voting rights organizations are working with the Native American Rights Fund on a project called Fair Districting in Indian Country in which they are using mapping software to help better define communities.

“We’ve noticed differences in the annual American Community Survey data and the 2020 census numbers that have raised some red flags for us,” said Cloe Cotton, a fellow with the Native American Rights Fund.

The Census Bureau gathers yearly population data from more than 3.5 million households for the American Community Survey.

“The survey doesn’t aim to be a full count but we noticed that several precincts that are heavily Native American reported higher numbers in the 2019 Survey; this discrepancy makes us want to take a closer look,” Cotton said.

“Historically it’s always been difficult to get a full census count in Indian Country. Although tribes did a lot of really good work in trying to get people counted, the data collection was hindered by the pandemic,” Cotton said.

The 2010 census undercounted Native Americans and Alaska Natives living on reservations or in Native villages by 4.9 percent, according to the Census Bureau.

The National Congress of American Indians is analyzing and assessing the quality and usability of the census data especially for small, remote populations. Researchers there expressed concern that the 2020 census’ privacy measure may cause problems with the quality of data. Especially in small rural communities, increased privacy measures intended to safeguard individual identities may actually hide some people from inclusion in the final count. 

According to its website, NCAI is a part of the Coalition Hub Advancing Redistricting and Grassroots Engagement initiative, conducting trainings for tribal communities to encourage their participation in state and local redistricting efforts. In addition to the redistricting process, census data will be important for tribal nations in federal funding formulas, local tribal governance and research. NCAI will be posting updates on its Policy Research Center website in coming weeks.

Tribes are also in the process of comparing their population numbers to the Census 2020 data.

Tight schedule

Since the 2020 census data release date was pushed half a year later, states have little time to redraw the congressional lines.

In South Dakota, the Senate and House Legislative Redistricting Committee is responsible for determining districts and must complete their work by Nov. 8 before a special session of the Legislature convenes.

According to 2020 Census data, about 11 percent of South Dakota’s population is Native American yet they make up only 4 percent of the state Legislature.

Democrats make up 10 percent of the state’s legislative seats, allowing them only two seats on the redistricting committee. Areas with large Native populations have often sent Democrats to the Statehouse. This presents one of the largest redistricting challenges.

Semans claims that South Dakota has a history of gerrymandering districts with large Native American populations, either crowding them into a single district or watering down populations over several districts in order to reduce their influence in elections and to keep Native candidates from winning.

The redistricting committee is holding two days of public hearings throughout the state.

“We are fighting with the redistricting committee because we want them to hold at least one of the public hearings in a tribal office. We’ve made requests in writing and orally but they’ve basically ignored us,” Semans said.

One of the hearings will be held in Mission on the Rosebud tribal lands but will take place in a restaurant.

Holding hearings in a tribal office would attract more public participation, according to Semans.

Any state with a large Native population needs to be on continual watch against efforts to disenfranchise or diminish Native voters and voters, Semans says.

“If there is a possibility to attend a redistricting hearing, Native people should go; if they need guidance please reach out to Four Directions, the Native American Rights Fund or other advocacy organizations,” Semans said.

Although the redistricting process may sound complicated, it’s important for people to engage with their state commissions.

“We encourage people to provide public comments and tell their story as to why local representation is important and what they want to see in their community,” Perez said.

The large increase in the Native American population is unlikely to help candidates like Rep. Sharice Davids D-Kansas, Semans said.

The state’s 3rd Congressional District, represented by Rep. Davids, a citizen of the Ho-Chunk Nation, is now overpopulated, according to the 2020 Census.

Democrats fear the Republican-controlled Legislature will use the data to divide the Democratic stronghold of Wyadotte County, now part of the 3rd district.

“The Republicans want to get rid of Davids simply because she’s a Democrat and a woman of color,” Semans said.

The Native population in Kansas remains small, 1.1 percent, even after accounting for the national increase and is unlikely to have a significant impact on Rep. David’s reelection.

New Mexico

Native communities across New Mexico are putting the finishing touches on proposed redistricting maps aimed at greater self-determination in future public elections, as competing plans wind their way toward the Legislature for consideration.

Participants in a redistricting commission for New Mexico's Indigenous pueblo communities said Friday that map proposals may be finalized as soon as next week.

The maps will be submitted to a seven-member Citizen Redistricting Commission that is reviewing and vetting redistricting maps for the Legislature, which can adopt recommendations or start from scratch. The seven-seat commission has no Native American representation.

New Mexico is home to 23 federally recognized tribes, whose growing political clout is reflected in the election of Laguna Pueblo tribal member Deb Haaland to Congress in 2016 and her promotion this year to Secretary of the Interior.

Attorney Joseph Little is working with a broad alliance of Native American communities to turn redistricting principles into action using results of the 2020 census to track population changes.

The share of New Mexico residents who identify themselves as Indigenous by race or by combined ancestry was 12.4 percent according to census results announced in August. Alaska was the most predominantly Native American state, followed by Oklahoma and then New Mexico.

At the same time, Native politicians have ascended to top legislative leadership posts on committees overseeing taxation, Indian affairs, agriculture and elections, though some frustrations persist about the distribution of state resources to tribal communities.

In April, New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, signed a bill that funnels more federal “impact aid” to schools in Native American communities to offset property tax losses on tax-exempt federal and tribal lands.

State Rep. Georgene Louis of Acoma Pueblo on Friday commended tribal communities for their engagement in the redistricting process.

“In New Mexico, I think we’re very fortunate, where the tribes are very active in looking at how we can ensure that we’re involved in the process about selecting our own representatives that will then hold the state accountable," she said.

Native population growth

But what accounts for the dramatic national increase in the Native population? Demographers are unsure.

Part of the reason may be because the U.S. is becoming more multiracial. The new census racial categories differed substantially from those in the 2010 allowing respondents to claim more than one race.

Some experts think the increase may represent the difference in how Americans define themselves. Others speculate that the popularity of at-home DNA testing may be a factor. Respondents identifying as both Native American and White represented 26 percent of the multiracial category, according to the data analytics company Social Explorer.

“Everyone wants to be Native until they have to live on a reservation,” quipped Semans.

Regardless of the change in population numbers, however, Native Americans and people of color in general face increased efforts to disenfranchise them from voting, according to Perez.

The recent Supreme Court’s decision in Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee upheld Arizona laws discounting ballots cast out of precinct and banning nonrelative neighbors from delivering mail in ballots. The Montana legislature enacted two laws seen as hindering Native voting, ending same day registration organized efforts to collect ballots on reservations.

The ongoing practice of taking states or counties to court over redistricting issues reflects a status quo that is very rooted in protecting White political supremacy, according to Perez.

“Folks who subscribe to the more conservative side of politics are brought into a sort of cultural war with the notion that their identity as White people is being erased; if people of color are given rights to equal representation, they see it as taking something away from them,” Perez said.

The U.S. Census Bureau, provided a statement via email, “The U.S. Census Bureau’s goal each decade is to produce complete and accurate census data. Counting everyone once, only once and in the right place is a daunting challenge even under the best of circumstances. Despite facing a pandemic, natural disasters and other unforeseen challenges, the 2020 Census results thus far are in line with overall benchmarks.”

“We worked closely with tribal and Alaska Native governments while adapting our operations to ensure a complete count during an unprecedented time. Between March and July, we sent multiple mailings and reminders to nonresponsive households. We also distributed paper questionnaires across the U.S., which were hand delivered on most tribal lands. In September, our director reached directly out to tribal communities, urging them to respond. The Census Bureau employed an extensive quality assurance program designed to ensure that cases were not, in fact, closed out prematurely. We will continue to evaluate the 2020 Census through the post enumeration survey.”

Article has been changed to attribute statement to the U.S. Census Bureau

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The Associated Press contributed to this story.