As states set out to redraw political districts, some have worked to better integrate the needs of Native communities.

By Melissa Hellmann | The Center for Public Integrity

The Columbia and Okanogan Rivers to the east, south and west of the Colville Indian Reservation form natural borders on a map of north-central Washington. On the ground, the reservation’s forested hills and lakes juxtaposed with vast grasslands have fueled the tribes’ economic power. 

But invisible borders stymie the reservation’s political power, some tribe members say.

Over the years, the Colville Reservation typically has been broken into multiple state legislative and congressional districts, making it difficult for Native candidates to garner the support of their entire communities.

Yvette Joseph ran as a Democrat in 2004 to represent a Northeast Washington district in the state Legislature, but some members of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation couldn’t vote for her because they lived in another district. Joseph ultimately lost to Republican Joel Kretz by a gap that could not have been closed even if the reservation had not been split. But Joseph said the support of her entire tribe in one district would have been meaningful. 

“Having the tribal members behind me was very important,” Joseph said. “It will always be very important.” 

Yvette Joseph ran as a Democrat in 2004. “Having the tribal members behind me was very important,” Joseph said. (Kauffman & Associates photo)

The Colville Reservation was one of six Washington reservations split during the 2011 redistricting, including the Yakama, Puyallup, Chehalis, Swinomish and Nisqually reservations.

“There’s a general distrust already between Native Americans and the government, more so in some states than others,” said Keaton Sunchild, political director of the Native leadership nonprofit Western Native Voice. Splitting of tribal land across districts, ID requirements in states with primarily in-person voting and other types of voter suppression “just adds to the distrust and leads to apathy and lower voter turnout.”

Without representation, Indigenous communities might not be able to secure funding for needed projects or services, Sunchild said. Earlier in the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, some reservations could not get funds for PPE for doctors and nurses despite the high rate of cases in native communities. 

But some tribal leaders, including Joseph’s brother, Colville Business Council Chairman Andy Joseph Jr., said that being part of multiple legislative and congressional districts expands their representation. 

Regardless of where they land on the drawing of district lines, Native American tribes and organizations throughout the nation are working to ensure that Indigenous voices are heard as states go about drawing political maps that determine who will wield power for the next decade. On tribal lands where 75% of roads that qualify for federal funding remain unpaved and 12% of homes do not have access to sufficient sanitation facilities, the stakes are high.

The Center for Public Integrity interviewed dozens of tribal leaders, organizers and political analysts around the country to examine the impact of redistricting on Native Americans.

In some states, tribes filed lawsuits to ensure their interests were reflected on state maps. But Washington’s redistricting commission adopted a policy last April that guaranteed consultation with the state’s 29 federally recognized tribes, many of which have different needs.

April Sims, one of four members of the state’s redistricting commission. “For time immemorial this was their land, but they were divided in a way that did not allow them to have representation or a voice over what happens and the policies that impact their land,” Sims said. (Washington State Redistricting Commission photo)

“We value our relationship with tribal governments and tribal councils,” said April Sims, one of four members of the state’s redistricting commission, “so that creates a foundation for this likely being one of — if not the first state — to have a process like this.” 

History of voter suppression

Washington’s efforts to engage Native American communities in redistricting mark a significant change for a population that has long been excluded from the political process.

Even though the 15th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, adopted in 1870, allowed citizens to vote regardless of race, some state constitutions, including Washington’s, continued to block the voting rights of “Indians not taxed” — Native Americans who lived among their tribe. The Minnesota state Constitution originally barred Indigenous people from voting unless they proved during an examination before a district court that they “adopted the language, customs and habits of civilization.” 

Mechanisms that excluded Black people from voting in the South — such as literacy tests, poll taxes and intimidation — also were used to exclude Native Americans from the electorate. The Alaska state Constitution, which took effect in 1959, precluded Alaska Natives from voting through a requirement that voters “read or speak” English

It wasn’t until the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 that all Native Americans could cast ballots. Yet other mechanisms, such as ID requirements and gerrymandering — the practice of drawing political lines to favor one political party over another — have continued to dilute Native power to this day, said University of Utah Professor Emeritus Daniel McCool

“The jurisdictions, primarily out West, that have been employing these took their lessons from the Deep South over the years as white Southerners tried every trick in the book to try to diminish the voting power of Blacks,” McCool said. 

Joseph and her family are all too familiar with these issues.

Established by executive order in 1872, the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation consists of 12 bands whose traditional lands spanned the Pacific Northwest. In 1953, Congress passed a resolution urging termination of tribal status and the end of the federal relationship with tribes. Over 100 tribes were terminated under the policy, which Congress officially ended in 1988, and over a million acres of land were removed from protected status. At the time, some members of the Colville Reservation supported terminating the tribe in return for money and regaining a sense of autonomy.

In 1969, Joseph’s family moved back to the Colville Reservation from western Washington to resist termination of the reservation. At just age 12, she put together mailings, helped prepare lunches and held signs to convince members of the confederation to stay together. 

During the 1971 tribal elections, the tribe voted out the pro-termination chairman in favor of a new council that resolved to remain united. 

“If you couldn’t keep the land, what would you have?” Joseph said. 

A Profound Difference 

While gerrymandering has long been used for partisan gain, doing so in a way that disadvantages people based on race violates Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. One way cracks communities of interest into separate districts, diluting their ability to elect a candidate of their choice. Another packs them into one district, limiting their voting power in other districts. 

But proving that such moves violate the Voting Rights Act requires, among other things, demonstrating that a minority group is large enough to form a district

“That sort of standard shuts small communities completely out of political power,” said Colin Cole, policy director at More Equitable Democracy, which advocates for electoral system reforms that increase racial equity. 

But when voting rights cases have been brought, “Native Americans have either won or settled to their advantage,” said the University of Utah’s McCool, who has tracked voting rights cases on Indigenous lands going back to the 1980s.

“So does the Voting Rights Act protect Native voters? There’s roughly 90 situations where it made a profound difference,” he said. 

In the Bone Shirt v. Hazeltine case, a U.S. District Court ruled in 2004 that South Dakota violated the Voting Rights Act by packing the Pine Ridge and Rosebud Indian reservations into a single district that was almost 90% Native American. 

“The people on those reservations deserve to have at least one more person fighting for them in the Legislature,” Bryan Sells, former senior staff attorney in the Voting Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union, said in a statement after the decision

In San Juan County, Utah, the Navajo Nation composed 52% of the population, but was packed into one county commission district. The Nation sued the county in 2012 for minimizing the Native vote.

The tribe won, forcing the county’s district boundaries to be redrawn, and a second Navajo Nation member was elected to the three-member county commission in 2018. 

“That fundamentally altered the policies of the county,” McCool said. The two Democratic Navajo Nation members passed resolutions condemning former President Donald Trump’s reduction of Bears Ears National Monument and successfully petitioned President Joe Biden to restore the original boundary. 

“An important policy change occurred because a minority Native community used the Voting Rights Act to give themselves an equal opportunity to elect candidates of their choice,” McCool said. 

Seeking representation in Yakima

Washington’s Yakima region has faced its own voting rights challenges over the years, including one lawsuit over its at-large voting system.

Redistricting has been another challenge for the area, where the 1.13 million-acre Yakama Reservation is tucked between the Yakima River to the east and the snow-capped Pahto, or Mount Adams, to the west. The 2017 per-capita income for Native Americans on the reservation was $12,280, less than half the U.S. per-capita income. 

Like the Colville Reservation, it too was divided into districts at both the state and federal level.

But unlike the Colville tribal leaders, the Yakama Nation pushed for consolidation.

“Today’s districts harm the Yakama Nation’s ability to engage and benefit from the political process,” Delano Saluskin, the Yakama Nation Tribal Council’s chairman, wrote in a letter to the state’s redistricting commission. 

Many Yakama Nation members also live at nearby fishing areas along the Columbia River, on homesteads and trust parcels separated from the main reservation. Saluskin urged the commission not to separate Indigenous voters living south of the reservation.

To comply with the federal Voting Rights Act, the Yakima area’s legislative district needed to have a majority of people of color, a report commissioned by Washington state Senate Democrats found. 

University of California, Los Angeles professor Matt Barreto, who did the analysis and runs UCLA’s Voting Rights Project, proposed a legislative district that included the Yakima Valley and the entire Yakama Reservation, an area with about 8% of the voting age population Native American and over 50% Latino. Latino and Native American voters share similar candidate preferences compared to white voters in the region.

As the Yakama Nation’s legislative liaison, the late Mathew Tomaskin worked to ensure that tribal members were counted in the 2010 and 2020 censuses and advocated for the Nation to be unified into one district. Tomaskin died in September before the redistricting process was complete. 

“There’s real people’s lives that matter and injustices that, when they take too long to be resolved, mean that some people will never get that justice,” said Kamau Chege, managing director of Washington Census Alliance. “Matt Tomaskin will never get that.” 

But the tribe will. The Yakama Reservation was unified into one legislative and one congressional district on the approved maps. 

Redistricting on Native American land

Similar scenarios have played out around the country as states created new congressional and legislative maps. Throughout the process, the Native American Rights Fund has worked with tribal members and leaders in states with large Native populations on the importance of redistricting and its impact on representation while also gearing up for litigation. 

Last month, tribes in North Dakota sued the state for drawing boundaries that split the Spirit Lake Nation from the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, instead of putting the two tribes into one legislative district as they requested. Additionally, the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians was packed into one subdistrict, so Native voters have the opportunity to elect a candidate of their choice for only one of the two House seats in their district.

“Native communities are communities of interest that should be kept together if they want to be,” said Matt Campbell, staff attorney with NARF, one of the groups representing the North Dakota tribes. “If you’re not able to elect your state senator or house representative member of choice and they don’t need your vote to get elected, they may not be concerned about you as a constituency and make it a priority to provide funding for tribal votes, tribal education or tribal housing.” 

For instance, Native Americans have the second highest rate of homelessness in the nation, behind Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders.

Around the nation, new lawsuits are again arguing Native Americans are not fairly represented. But a few recent decisions have not favored tribes. 

In December, the Coeur d’Alene Tribe and the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes in Idaho filed a joint lawsuit against the state’s redistricting commission for splitting their reservations into multiple legislative districts. The Idaho Supreme Court ruled to uphold the maps in late January

The Calista Alaska Native Regional Corp. and two of its shareholders filed a lawsuit in December against Alaska’s redistricting board for drawing state district lines that failed to group together the region’s villages into house districts based on socio-economic ties. Last month, a Superior Court in Anchorage rejected Calista’s claim

Meanwhile, Native groups have pushed state redistricting commissions and legislatures to include tribes in the mapping process.

An equal voice

Washington state did just that this year. The Washington state Constitution and state statutes require districts to have as equal populations as possible, and lines should be drawn to recognize the boundaries of communities of interest — areas where residents have similar political interests. 

The move by the redistricting commission to consult with tribes was modeled after a 2019 policy change by state Attorney General Bob Ferguson, requiring his office to have a formal consultation process with Native American tribes prior to making any decisions that affect them. 

The process involved education on treaties and tribal interests from the Governor’s Office of Indian Affairs and several tribes. Over several months, the commissioners held virtual or in-person consultations with eight tribes to learn their redistricting interests.

As the first Black woman appointed to the commission, Sims said tribal sovereignty and including the voices of other communities marginalized in the redistricting process was important to her. She credits the prioritization of tribal voices to the most diverse commission in its history.

“For time immemorial this was their land, but they were divided in a way that did not allow them to have representation or a voice over what happens and the policies that impact their land,” Sims said.

Along with the late Tomaskin, Joseph worked with a redistricting coalition in Washington to advocate for their respective tribes to have unified districts. During a May 22 virtual public meeting of the Washington State Redistricting Commission, Joseph sat behind her computer screen, surrounded by political posters that read “Native Americans for Biden” and “Love Trumps Hate.” Her long white hair was pulled to one side, exposing a small picture of her grandaunt — former Colville Tribal Business Chairwoman Lucy Covington — on the wall behind her. 

“It’s crucial that Native Americans and Alaska Natives have an equal voice in redistricting, and it helps to give the voters the ability to elect candidates of their choice,” Joseph said during the meeting.

About a dozen people called for consolidating the Colville Reservation, where the 2018 per-capita income was $17,846 – less than a third that of Washington state. Colville Tribal member Jonnie Bray also spoke at the meeting, recalling when the reservation was one district. “I would like to see that changed back so that we can all vote together,” Bray said. “We’re all one tribe, and you’ve divided us in two.” 

But on Sept. 9, the Colville Business Council, the reservation’s governing body, unanimously adopted a resolution asking the Washington State Redistricting Commission to keep the reservation split. “The tribes work with elected officials in both parties to address needs related to the pandemic, wildfires, broadband connectivity, and other issues critical to our tribal communities,” Colville Business Council Chairman Andy Joseph Jr. said in a statement. “Being a constituent of multiple congressional and state representatives means that the Colville Tribes is [in] a stronger position to advance these issues.”

Commissioner Sims said she was surprised that the Colville Tribes wanted to remain split, since the coalition Redistricting Justice for Washington and those testifying at the public commission meetings, including Yvette Joseph, had called for the reservation to be united. 

The commission submitted its final maps to the state Legislature on Nov. 16, one day after the state’s deadline. The delay ceded responsibility to the Washington Supreme Court, which approved the commission’s maps on Dec. 3. While consolidated into one legislative district, the Colville Reservation remained split into two congressional districts. Of the other reservations split in 2011, all remain separated into multiple districts on the finalized maps, except the Yakama Reservation. The state Legislature adopted the final maps on Feb. 8.

But still, redistricting in Washington has come under scrutiny.

Voters in Yakima Valley filed a lawsuit in federal court in January contending that the redistricting commission violated the Voting Rights Act by diluting Latino voting power. By drawing district lines that excluded politically active Latino communities and instead included white rural communities in the 15th Legislative District, they argued, the commission will prevent Latino voters from electing a candidate of their choice. 

Plaintiffs sued the speaker of the State House of Representatives, the State Senate majority leader and the secretary of state, all of whom requested to be dismissed from the case because they were not the proper defendants. In response, the non-voting chair of the redistricting commission, Sarah Augustine resigned last week. The redistricting commission decided not to intervene in the case.

Augustine’s resignation “was unexpected,” the commission’s executive director Lisa McLean said in an interview. 

Augustine called the maps a compromise of multiple interests, including the tribes’. By not defending the maps, the state authorities named in the case have left the Latino community and Yakama Nation to “fight it out on the ground,” Augustine said in an interview. “To honor the sovereignty of tribes and then to dismiss their interests by not defending the compromise, what does that say?” 

Transparency advocates filed lawsuits late last year, arguing that the redistricting commission violated the state’s public meetings law by secretly negotiating the political maps. 

In a consent decree and settlement agreement announced in late February, the commission agreed to pay over $137,000 in fines and legal costs. The decree requires all current and future commissioners to undergo open government training. The court denied the plaintiffs’ request to invalidate the final maps. 

‘Tribes know best their circumstances’ 

New Mexico also included Native communities as it set about drawing new district maps. The Redistricting Act required 12 public meetings during the process throughout the state, with at least two on tribal lands. 

Native leaders worked eight months on proposed maps, reviewing voting and redistricting in New Mexico’s northwestern quadrant, where the most Native Americans in the state reside. The district maps approved by the state Legislature in December reflected their proposal, preserving six state House districts and three Senate districts with a majority Native electorate.

“The state has taken a historical step forward to recognize tribal sovereignty, to recognize that tribes know best their circumstances relating to their communities and their voting patterns,” said All Pueblo Council of Governors’ Policy Coordinator Teran Villa. 

But in Oregon, tribal interests were not reflected in the final maps, said Brian Smith, a political consultant who worked with tribes on redistricting proposals. 

The land east of the Cascades is home to the Klamath Tribes — the Klamath, Modoc and Yahooskin-Paiute people — whose traditional land is in modern-day Southern Oregon and Northern California. Split by state district lines since the 2010 census, the Klamath tribal communities have struggled to elect Native members to government.

Working with tribal leaders, Smith proposed that the city of Klamath Falls, where a large population of the Klamath Tribes live, be united into one legislative district with the tribal administrative center. In north-central Oregon, he proposed that the Warm Springs Reservation join the city of Madras, where a large Latino population and many tribal members live. 

In the end, the Legislature approved maps that split the Klamath Tribes community in half and separated the Warm Springs Reservation from the city of Madras. 

‘The power of our vote’ 

From her home in Spokane, where she serves as a Washington State Democratic Party committee member, Joseph sat in her office chair flanked by black lamps. Reflecting on the lengthy redistricting process, she was excited that the Colville Reservation is now unified into one legislative district for the first time in at least three decades. 

The news inspired her to consider running for the Legislature again. A social worker by training, Joseph said her platform would be improved infrastructure and wildfire management, as well as better dental care and cancer treatment in Eastern Washington. 

Flashing a dimpled smile, Joseph, who is 64, said she worries that age discrimination could keep her from winning office. Her jovial eyes gleamed behind black-framed glasses. 

Admittedly disappointed that the reservation is still split into multiple congressional districts, she sees an opportunity for a candidate of color in the newly drawn District 4, which runs through farmland with large Latino communities. 

Joseph said she will continue to advocate for Native Americans to get involved with the electoral process, from voting to running for office.

“If we don’t start using the power of our vote, we won’t see any change,” Joseph said.

This story was published in partnership with The Center for Public Integrity.

FEATURED IMAGE: About a mile outside of Nespelem, Washington sits an old, abandoned cabin surrounded by tall grass in the Nespelem Valley on the Colville Indian Reservation. (Shane Moses)