On the Flathead Reservation in Montana, Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes Preservation Office Program Manager Mike Durglo Jr. greets what remains of a 2000-year-old whitebark pine tree that he named 'Illawia,' which means great-great-grandparent in his native language. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
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ARLEE, Mont. — On a bright October day, Shelly Fyant sat behind her laptop at the Stonebridge Cafe, Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” softly playing in the background. She had brown, shoulder-length hair and glasses. Nestled in the foothills of the Mission Mountains, Arlee marks the south end of the 1.3 million-acre Flathead Indian Reservation, home to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. 

One of about 5,200 CSKT members who live on the Flathead Reservation, Fyant, the tribe’s then chairwoman, said that because only 20% of the reservation’s population are Native American, it’s difficult to elect a CSKT member for state or federal office. But Fyant, who lost the tribal election in December, wants her tribe’s needs considered as district maps continue to be drawn.

While many states have completed redistricting — the process of drawing political boundaries every decade — Montana has until 2023 to finalize legislative maps. 

But creating districts that reflect the needs of Montana’s Flathead Reservation is especially challenging because the small population of Native Americans are dispersed across a vast geographic area. 

Fyant attributes the low Native population on the reservation to federal policies and practices that split land ownership between Native and non-Native populations. The Dawes Act of 1887 divided tribal lands into separate plots, some of which were sold to non-tribal members, creating a checkerboard pattern. 

For the tribe, checkerboarding has diluted Native American power much like gerrymandering — the practice of drawing political lines to favor one political party over another — has in other states, said Keaton Sunchild, political director of the Montana-based nonprofit Western Native Voice.

That makes it harder for tribes to get resources, which has had a deadly impact on Native Americans in Montana during the pandemic, Sunchild said.

“They couldn’t afford the right filters in the hospitals, they couldn’t afford enough PPE for the doctors and the nurses,” Sunchild said. “On a personal level, they couldn’t afford to miss work, so they were taking unnecessary risks to go to work.” 

By December, 12% of Montana residents who died of COVID-19 were Native Americans, even though they make up just 7% of the state’s population.

Fyant saw the disease have an even more devastating effect on the Flathead Reservation, where 40% of the COVID-19 deaths were among tribal members. The pandemic also highlighted food insecurity and the lack of internet access on the reservation. 

To illustrate the challenge checkerboarding poses, Fyant pointed to a map on her computer screen. Montana Senate District 8, approved in 2013, was drawn so that Native Americans could elect a candidate of their choice. But getting there required navigating a map dominated by U.S. Forest Service Land and the Blackfeet Reservation. Only a small portion was the Flathead Reservation. But as a result, a member of the Blackfeet Reservation now represents the district. 

Fyant is less hopeful about the possibility of a CSKT tribal member winning public office.

“We just don’t have the numbers to elect one of our own,” she said in a soft voice.

While some states’ district lines are drawn by their legislatures, Montana has an independent commission made up of four voting members appointed by legislative leaders, and a non-voting member, who in 2020, was appointed by the Montana Supreme Court. 

At the beginning of the redistricting process, the committee unanimously voted to make every effort to keep reservations intact as part of their criteria.

“Our starting point is how we can keep the reservations together,” said Maylinn Smith, the chair of the Montana Districting and Apportionment Commission, who has several decades of experience in tribal law.

Population growth over the past decade gave Montana a second congressional district last year. The new congressional maps, approved in November, put the Blackfeet and Flathead reservations in one district, while the remaining five reservations are in another.

But some tribal leaders were not happy with the map. Fyant said she wished her district would have excluded a heavily-Republican part of Flathead County, which would have increased the chance of electing a Democrat. 

“Despite numerous Native voices expressing their concerns throughout the process, the commission seemed to dismiss the factor of the native vote and instead has tried to slap on a band-aid on an already broken political system,” Western Native Voice’s Sunchild wrote in an email, adding that he doesn’t expect lawsuits because the map is legally sound.

“When it comes time to draw legislative district lines, we hope that the commission reaches out to all of the tribes, elected tribal officials, and tribal members to get a sense of what would work best for them,” he said. 

Meanwhile on the Flathead Reservation, tribal members have turned to creative ways to educate their community on topics that impact them, such as a video on voting featuring music by Fyant’s nieces. 

“One of the healing things has been our music and our culture,” Fyant said, pulling up on her laptop a COVID-19 awareness video that mixed hip-hop with singing in the Salish language. 

She hopes similar messages will encourage people to vote.

“Your voice does matter,” Fyant said. “People seem to have lost hope and therefore don’t get involved because they think their vote doesn’t count, but it does count.” 

Coming soon: Public Integrity will publish an in-depth report about the state of redistricting on Native American reservations throughout the country, with a focus on the Pacific Northwest.

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Melissa Hellmann is an award-winning reporter who covers racial, gender and economic inequality. Prior...