Tribal coalition left in the dark as redistricting nears, member says

By: - November 30, 2021 5:18 am

School buses carry children across the Navajo Nation. (Photo by David McNew / Getty Images)

A New Mexico group is raising concerns about under-representation of Native Americans as lawmakers prepare to shape the political landscape here for at least another decade.

Austin Weahkee (Cochiti, Zuni, Navajo), political director for New Mexico Native Vote, said some of the maps proposed by a nonpartisan committee last month don’t adequately reflect the sizeable and growing population of Native Americans here. He also said legislative leadership, particularly in the state Senate, has not been forthcoming about what to expect in the upcoming Special Session on redistricting. 

Lawmakers are expected to take up the once-a-decade redistricting process next week, though the Legislature has not yet announced a date. 

A call to Sen. Mimi Stewart, the Senate’s president pro tem, was not returned Monday afternoon before press time. We’ll update this story when we have more information. 

Where political maps are drawn has major implications for who is elected, where funding is allocated and whether New Mexico’s many diverse groups are well-served by their elected officials. 

Lawmakers are also expected to at least seriously consider maps crafted after weeks of public and expert input, part of a new process by the nonpartisan Citizen Redistricting Committee, though that is not guaranteed. 

“We don’t know what the process is — if (legislators) can introduce entirely new bills, which will be maps which we’ve never seen before,” Weahkee said. “That seems entirely possible at this point.”

The lack of transparency worries Weahkee and other tribal members focused on whether they’ll have voting power that reflects their population in future elections. It took Weahkee and fellow committee members months of work to establish a consensus among 19 pueblos in New Mexico and the Jicarilla Apache Nation on what they’d like to see in new political maps. 

“We worked so hard to get to a consensus, and now we don’t know where we’re at,” Weahkee said. “We’re been sort of in limbo for the past, like, basically month and a half or so with what the plans are.”

The Pueblos’ consensus included principles that tribal leaders hope guide the redrawing of new maps. 

  • That no map reduce Native Americans’ voting strength in districts where they have a majority
  • That those districts contain Native American majorities of at least 65%
  • That, when possible, maps honor tribal boundaries and maintain communities of interest within tribes

The tribal committee also submitted maps that members said accurately reflected their priorities. These maps covered districts in the Northwestern part of the state, home to many pueblos and Indigenous nations. 

Native Americans now make up majorities in three state Senate districts and six state House districts. 

Nearly 12% of the state’s population identifies as Native American, up by about one-fifth in a decade, according to the latest census figures. That increase happened despite widely acknowledged undercounting on pueblos and the Navajo Nation, where pandemic lockdowns contributed to what was already a difficult environment for counting residents. 

Having 12% of the state’s population means Native Americans have population numbers to warrant two more Senate seats and two more House seats, though Weahkee said the coalition isn’t seeking that type of numerical representation. Instead, he said, the coalition worked to maintain their majorities in existing districts, honor district preferences among individual pueblos and avoid diluting their votes.

We worked so hard to get to a consensus, and now we don't know where we're at.

– Austin Weahkee

Keeping Native American majorities as close to 65% as possible is necessary, because it accounts for the barriers many Native Americans in rural New Mexico face when coming to the polls, Weahkee said. Long drives, pandemic fears and confusing polling instructions could reduce voter turnout, he said, so keeping large Indigenous majorities in those districts will help ensure that more than half of votes cast are by Native Americans.

Earlier this month, the seven-member Citizen Redistricting Committee submitted seven state House and Senate maps for the Legislature’s consideration. None of the seven members on the committee is Native American. 

Concept C-1, which is the coalition’s state Senate preference (Districtr screenshot)

Weahkee said the tribal coalition prefers one particular Senate map, called “Concept C-1” of the three the committee submitted. That map would keep Native American majorities of at least 63% in Senate districts 3,4 and 22, while also honoring the diverse communities and interests within those districts, he said. 

The coalition is broadly in favor of the proposed House maps, he said, though they’d most prefer one called “Concept I-1,” which honors the wishes of the Zuni Pueblo to continue to be split into two districts and has Native American majorities of at least 64% in six of 10 northwest New Mexico districts. 

Concept I-1, which is the coalition’s state House preference (Districtr screenshot)

Another map, “Concept J,” allows six of the 10 northwest New Mexico districts to have Native American majorities of more than 65%, but it merges the Zuni Pueblo into one district, he said. 

Weahkee said he’ll also be closely watching the legislative session for how lawmakers deal with the systematic undercount of Native Americans. 

The Citizen Redistricting Committee heard hours of testimony about the ways in which those communities were not counted, in addition to alternative ways to arrive at an accurate count. 

Census packets were delivered to post office boxes and not homes, even though pandemic lockdowns prohibited many tribal members from going to the post office. Rural addresses didn’t match the Census forms. And satellite images of tribal areas where the Census Bureau reported that no one lived show that “people actually live there, as shown by vehicles and livestock,” according to the committee’s report.

The committee said the legislators could consider alternate data, including Medicaid enrollment, tribal enrollment records or where stimulus checks were delivered. 

Weahkee said the tribal coalition supports creative ways to account for the population of Native Americans in New Mexico, though he said some tribes are reluctant to share their enrollment numbers with federal or state governments. 

“There are plenty of tools that we can use, but there’s no silver bullet to fix the undercount,” he said. 

Until the session begins, Weahkee is left hoping lawmakers honor Native American priorities and move forward with a clear and transparent process. He said he’s not sure why he’s still in the dark about the process so close to when the session is supposed to begin.. 

“I wish there was more transparency on that, but I have no clue,” he said. “It could be that we’re still in a pandemic, and we’re in the first year of a process which is entirely new to New Mexico, but that’s just the benefit of the doubt.”

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Patrick Lohmann
Patrick Lohmann

Patrick Lohmann has been a reporter since 2007, when he wrote stories for $15 apiece at a now-defunct tabloid in Gallup, his hometown. Since then, he's worked at UNM's Daily Lobo, the Albuquerque Journal and the Syracuse Post-Standard.