Congress should appoint delegates to represent tribal nations

Why indigenous voices are needed to make U.S. a better democracy.

 

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.)

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 between1797 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.)

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

High Country News Classifieds
  • LAND CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    Manage, develop and implement all stewardship and land management plans and activities on both private and public lands. Guide and direct comprehensive planning efforts, provide...
  • NEWS DIRECTOR
    Based in the state capitol, Boise State Public Radio is the premier NPR affiliate in Idaho. With 18 transmitters and translators, it reaches 2/3rds of...
  • INTERNET-BASED BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Dream of owning your own business, being your own boss, working from home ... this is the one.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR FOR MOJAVE DESERT LAND TRUST
    Organization Background: The Mojave Desert Land Trust (MDLT) is a non-profit 501(3)(c) organization, founded in 2006. Our mission is to protect the ecosystems of the...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    If you are deeply committed to public service and would like to become part of our high performing, passionate and diverse team, NCAT is looking...
  • TRIPLEX .8 ACRE KANAB, UT
    Create a base in the center of Southern Utah's Grand Circle of National Parks. Multiple residential property with three established rental units and zoning latitude...
  • FORGE & FAB SHOP
    with home on one beautiful acre in Pocatello, ID. Blackrock Forge - retiring after 43 years! Fully equipped 5,500 sf shop including office, gallery and...
  • SMALL FARM AT THE BASE OF MOUNT SHASTA
    Certified organic fruit/berry/veggie/flower farm. Home, barns, garage, separate apt, more. Just under 2 ac, edge of town. Famously pure air and water. Skiing, mountaineering, bike,...
  • FOREST STEWARDSHIP PROJECT DIRECTOR
    Become a force for nature and a healthy planet by joining the Arizona Chapter as Forest Stewardship Project Director. You will play a key role...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Ranchers Stewardship Alliance is accepting applications for an Executive Director. This position will provide leadership to RSA, develop a fund raising plan, and effectively communicate...
  • WRITING PLACE: THE ANIMAS RIVER REGION WRITING WORKSHOP
    REGISTER ONLINE BY: Friday, June 15 WHERE: Durango, CO (location TBD) WHEN: Monday, July 16 Youth workshop: 10 a.m. - 12 p.m. (18 and under,...
  • EQUITY IN THE OUTDOORS COORDINATOR
    The Equity in the Outdoors Coordinator will lead community engagement, program implementation and development, and data collection for the Eagle Valley Outdoor Movement (EVOM). EVOM...
  • COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT ASSISTANT
    The Idaho Conservation League is seeking a personable individual who is passionate about conservation to join our Sandpoint Field Office. The Community Engagement Assistant will...
  • LIGHTWEIGHT FLY ROD CASES
    4 standard or custom lengths. Rugged protection for backpacking. Affordable pricing.
  • EXPERIENTIAL EDUCATION INTERN/ASSISTANT
    Actively introduce students to Experiential Education, Outdoor Recreation, and Sustainability while engaging and challenging them to learn and participate in these diverse opportunities. Room, board,...
  • ENVIRONMENTAL INVESTIGATIVE MEDIA SERVICES
    In-depth investigations of polluters, lobbyists, regulators, elected officials and others focused on environmentally damaging projects in the U.S. and internationally. We specialize in mining projects,...
  • UNDEVELOPED 40 ACRES - SOUTHWEST COLORADO
    in beautiful Montezuma County.
  • TRUCK DRIVER
    Class A & B drivers, pass all DOT requirements and clean driving record
  • MARIA'S BOOKSHOP FOR SALE
    - Thriving Indie bookstore in the heart of Durango, Colorado. General bookstore with 34-year history as a community hub for Southwest region of CO. 1800...
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
    will develop and execute Wild Utah Projects fundraising plan. Call, email or check full description of job online for more details: