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No Redistricting Without Native Representation

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Every two years, Montanans who are elected from their communities travel from all over Montana to gather at the State Capitol to convene the Montana Legislature. During our time together, we work to deliver legislation that will help Montanans, including funding for our schools and hospitals, protecting our public lands, and keeping our economy strong. As a member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, a Montananan, and a state Senator, I know firsthand the importance of having a fully representative legislative body at work in those halls. That’s why we must adopt a map with fair, legal legislative districts, during the current legislative redistricting process in Montana. 

The districts we draw this year will shape our lives and our communities for the next decade, including how resources are allocated and what issues are brought to the table during the legislature. Right now, the Montana Redistricting Commission is working on a new map for Montana that will portion out the districts for Montana’s legislators and the areas they will represent, including the districts that encompass tribal nations. Of our current legislative districts, there are 6 House districts and 3 Senate districts where Native voters have the opportunity to elect someone from their communities to represent them. Now that the legislative district lines are being redrawn, the number of Indigenous majority districts is uncertain.

Native Americans were not considered citizens for most of our country’s history and thus not granted the right to vote. It wasn’t until 1924 that Native Americans were finally granted citizenship. Even after that law was passed, some states worked to restrict Native voting rights–an effort that we see continue today. So when Representative Brad Tschida told the Redistricting Commission that he believed Native Americans were overrepresented in the legislature, it felt like one more piece of rhetoric in a long line of efforts meant to disenfranchise Native voters.

It should go without saying that fair legislative districts should be the norm across the state, especially for areas of underrepresented communities. Native folks have historically been underrepresented in Montana’s legislature. It wasn’t until 1932 that Montana elected its first Native legislator, Dolly Smith Cusker Akers from Fort Peck, to our state legislature—nearly 43 years after Montana became a state and almost a decade after Native Americans secured the right to vote from federal legislation. According to self-reported statistics from the Montana Legislative Services Division, it was not until 2001 that Montana elected our first Native state senator. Far from being overrepresented in the state legislature, we have had to fight for many years for any political representation.

When pressed about his comments, Representative Tschida said that life’s not fair. While he may be comfortable telling that to school age children when they have skirmishes on the playground, it’s not a statement that we should abide by when it comes to determining the people we elect to represent us. Life may not be fair, but it is the job of our representatives to come up with solutions to the challenges that make life unfair for many people in this state. I know this firsthand as a member of the Indian Caucus. When I go to the legislature, I’m there to fight for people in my community and the issues they face, especially those who are often ignored by people in power. For far too long, decisions have been made about Indian County by people who do not understand the history nor the challenges of tribal communities and Indian people. We need Native legislators to bring our unique perspectives and experiences to the legislative process for all of Montana. Like our fellow legislators across the state, we want better schools, better jobs, and better opportunities for our constituents, our families, and our communities. 

Whether intentional or not, creating legislative districts that would guarantee Native voters cannot elect their candidates of choice is wrong for Montana and our legislature. It shouldn’t matter where you live or what you look like, all Montanans deserve to be represented in our legislature and adopting a fair and legal map that reflects the communities of Montana, including Native ones, is the right thing to do.

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