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
  • POLICY DIRECTOR - FRIENDS OF THE INYO
    Seeking Policy Director to lead our policy programs to ensure the health/vibrancy of CA's Inyo/Mono Co. public lands. FT or PT. Remote OK but frequent...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Friends of the San Juans (Friends), a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, is seeking an experienced, passionate, and charismatic environmental leader to continue its strong community leadership...
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT, ARIZONA CHAPTER
    What We Can Achieve Together: Arizona's Director of Development (DoD) is responsible for directing all aspects of one or more development functions, which will secure...
  • CAPACITY BUILDING PROGRAM MANAGER
    What We Can Achieve Together: The Capacity Building Program Manager works directly with the business unit's Arizona Healthy Cities Program Director to advance the Healthy...
  • MEMBERSHIP AND OFFICE MANAGER - FRIENDS OF THE INYO
    Friends of the Inyo - Donor database management & reporting, IT/HR, and office administrative support. PT or FT. Partly remote OK but some in-office time...
  • NORTHERN NEW MEXICO PROJECT MANAGER
    New Mexico Land Conservancy is seeking a qualified Northern New Mexico Project Manager to provide expertise, leadership and support to the organization by planning, cultivating,...
  • GRAPHIC AND DIGITAL DESIGNER
    Application deadline: December 17, 2022 Expected start date: January 16, 2023 Location: Amazon Watch headquarters in Oakland, CA Amazon Watch is a dynamic nonprofit organization...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Eugene, Ore. nonprofit Long Tom Watershed Council is seeking a highly collaborative individual to lead a talented, dedicated team of professionals. Full-time: $77,000 - $90,000...
  • GIS SPECIALIST
    What We Can Achieve Together: The GIS Specialist provides technical and scientific support for Geographic Information System (GIS) technology, data management, and visualization internally and...
  • LOWER SAN PEDRO PROGRAM MANAGER
    What We Can Achieve Together: The Lower San Pedro Program Manager directs some or all aspects of protection, science, stewardship and community relations for the...
  • FOREST RESTORATION SPATIAL DATA MANAGER
    What We Can Achieve Together: The Forest Restoration Spatial Data Manager fills an integral role in leading the design and development of, as well as...
  • WATER PROJECTS MANAGER, SOUTHERN AZ
    What We Can Achieve Together: Working hybrid in Tucson, AZ or remote from Sierra Vista, AZ or other southern Arizona locations, the Water Projects Manager,...
  • SENIOR STAFF THERAPIST/PSYCHOLOGIST: NATIVE AMERICAN STUDENT SPECIALIST
    Counseling Services is a department strategically integrated with Health Services within the Division of Student Services and Enrollment Management. Our Mission at the Counseling Center...
  • THE NATURE CONSERVANCY IS HIRING A LOCAL INITIATIVES COORDINATOR
    The Nature Conservancy in Wyoming seeks a Local Initiatives Coordinator to join our team. We're looking for a great communicator to develop, manage and advance...
  • LAND AND WATER PROTECTION MANAGER - NORTHERN ARIZONA
    We're Looking for You: Are you looking for a career to help people and nature? Guided by science, TNC creates innovative, on-the-ground solutions to our...
  • SENIOR CLIMATE CONSERVATION ASSOCIATE
    The Greater Yellowstone Coalition (GYC) seeks a Senior Climate Conservation Associate (SCCA) to play a key role in major campaigns to protect the lands, waters,...
  • CORTEZ COLORADO LOT FOR SALE
    Historic tree-lined Montezuma Ave. Zoned Neighborhood Business. Build your dream house or business right in the heart of town. $74,000. Southwest Realty
  • ENVIRONMENTAL AND CONSTRUCTION GEOPHYSICS
    - We find groundwater, buried debris and assist with new construction projects for a fraction of drilling costs.
  • STRAWBALE HOME BESIDE MONTEZUMA WELL NAT'L MONUMENT
    Straw Bale Home beside Montezuma Well National Monument. Our property looks out at Arizona fabled Mogollon Rim and is a short walk to perennial Beaver...
  • ATTORNEY AD
    Criminal Defense, Code Enforcement, Water Rights, Mental Health Defense, Resentencing.