How Redistricting in New Mexico Undermined Indigenous Suffrage

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This article was originally published by The PUBLIC.

In 1974, three Navajo men – Herman Dodge Benally, John Earl Harvey and David Ignacio – were brutally murdered on the outskirts of Farmington, New Mexico by three white teenagers. In response to the killings, numerous advocacy organizations—including the University of New Mexico’s Kiva Club, the American Indian Movement (AIM), and the NAACP—mobilized in Farmington. The high school students responsible for the murders were sentenced to a few years in the reformatory after a closed-door procedure. Many members of the Farmington community felt that this punishment was not enough, and multiple marches and protests followed.

Following a march in May 1974, a list of demands was presented to the Mayor of Farmington which addressed “fundamental community issues affecting Indians and called for increased responsiveness by elected officials to those needs”.

As clashes between the Navajos and whites in the community continued to rage, the city administration held public sessions and discussions for all members of the community – the Navajos shared their radical and pervasive experiences of discrimination. Whether it’s high school students excluded from extracurricular activities, blue-collar workers harassed by their white employers, or individuals who have been denied restaurant service, common themes of bigotry and racism have plagued their daily lives. .

Navajo Protest March in Farmington, New Mexico – 1974, by Bob Fitch

The abuse, torture and murder of Native Americans was so common in fact that they had their own nickname – Indian rolling. “The only thing exceptional about these brutal murders,” writes David Correia in La Jicarita, is how common they are in New Mexico.

“We didn’t see the murders as the act of three crazy children. We saw this as part of a bigger racist picture. For years it was almost a sport, some sort of sick and perverted tradition among young Anglos at Farmington High School, to go to the Indian section of town and physically assault and rob men and women Navajos aged and sometimes drunk from everything they had. , for no apparent reason, except that they were Indians. — John Redhouse, Native American activist

Discussions and rallies following the murders continued throughout the year, and in July 1975 a report was released by the New Mexico Advisory Committee to the United States Civil Rights Commission. The 171-page report provided a comprehensive timeline of events that took place in 1974 and concluded with three key findings and recommendations.

His first – and arguably most important discovery? Farmington officials had not “assumed a sense of active responsibility to promote positive and productive relationships among the various segments of the population they serve, and that the general population is little aware of the unique relationship that the city talks to Navajo people on the reservation.

Children lead a Navajo protest march in Farmington – by Bob Fitch, 1974

Thirty years later, the New Mexico State Advisory Committee to the United States Civil Rights Commission released a follow-up report on Native American civil rights in Farmington. Shiprock Chapter President Duane Yazzie noted that there was progress and an improvement in the general social climate for Navajos in Farmington:

“Yes, there continue to be periodic problems but, for the most part, the efforts of public officials, including law enforcement, the courts, the business community and major employers in the regions, have made progress. considerable.”

However, the same report also included other testimony explaining that there had in fact been little progress since the 1970s, given the lack of Native American representation in civic leadership positions:

“You asked if the change – you asked if the change has happened since the early 1970s? Consider this question by looking at the numbers. The pillars of every community are those who are elected as well as those who serve in the government structure. If you look at these positions in local government, you will find very few, if any, Native Americans. It doesn’t matter if you look at the county, the city or even the local institutions. You will still find very few Native Americans in high-level decision-making positions. After 30 years, one would think that local governments would have made great strides in this area.

This story is particularly familiar to me (Jordan speaking) because my mother was discriminated against as a young Navajo girl in Farmington. She shared stories from her childhood – like going to the candy store to buy chocolate covered strawberries and being asked: “Are you sure you can afford it?” And she would say, “Yes, actually, and I’ll have a few more!” Or when my parents were a young couple – if my mom walked into a restaurant first, she would be ignored or fired until my white dad walked in behind her.

This discrimination is a reality that I recognize and one of the many reasons I returned home to work for my tribe. Generations of Navajo families lived through these stories and history, and many continue to live and work in the area today.

History of the Native Vote in New Mexico

Despite the enactment of the Indian Citizenship Act in 1924 – which granted citizenship to all Native Americans – many states denied Natives the right to vote for decades. In New Mexico, Natives were denied this right based on the “Untaxed Indians” provision of the state constitution. This ban was challenged by World War II veteran Miguel Trujillo in Trujillo v. Garley.

The court ruled in 1948 and declared the “Untaxed Indians” provision invalid. In 1962, the New Mexico Supreme Court in Montoya v. Bollack concluded that Navajos living on the reservation had the right to vote. Federal legislation in the form of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 further supported native suffrage in New Mexico by prohibiting racial discrimination in voting.

To this day, natives in New Mexico and the United States continue to face barriers to voting. An additional layer to Aboriginal suffrage is the redistricting process that takes place every ten years. How district lines are drawn can significantly affect a community’s voting power. In San Juan County, New Mexico, redistricting is receiving particular attention.

Voter suppression is all too common in areas with large populations of Native American voters, and New Mexico and San Juan County are no exception, especially in light of Farmington’s well-documented history. in matters of discrimination and violence against Native American residents.

Recent demographic changes make this story worse; over the past ten years, the county’s population has declined—due to the loss of non-Hispanic white residents—while over the same period, the population of Native American residents, particularly Navajo residents, has increased. Today, the Native American population is the majority population of San Juan County.

As the Board of Commissioners plays a prominent role in county government – it serves as the legislative body determining critical issues from the budgeting of county services and roads, to taxation, the issuance of bonds and to zoning – one would hope that the government would be representative of its constituents who make up its community.

But non-Hispanic white voters control election results in four of the five Board of Commissioners districts — despite the voting-age Native American population (NAVAP) comprising more than 40% of county residents.

On December 21, 2021, the Board of Commissioners passed a redistricting plan that systematically dilutes the ability of non-Hispanic Native American or Alaska Native voters to elect the candidates of their choice. The adopted plan prevents the Native American population of voting age (NAVAP) from effectively voting for their preferred candidates in District 2 – which includes Farmington – by consolidating more than 80% of the NAVAP into District 1.

For the past ten years, District 1 is the only district where NAVAP has been able to elect its candidate of choice. Prior to Council adopting this plan, the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission (NNHRC) submitted a redistricting map for Council’s consideration. The NNHRC plan distributes NAVAP evenly between Districts 1 and 2, with approximately 63% NAVAP in each district. This plan would have allowed Navajo voters to effectively elect a candidate of their choice in Districts 1 and 2. Instead, the council ignored the NNHRC plan and adopted the current, disputed plan, which consolidated the majority of NAVAP in District 1, while diluting NAVAP in District 2.

The complaint – filed by the Navajo Nation Department of Justice, Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, ACLU of New Mexico, UCLA Voting Rights Project and DLA Piper on behalf of the Navajo Nation, the NNHRC and individual Navajo Citizens – argues this packaging and dilution by the San Juan County Board of Commissioners is intentional – illegal under the Voting Rights Act – and will have a detrimental cost to Native American voters in San Juan County.

The ability to make our voice heard through voting impacts our society at different levels. While the highest levels of voter turnout occur during federal or state elections, county elections often have an equally significant impact on our communities. Redistricting is one of the many ways in which the effective vote of marginalized populations can be attacked and undermined, which can result in government leadership that fails to represent or protect these populations, thus perpetuating discrimination.

In San Juan County, New Mexico, Native Americans must have an equal opportunity to elect the candidates of their choice. Ensuring this ensures fair representation and strengthens the strength of the Indigenous vote.

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