Native American Leaders Organize To Avoid Being Undercounted During 2020 Census

Community organizations and leaders are working hard to make sure Native Americans are properly counted in the upcoming 2020 census. Historically, Native Americans have been severely undercounted, which has translated into poor federal funding and a lack of political representation.

Organizations are facing several obstacles in their bid to avoid the undercount that occurred during the 2010 census. During the last census, Native Americans and Alaska Natives living on reservations were undercounted by 4.9 percent. The problem was significantly worse in the 1990 census, when 12 percent of Native Americans living on reservations were not counted, according to the Census Bureau.

Native Americans represent the census’ most undercounted racial group, but African Americans and Hispanics also suffer from undercount rates, as well. African Americans were undercounted by a rate of 2.1 percent in the last census, while Hispanics were undercounted by 1.5 percent.

There are several factors that contribute to the undercounting of Native American communities, including an immense distrust of the federal government and geographic isolation of Native Americans living on reservations. Many Native Americans also lack access to the internet, which the Census Bureau will rely on for the coming census.

“People who are still alive know what it is to have a knock on the door and the federal government come in and remove their brothers, their sisters, themselves from their household,” Elizabeth Day, a program manager for the Native American Community Development Institute, told MPR News. Day was referring to a time, in the late 19th and mid 20th centuries, in which Native American children were taken from their families and placed into boarding schools in a program of forced assimilation.

What Are Community Leaders Doing?

Census officials and community leaders are employing several tactics to tackle the undercounting issue. In 2018 the Census Bureau announced it was reaching out to tribal leaders, employing census workers from Native American communities and gathering geographic information to improve their count.

For their part, Native American organizations are working to chip away at tribal distrust of the federal government by emphasizing the importance of the census. The National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) launched a public education and outreach program to ensure accurate counting of Native Americans.

Patty Hibbeler, chief executive of the Phoenix Indian Center, told the Eastern Arizona Courier that her organization is working to help Native Americans trust the census and to understand how the data will be used. The Phoenix Indian Center, which did not respond to a request for comment, provides workforce and youth development, language and culture revitalization and other services.

Sidra Starkovich, a member of the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa, told NBC News that local organizers are running a small radio ad, poster and social media campaign to promote the population count and the idea that the census works for Native Americans with the message: “This is our Census.”

The NCAI has encouraged Native Americans and related organizations to join Complete Count Committees, become Census Bureau Partners and participate in the Census Bureau’s Tribal Government Liaison Program.

Why The Census Matters

  • Representation: The U.S. Constitution requires that the apportionment of representatives among the states be done every 10 years. The 435 seats in the House of Representatives will be split among the 50 states based on state population data collected during the census. The results of the 2020 census will determine how many seats each state has in the House until the 2030 census.

  • Federal Funding: The results of the census also influence how much federal funds, grants and support each state receives. Native American tribes count on federal funding owed to them through treaties with the U.S., as well as other laws and agreements. Starkovich NBC News: “If our numbers in the census go down, then our funding levels go down. So getting everyone counted, from newborns to elders, is really important.”

When Is The Census?

The 2020 census will officially begin on April 1, better known as Census Day, but the Census Bureau will begin counting the Native American population of remote Alaska in January. According to the bureau’s website, by April 1, every home in the country will receive an invitation to participate in the 2020 Census.

The Census Bureau announced in November 2018 that it would begin the upcoming census by embarking in a “Remote Alaska Operation” in January 2020. The agency chose Toksook Bay, home to nearly 700 people, as its starting point. It noted that it is critical to count the population in January because many residents leave during the spring thaw to fish and hunt or for warm-weather jobs.

But in another example of distrust, Natalie Landreth, a senior staff attorney for the Native American Rights Fund, told NBC News she believes the Census Bureau’s operation in remote Alaska is just for show. “They want to show how remote and how far they’ll go,” the Anchorage local said, “when they don’t do that for the rest of the census.”

Residents will have three ways to respond to the census: online, by phone or by mail. The Census Bureau will have census takers visit college students, people living in senior centers and others in April as well. By May, the bureau will visit homes that have not responded to the 2020 Census.

The Census Bureau is required by law to send apportionment counts to the president and Congress by December 2020. By March 31, 2021, the Census Bureau is required to deliver redistricting counts to states so legislative districts can be redrawn based on population changes.


About the Author

Nicole Rojas is a breaking news writer for The North Star. She has published in various venues, including Newsweek, GlobalPost, IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, and the Long Island Post. Nicole graduated from Boston University in 2012 with a degree in print journalism. She is an avid world traveler who recently explored Europe, Asia, Australia and the Americas.