Panel creates subdistricts for 2 North Dakota reservations


Associated Press

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) – The Republican-led committee rearranging the boundaries of North Dakota’s new legislative map decided Wednesday to separate House districts on two American Indian reservations in the state, a move tribal leaders believe will increase the odds for electing their own members to the Legislature. 

The chairmen of two other tribes told The Associated Press that a lawsuit is likely because their reservations were not divided into so-called subdistricts in the newest map of legislative districts.

“We’re going to definitely challenge it and probably will do a lawsuit,” Standing Rock Sioux Chairman Mike Faith said.

Spirit Lake Chairman Douglas Yankton agreed. “We are all on the same page about redistricting,” he said.

The redistricting committee, which has 14 Republicans and two Democrats, voted 10-6 to create House subdistricts on the Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation in northern North Dakota, and the Fort Berthold reservation, in the heart of the state’s oil patch in the western part of the state.

The Turtle Mountain reservation is home to the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa and Fort Berthold is home to the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation, also known as the Three Affiliated Tribes.

Those were the only tribes that occupy American Indian reservations in the state that had the needed population to qualify under the Federal Voting Rights Act for split House districts, which is about 8,450 people at present for each divided district. 

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.

North Dakota tribal leaders appealed to lawmakers this month to split legislative House districts that include reservations.

North Dakota Native Vote Executive Director Nicole Donaghy has told the committee that subdistricts would allow “tribal members to elect the candidate of their choice.”

Donaghy told the AP she was disappointed the redistricting panel did not include Spirit Lake and Standing Rock Sioux tribes. Spirit Lake is in northeastern North Dakota, while Standing Rock straddles the North Dakota-South Dakota border.

“I know that Standing Rock and Spirit Lake are not protected under the Voting Rights Act,” said Donaghy, a member of the Standing Rock tribe. “But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have a subdistrict.”

The redistricting plan was drafted over the past several weeks and was largely finalized last week, creating three new districts in the state’s fastest-growing areas but erasing an equal amount in some rural regions. The task was required due to population shifts shown by the 2020 federal census. 

The issue of split districts on reservations was a sticking point. Even some lawmakers who voted for the split districts did so grudgingly, believing it could fend off lawsuits.

Finley GOP Rep. Bill Devlin, chairman of the committee, told the AP that a legal challenge from tribes is not unexpected. 

“We did our due diligence,” Devlin said. “Where there was population to create subdistricts, we created subdistricts. Where there wasn’t, we didn’t.”

During the Legislature’s redistricting effort in 1991, the Three Affiliated Tribes filed a federal lawsuit seeking to force lawmakers to create subdistricts on the Fort Berthold reservation. A judge dismissed the lawsuit, saying a subdistrict would lack a majority of American Indian voters.

The GOP-controlled Legislature will finish the redistricting job during a special or reconvened session this fall. The full Legislature must approve the plan, and the governor must sign off on it.