Indian country leaders urge natives to be counted in 2020 census

Native Americans living on reservations and in traditional villages were the most people underestimated in the 2010 U.S. Census. This year, tribal leaders everywhere in the United States are exhorting American Indians and Alaska Natives to see and count in the 2020 U.S. Census.

The census, constitutionally mandated, counts everyone living in the United States every 10 years. The resulting data is used by federal and state governments to determine political representation and allocate funds for education, social services, and other programs. Undercount means less money, less political representation and access to fewer resources.

The Census Bureau believes that it underestimated Native Americans living on reservations and Alaska Natives in villages by about 4.9% in 2010. This was more than double the undercount rate of the closest population group, African Americans , which had an undercount rate of 2.1%. This undercount represents a significant improvement over previous censuses. In 1990, the census forgotten more than 12% American Indians and Alaska Natives living on their traditional lands.

The US government has been count and track american indians since the beginning of the 19th century, creating many “rolls” or lists. These rolls were used for many reasons – to move tribes west of the Mississippi, to pay annuities under government-to-government treaties, or to divide tribal lands in individual packages. Given this long history of counting Native Americans, why did the Census Bureau undercount so many Native Americans?

Barriers to Accurate Counting

Some traditional Native American lands may not have street addresses, information requested in the census count.
AP Photo/Blake Nicholson

American Indians and Alaska Natives have proven difficult to count for a number of reasons. Perhaps more importantly, many American Indians and Alaska Natives do not trust the federal government. Federal Indian policies drove tribes from their traditional lands and forced indigenous children to leave their families to attend boarding schools. For some tribal citizens, the arrival of a federal official at their doorstep may evoke memories of the historical trauma their parents and grandparents faced the hands of the US government.

Some Aboriginal people who are willing to engage with the federal government may wonder if their information will remain confidential and protected. Some researchers have benefited from the confidence of the natives and misused their information in the past, making them suspicious of how data collected about them will be stored and used.

The 2020 US Census began in Toksook Bay, Alaska, a coastal village on the Bering Sea.
AP Photo/Gregory Bull

American Indians and Alaska Natives can be difficult to count simply because more than 25% of them live in hard to count areas. For example, the 2020 U.S. Census was launched in Alaska Native villages in January because it may be easier to reach remote villages before the snow melts.

Some American Indians and Alaska Natives share the characteristics of other hard-to-count populations in rural America such as poverty, remote locations, housing insecurity, and low high school graduation rates.

Finally, the census is not well designed for American Indians or Alaska Natives. Not all American Indians and Alaska Natives speak English. This year, the census form is translated into only one Native American language, Navajo, even though there are approximately 175 Native American languages spoken in the United States today. Some Native communities in Alaska and New Mexico provide their own translations and instructions in their language.

Others face challenges because the forms don’t provide enough space to write their names or the names of their tribes. They may not be able to provide the type of address this is necessary because they use a PO box or because there is no civic address. Still others, especially if they are half-caste, may struggle with which box to check. Even though they are tribal citizens, in the past they may not have been counted as Indians under federal law or were eligible to receive federal Indian services.

In addition to these hurdles, the 2020 U.S. Census will rely heavily on the the Interneta technology to which one-third of Aboriginal people living on reserves and in traditional villages still do not have access.

What’s at stake

Aboriginal leaders know that census undercounts diminish their political power and federal funding. Politically, an accurate count ensures that indigenous peoples receive representation at congress they deserve.

Census data also informs federal policy. The US Constitution recognizes tribes as sovereign nations that maintain government-to-government relationships with the federal government. Congress, rather than the states, is authorized to make federal Indian policy. Federal officials, members of Congress and tribal leaders rely on census data to develop a policy that effectively meets the needs of Aboriginal people. For example, inaccurate counts of Aboriginal youth may limit the behavioral health services provided to them, even if they face higher risks of suicide and substance abuse than other young people.

The federal government allocates nearly $1 billion in annual federal resources for Indian Country based on census data. Native American and Alaska Native Governments use this money to provide educational assistance for low-income children, employment and training programs, health services, special programs for seniors, and housing and community development for Indians. Without an accurate count, tribal governments do not receive adequate funding for these programs and are less able to meet the needs of their people.

Overcome distrust

Indigenous leaders across the United States have worked to educate Native people about the importance of being counted in the 2020 U.S. Census. National Congress of American Indiansthe oldest, largest, and most representative of Native American and Alaska Native organizations, undertook a public education campaign and designed a toolkit to help tribes and natives participate in the census.

tribes devoted considerable energy and resources to preventing another undercount. Since 2015, they have consulted with the Census Bureau on how to build collaborative relationships to overcome barriers to people counting in Indian Country. Tribal leaders use their expertise to reach out to their own communities by develop outreach plans encourage tribal participation and hire tribal citizens to collect census data. For tribes, accurate counting will strengthen their ability to exercise sovereignty over their lands and people.

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