‘Don’t lessen our power’: Tribal voters wait to see how redistricting treats them

By: - December 15, 2021 4:32 pm

Volunteers with Northeast Arizona Native Democrats talk with potential Native voters in Window Rock, Arizona, about the congressional and legislative map redistricting. Photo courtesy Northeast Arizona Native Democrats

With no real public education campaign in place to let Arizonans know even the basics of redistricting, the work of educating voters about the once-a-decade process of redrawing Arizona’s political boundaries fell to advocacy groups.

And for groups that work in Arizona’s rural Native American communities, that work was even harder. The Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission’s outreach efforts and work has been done almost entirely online, making it largely inaccessible to many who live on tribal lands, where large swaths of the state lack access to high-speed internet. 

“We were like, we just have to get people out there to do it, because no one else is going to do it,” said Navajo County Democrats Executive Director Jaynie Parrish.

And that’s just what they did.


Because there was no official public education campaign to explain the convoluted redistricting process to Arizona voters, Parrish and other workers with the Northeast Arizona Native Democrats had to first teach themselves about redistricting — which happens following the decennial census — and then devise ways to explain it to people who aren’t politically engaged.

They developed their own educational materials. They printed out maps of the current congressional and legislative districts to show people. They even wrote the names of current elected leaders for the districts.

Then they set up booths at flea markets or in parking lots in Hopi, Navajo and Apache communities to talk with potential Native voters about their rights and introduce them to Arizona’s redistricting process. Many of the people that visited their booths had “no idea what redistricting is and what the maps even look like,” Parrish said.

There's already a lot of voter apathy. If these maps go through as they are, it's just going to promote more of that, because people are not going to believe that their vote counts or that it matters.

– Jaynie Parrish, Navajo County Democrats

Parrish they’d even start off with asking people if they participated in the 2020 Census, and then share how that is directly connected to the redistricting process.

“You just had to take the time with people,” Parrish said because within a lot of rural Indigenous communities, access to a phone, computer and the internet is not readily available.

So, they had to find ways to reach people while they visited their booths. They would show them paper maps, ask them to draw their own districts and they even had paper forms for public comment they could sign. 

Once they did connect with Native voters in these communities, Parrish said they understood that their voting rights were in trouble. Many were frustrated that this is just another way to take away their voting rights.

“These are generational fights for us,” Parrish said. “Getting the right to vote, keeping it (and), maintaining it is ongoing.”

Volunteers with Northeast Arizona Native Democrats talk with potential Native voters in Window Rock, Arizona, about the congressional and legislative map redistricting. Photo courtesy Northeast Arizona Native Democrats

Will Native American voters be in the driver’s seat or along for the ride?

An issue for the Navajo, Hopi and Apache voters that the Northeast Arizona Native Democrats were speaking to is the proposed dilution of their voting power. The Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission’s draft maps for both the state’s 30 legislative districts and nine congressional districts — which will be used for the next decade — weaken the influence that Native American voters will have on who gets elected.

For instance, the congressional map’s District 2 includes 14 tribes in northern, eastern and central Arizona, and those tribal members make up about 20% of the district’s population. But while the existing district it would replace includes more tribal communities and is a bona fide swing district — Democrats hold a slight voter registration edge over Republicans, but voters backed GOP presidential candidates in 2012 and 2016, even as they elected Democrats to Congress — the proposed new district drawn by the redistricting panel would be solidly Republican because it includes all of heavily GOP Yavapai County and not just the deeply blue communities in the Verde Valley, like the current map does.

And on the legislative map, the proposed District 6 wraps the Navajo and Hopi nations into a district with Flagstaff. That’s a departure from the current map, which separated Flagstaff from tribal lands and instead linked the largely white, liberal city with Payson in a marginally competitive district.

The results in both cases will curtail the ability of Indigenous voters to choose who will represent them, critics say.

“Don’t diminish the Native American voting bloc. Don’t lessen our power. Don’t break up the tribes,” Parrish said. “There’s already a lot of voter apathy. If these maps go through as they are, it’s just going to promote more of that, because people are not going to believe that their vote counts or that it matters.”

Native American reservations are the most rural in the state. You can't say that Native American reservations aren't rural.

– Patty Ferguson-Bohnee, ASU Indian Legal Clinic, on rural non-Natives who said they don't share interests with tribal voters

Patty Ferguson-Bohnee, director of Arizona State University’s Indian Legal Clinic, said the AIRC must draw a Native American majority-minority district on the legislative map — such a district currently exists and the Voting Rights Act prohibits states from eliminating such districts — but isn’t required to do so on the congressional map.

She said the current draft map, which places Flagstaff and tribal reservations in the same district, tilts the political power away from the Native American voters. 

And it’s not just speculation: Ferguson-Bohnee noted that the legislative map used from 2001 to 2011 also put Flagstaff and the tribal lands in the same district. There were Native American candidates who were the preferred candidates for Native voters, but they lost in the primary election to non-Native candidates that were favored by Flagstaff voters. 

“That trumped the Native American preferences,” she said. That history should be an indicator that drawing a similar district this year will diminish the ability of Indigenous communities to be able to elect their chosen candidates.

As the AIRC toured the state gathering public input on the draft maps, Ferguson-Bohnee said she was struck by comments coming from non-Native people in northern and eastern Arizona who pleaded with the redistricting commissioners to create a rural-centered district — but one that doesn’t put them in the same district as Native Americans.

“There are people who would testify that they are not a community of interest with the Native Americans,” she said. “Native American reservations are the most rural in the state. You can’t say that Native American reservations aren’t rural.”

The idea seemingly resonated with AIRC Chairwoman Erika Neuberg, who said at a commission meeting Monday that she is willing to consider making a change to the map that would remove Flagstaff from the predominantly tribal District 6. 

The proposal was presented by the Navajo Nation, and supported by Democratic Commissioners Shereen Lerner and Derrick Watchman, who have expressed concerns that white Democratic voters from Flagstaff could make it more difficult for Native Americans to elect tribal lawmakers.

“I’m very sympathetic to the Native American concerns about their opportunity to elect a candidate of their choice in the primary. There’s been sufficient data … that there were several occasions in which the Flagstaff Democrats really had very different opinions about the Native American choices, and I need to study that,” Neuberg said.

‘The Native vote is a swing vote’

Watchman, who is Navajo, serves as the primary advocate on the AIRC for tribal communities. But his entreaties, and those of Native American leaders from across the state, have not found much purchase on the commission’s congressional map. 

“The Native vote is a swing vote,” Watchman said. “Native Americans in the proposed congressional district could sway the vote and could have the ability to elect a candidate of their choice.”

But as it stands now, District 2 gives Republicans an advantage of more than seven percentage points, outside the range that the AIRC considers “competitive.” Native American leaders are hoping the commission hears their concerns in the next week, as the map-drawing comes to an expected end before the Christmas holiday.

Gila River Indian Community Governor Stephen Roe Lewis wrote in a letter to the AIRC that the proposed District 2, which includes his nation, would leave tribal voters with little say over who represents them: An analysis by the redistricting commisson’s mapping consultant shows Republicans would have won all nine statewide contests evaluated in the proposed district.

Lewis proposed that District 2 be adjusted to omit parts of Yavapai County around Prescott and San Tan Valley in Pinal County, while adding Casa Grande, Coolidge and the southern portions of Graham and Greenlee counties.

Likewise, the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission submitted a proposal to the AIRC that would remove most of Yavapai County and about half of Gila County from District 2, while adding all of Graham and Greenlee counties.

The Navajo Congressional Plan has been endorsed by Hopi, White Mountain Apache, San Carlos Apache, Havasupai, and Paiute tribal leaders, according to Navajo officials.

From left to right: Navajo Council Speaker Seth Damon, Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez, and Council Delegate Kee Allen Begay, Jr., attend the virtual public hearing hosted by the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission on Dec. 1, 2021. Photo courtesy the Office of the Navajo Nation President and Vice President

Navajo Nation leaders voiced their concerns about the draft maps during the AIRC’s public hearing hosted on Dec. 1, which included virtual public comments from Window Rock.

“We have carefully reviewed the proposed maps put forth by the commission, and we are very concerned that the new maps will dilute the voices of the first people of this country and this state as partisan spread goes from a 6-point advantage to a 15-point advantage for our congressional district,” Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez said during the AIRC public hearing hosted on Dec. 1. “A more politically competitive state is much more beneficial because it means members of both parties have to pay attention to issues that are of great importance to our people.”

Nez was one of several leaders from the Navajo Nation to voiced their support for voting rights and the Tribe’s proposed redistricting maps during the hearing..

“Our voice must be heard, and our voting rights must be protected and upheld,” Nez said. “A fair redistricting process will provide our people the opportunity to elect the candidates of our choice and to hold our congressional and state leaders accountable and to listen to our voices and to recognize and respect tribal sovereignty.”

Navajo Nation Speaker Seth Damon said in a press release that the maps need to be fair and truly represent the best interest of the Navajo Nation.

“Our representation when choosing elected leaders is important to the Navajo people. We are not part of metropolitan Phoenix and do not share similar interests,” Damon said. “Our people have called northern Arizona home since time immemorial – we have been here farming, raising livestock, and consider this region to be sacred land.”


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Shondiin Silversmith
Shondiin Silversmith

Shondiin Silversmith is an award-winning Native journalist based on the Navajo Nation. Silversmith has covered Indigenous communities for more than 10 years, and covers Arizona's 22 federally recognized sovereign tribal nations, as well as national and international Indigenous issues. Her digital, print and audio stories have been published by USA TODAY, The Arizona Republic, Navajo Times, The GroundTruth Project and PRX's "The World." Silversmith earned her master's degree in journalism and mass communication in Boston before moving back to Arizona to continue reporting stories on Indigenous communities. She is a member of the Native American Journalist Association and has made it a priority in her career to advocate, pitch and develop stories surrounding Indigenous communities in the newsrooms she works in.