2020 Census: Counting All of Indian Country

By: Toya Stewart Downey, AIGC Alumna
2020 Census

Tribal nations and Native organizations across the United States have been taking Herculean steps to ensure the 2020 Census reflects as many citizens of Indian Country as possible.

It has not been an easy feat considering the world was impacted by the novel coronavirus pandemic earlier this year, which halted everything and forced mankind to collectively pivot.

Still, that hasn’t stopped the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), the National Urban Indian Family Coalition (NUIFC) and the Native American Rights Fund (NARF) from continuing to push the message that the 2020 Census is still underway.

“This year is critically important for Tribal citizens to be counted,” said Fawn Sharp (Quinault Indian Nation), President of NCAI and American Indian Graduate Center Alumna.

“Tribal nations have long pressed Congress to fully fund us, so not only do we want to ensure every citizen is counted, we want to ensure that we get the funding we need.”

Sharp said Indian Country is “chronically and widely underfunded,” which makes this year’s Census count even more critical than in previous decades.

Typically, the Census has been completed by now, but COVID-19 effectively halted operations related to this decade’s population count. Though society is still in the midst of the pandemic, efforts were amped up over the summer to get the count completed by October.

“There’s a major disconnect between the federal agencies’ budget process and aligning those budgets and budget requests with actual numbers in Indian Country,” Sharp said.

“There’s a large divergence between the Tribal communities and the budgetary appropriation. We’re not even at our fullest potential in numbers so as we continue to provide for citizens, it’s important that everyone is counted to understand the number of citizens we serve and the services we need.”

That’s what makes the collaboration among the three organizations — NCAI, NUIFC and NARF — so important. Both individually and collectively, each entity is making strides in their efforts to increase awareness about the 2020 Census while encouraging participation  throughout the nation.

According to NUIFC’s website, “This partnership’s strength comes from its historic reach. Both the NCAI and NARF have built generational trust with Tribal governments and officials around the country — which will enhance the NUIFC’s work with Tribal members in urban areas to create comprehensive Census coverage in all 50 states.”

The confidential data collected on the Census has great impacts–including political representation, federal funding and public policy.

Some of the barriers to getting an accurate count are language, geography and access to technology.

Janeen Comenote (Quinault Indian Nation), Executive Director of NUIFC, said her organization started gearing up over a year ago by articulating what needed to happen and figuring out the “how.” The organization’s theme is, “Making the Invisible Visible.”

NUIFC made their message clear when they awarded grants to 22 different Urban Indian organizations across the country to help them create opportunities for civic engagement around the Census.

The plan was in place to create a recording-breaking engagement with Native peoples across the United States. Then, as the groups were supposed to push out messages and engage citizens, the pandemic hit.

“At least 90 percent of the Urban Indian organizations had planned in-person events and powwows to gather in-person census,” Comenote said. “Then, just as quickly as the pandemic happened, we all had to move into virtual spaces. A lot of those plans weren’t stopped, but were interrupted as everyone tried to figure out how to do this virtually.”

One massive win was the longtime partnership her organization has with Comcast. The cable TV giant offered to create a 30-second public service announcement which would air in 30 markets. Additionally, there was already a robust push on both Facebook and Twitter.

“Those platforms allow for pictures and videos which means you can engage differently and it connects us to our reservation relatives,” she added. “We also created memes and filmed a public service announcement in Seattle.”

Besides the national public service announcement, there are billboards in cities like Phoenix, Arizona, and Tulsa and Oklahoma City in Oklahoma. Signs at bus stops in Alaska and Oklahoma also encourage Census 2020 participation.

“The undercount for Native Americans isn’t typically in the urban areas, but on reservations,” Comenote said.

To help, the organization has been working hard to make sure the Census was translated into different languages. Additionally, populations both on and off reservations are working together, Comenote added.

Sharp said the organization has been directly consulting with Tribal nations to assist with planning.

“It’s critically important that we’re able to consult and that Census workers implement the counting of numbers, along with the planning and collection of data,” she said.

“Some Tribes contribute their own resources because they know how critically important it is.”

Sharp added while Tribal nations have variances, they are all very connected in states and across the country.

“We know each other and we know our neighbors, so when [unknown] people come and want to ask very in-depth questions, there’s some hesitancy,” she said. “There is data that may be lost if the questions aren’t asked and answered just right. We have to get this right, so we don’t trip up our funding.”

The Census also has a huge impact on voting rights, said John Echohawk, (Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma) and Executive Director of NARF.

Echohawk said the collaboration among the organizations helps get the message out far and wide, but it also means they can promote both the Census and the 2020 Get Out the Vote efforts at the same time.

“In 2013, Shelby County versus the State Attorney, gutted the Voting Rights Act — the procedure that prevented states from passing more discriminatory laws,” Echohawk said. “Since that provision is no longer in effect, states started doing whatever they wanted. It meant they started passing laws to discriminate against voters.”

The organization and others have had to challenge the changes in federal courts. This process takes time and money, but it also helps to work with other organizations to raise awareness throughout Indian Country.

“In terms of voting rights and how it relates to the Census, it means that redistricting can happen based on new population figures,” Echohawk said. “That means reallocation can happen and then states can redraw boundaries, redistrict and then that results in gerrymandering.”

“It splits up Native votes,” he added. “We are hoping to get a good Census count, so we have good numbers. Everyone needs to participate and help their neighbors participate.”

He cautions an undercount means Indian Country won’t get as much money as it should since federal funding is based on population counts.

The federal government directs nearly $1 billion in resources per year to Indian Country using Census data. The money helps fund schools, health, housing, roads and more.

Having a more accurate count helps ensure government resources are equitably distributed and some say it holds the government accountable for its promises.

According to some experts some of the reasons it’s harder to get a count is because of residential mobility — people move two or three times a year because they may experience low income circumstances. 

It could also be because of the number of people who live in one household. The Census goes to the primary resident, but multiple heads of household may share their residence. In general, there is also a lack of education and understanding about the purpose of the Census. 

“A lot of people don’t trust the government and with good reason,” Comenote said. “People think the government is keeping track of them and it’s not an uncommon theme.” 

In the urban areas, many Native individuals are in mixed-race relationships and marriages which means they may not be counted because their partner is the head of household and their racial designation is what is reflected in the paperwork. 

Another challenge in completing the 10-year-count is the digital divide that exists for some Tribes. A lack of technology, or reliable internet service, is a barrier both on and off the reservation, Comenote said. 

This is especially troubling since this is the first time ever the Census could be complete online on the government’s official website. 

“A significant portion of urban Indians and reservation-based Natives generally access the web through their phones and their phones only,” Comenote said, adding because the data collection was pushed to October, the Census advocates are hopeful for better results this year than in previous years. 

Sharp shares a similar sentiment. 

“We are going to see an improvement over the 2010 Census, but we know we have a lot more work leading up to the next one,” she said. “We have to improve reporting, visibility and our voice.” 

“Ensuring we have a strong turnout for the 2020 Census is going to be that foundation that will be necessary for Tribal nations to emerge out of the pandemic stronger and more unified.” 

*This story was sent to print before it was announced that the U.S. Census Bureau would end its Census 2020 field operations on September 30, 2020. NCAI, NARF and NUIFC continue their work for Native representation in the Census and call on the United States Congress to take urgent legislative action to include an extension of the Census field operation timelines in the next COVID-19 package. 

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