Painted by George Catlin in 1834, Smithsonian
Mosholatubbee was a candidate for Congress in 1830. Elections are important, but not the only route to democratic representation.

Indigenous Voices Are Needed to Make US a Better Democracy

Mark Trahant

It’s long past time for Indian country to have a say in how the government of the United States runs. Why? Because this country cannot be the democracy it purports to be as long as indigenous people do not have a real voice in the political conversation.

So what would be fair? How many American Indians and Alaska Native representatives should be in Congress?

A couple of years ago, Malia Villegas, director of the National Congress of American Indians Policy Research Center, said population parity would mean at least two U.S. senators and seven members of the House of Representatives. But that’s not going to happen in a winner-take-all election system because the small number of Native votes are spread across districts nationwide. (For what it’s worth: The U.S. is one of the last democracies in the world to continue electing people this way.)

Mark Trahant

Remember the entire premise of the U.S. political system is that tribes are governments. Tribes are political entities enshrined in the Constitution. Yet, and this is huge, tribes are the only such political entity that does not include even minimal, structural representation in Congress.

Even before the Constitution, the Continental Congress made it possible for residents of the territory of Ohio to have a voice. On November 11, 1794, one James White was seated in the Third Congress as a Delegate. Congress hadn’t even set the rules yet for what that meant so the first debate was, according to the Congressional Research Service, “a wide-ranging discussion on the House floor about the Delegate’s proper role” including whether or not such delegates should serve in the House or the Senate. White did end up in the House where his role was described as “no more than an Envoy to Congress” because he could not vote.

Since White at least one Delegate has served in every Congress except for the two years between 1797 and 1799. Today there are six Delegates in Congress, representing Puerto Rico, Washington, D.C., Guam, U.S. Virgin Islands, American Samoa, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.

This is where Indian country gets short-changed. The Navajo Nation, a geographic, political entity, is far larger and has more people than the Virgin Islands, Guam, American Samoa or the Northern Mariana Islands. (Only 53,000 people live in the Northern Mariana Islands.) But Navajo is spread over three state lines and its population is not quite enough for a House seat electorally.

Members of Congress often talk about the importance of the treaty relationship with tribes and the government-to-government relationship. Yet they have ignored their own power to appoint delegates by legislation. This is an old problem.

More than a century ago, some tribes argued for congressional representation. The Choctaw Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek of 1830 explicitly included a “Delegate to Congress.” (One of the Choctaw chiefs, Mushulatubbee, had already run for Congress.)

The thing is Congress makes up its own rules for Delegates. It is not a Constitutional act. For example: The Delegate for the District of Columbia was originally created in 1871, forgotten a few years later, and then restored in 1971.

“Since the first Delegate was sent to Congress, the House has struggled with the role Delegates should play,” the Congressional Research Service noted. “Some Members, noting that the Constitution, in Article I, Section 2, requires that the House be made up of representatives ‘chosen every second Year by the People of the several States,’ have expressed concerns that allowing Delegates to have the same rights and responsibilities as Members would be unconstitutional. Because Delegates, by definition, do not represent states, members have on several occasions debated what rights such delegates should exercise in the House.”

But full authority or not, at least Delegates are there. Seated. At the table. Their very presence would be a reminder about the unique political status of tribal governments.

How could this work? Easy. Tribal nations with large populations should have a Delegate. And perhaps smaller tribes could band together by region or language and have a regional commissioner who would act as a Delegate. If population is the criteria, and perhaps it should be, the total ought to be seven.

It’s true that American Indians and Alaska Natives can and should also run and win in general district elections. I write about that a lot and in my next post I will look at those districts where Native candidates have the best shot.

But there is a fundamental difference.

In a general election, our best politicians are coalition builders, witness a Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott in Alaska, or a Sen. John McCoy in Washington, or Supt. Denise Juneau in Montana. These leaders do good things and positively impact public policy by serving a broad constituency. They are elected by all the people.

But if Indian country sent Delegates to Congress, we would have representatives whose only job would be to represent Indian country. That’s no different than what James White did in 1830. He was a Delegate charged with advocating for the territory of Ohio. That’s exactly the type of representation that treaty tribes and their citizens deserve.

Mark Trahant is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. For up-to-the-minute posts, download the free Trahant Reports app for your smart phone or tablet.

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Liam DFeather
Liam DFeather
Submitted by Liam DFeather on
Unfortunately, America is no longer a democracy. Hasn't anyone in indian country been paying attention to the supreme court and their recent actions on campaign financing? The lobbyists with the most money and super PACs get what they want now.

JohnHancock's picture
Submitted by JohnHancock on
Don't you get tired of whining? How is an Indian vote worth any less than any other person's vote? That's all the representation anyone gets.