Census undercount on Native American reservations complicates redistricting in South Dakota

On Monday at a redistricting hearing near Rapid City, Native legislators said they opposed expanding their districts' boundaries into white counties bordering reservations to make up for flat-line population growth they say is based on flawed Census data. Leaders from those neighboring towns and counties largely agree, citing a political divide.

A mural in Mission, South Dakota on the Rosebud Sioux Indian Reservation. (Christopher Vondracek / Forum News Service)
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BOX ELDER, S.D. — Oglala Sioux Tribal President Kevin Killer wanted to set the record straight.

Minutes earlier on Monday, Oct. 11, at a redistricting committee meeting on a community college campus in Box Elder, a speaker from Wall, South Dakota, objected to a proposed map sending the eastern Pennington County town into District 27, currently represented by two Oglala Lakota lawmakers and one white rancher.

"If you move us to 27, the only legislator we've ever seen is [Rep.] Liz May , God bless her soul," said Mary Williams, president of the Wall Economic Development Board. "We have never seen the other legislators from that district."

Except, she had. Or she could have: Rep. Peri Pourier , and Sen. Red Dawn Foster , both Democrats from Pine Ridge, sat in the back of the room. Now, before Killer spoke to redistricting 27, he had something to say.

"The only reps I ever see are Rep. Pourier and Sen. Foster," Killer said. "I hardly ever see Rep. May. I have to call her."


The exchange was emblematic of a distrust between border towns in western South Dakota, where large reservations give way to predominantly white ranching and tourist towns. The divide has also emerged as a sticking point for legislators trying to draw new maps using the latest U.S. Census data.

Voting rights experts have argued the COVID-19 pandemic created a series of problems in getting an accurate count on reservations, exacerbating historical undercounts. On Monday, Pourier noted that the 2020 population count in Oglala Lakota County compared with a decade ago showed a growth of only 86 people (from 13,586 to 13,672).

"I will tell you that's grossly undercounted," Pourier said. "I would say it's negligent of the federal government and it should be outrageous to anybody who wants to promote democracy."

That undercount now threatens to diminish the already-small numbers of Native American legislators in Pierre. With the state's eastern and western population centers of Sioux Falls and Rapid City enjoying outsize growth compared to the rest of the state, legislators in 2021 say rural districts filled with farmers and ranchers must be squeezed, including those tribal lands.

Of the four proposed maps, all four expand the boundaries of District 27 , encompassing all of Pine Ridge and viewed as politically safe turf for Native American voters. Two move the district's boundaries into more off-reservation towns, such as Wall. A third pushes the western boundary into Fall River County.

Only one plan — backed by Senate Minority Leader Troy Heinert , D-Mission, on the Rosebud Sioux reservation — roughly maintains the current boundary lines.

"The census data shows that we lost some people," Heinert said. "But we know that's not accurate."

Heinert and others have argued that while the population in this district would fall well below the 25,333 residents sought as a goal for each senate district, such a deviation would be legal — even preferable — to maintain minority-majority districts.


As the committee tours the state over three days, however, the redistricting committee's leader has said her hands are tied.

"Our constitution is very explicit," Sen. Mary Duvall , R-Pierre, said Monday. "South Dakota is one of 22 states that explicitly requires us to use census data."

But at every stop on the tour, indigenous voting rights advocates have argued that there are other ways to achieve political representation for Native Americans, who hold only a few seats in Pierre but represent 10% of the state's population.

On Tuesday, Oct. 12, in Mobridge, Bret Healy, a co-executive director of Four Directions, a Native American voting rights nonprofit, argued that the committee could widen the so-called deviation limits to achieve more parity.

"You're not bound to the 10%, especially when it comes to Native American voting rights," Healy saud. Currently, the committee has said that one voting district cannot deviate more than 5% above or 5% below the 25,333-persons goal. Healy says that limit is "self-imposed."

Only one proposed map, Heinert's "Eagle," would see a 7.5% deviation below the population goal in District 26, which encompasses Rosebud and parts of the Crow Creek reservation in central South Dakota.

And perhaps by design, such a move would also stave off a looming cultural clash in towns near but not on Pine Ridge.

At Monday's Box Elder meeting, Fall River County Joe Falkenburg said he was opposed to a plan called "Blackbird," supported by Senate leadership, that would carve off eastern Fall River County into District 27, calling his county "fairly homogenous."


"We have vast differences in our political leanings," Falkenburg said. "Redistricting Fall River County will silence a number of people."

It was a comment both sides could support. When Sen. Foster took to the podium, she reiterated calls about an undercount in the census, observing, "It would be in the best interest to keep the district boundaries the same."

Afterward in the hallway of the community college, before legislators drove to Rosebud, Williams met up with both Foster and Pourier, finding unlikely bedfellows in keeping their districts separate.

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