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Census hasn’t always counted Native Americans. Now it tries.

Modern tools aren’t always enough to reach rural Native American reservations

Norbert Nez is worried about the census. A self-described map enthusiast, he took a job with the Census Bureau in 1990 as an enumerator fresh out of college and eager to find a decent-paying job. Nez spent that summer traveling to remote parts of the Navajo Nation, armed with maps dating to the 1940s as he navigated dirt roads to tell fellow Navajos about the importance of being counted.

“Some of them, they want to air out, you know, their frustrations with the government about receiving assistance and things like that. And once they got that off their chest, you know, they’d be more willing to help,” Nez said.

Since then, Nez has worn many hats: He is the IT manager for the Navajo Nation’s Division of Community Development, a member of its Telecommunications Regulatory Commission, a husband and a father of three children. But he also is the tribe’s census liaison, coordinating with the U.S. Census Bureau to boost the response rates on the Navajo Nation.

Now, he faces new challenges. Beginning in fiscal year 2018, funding for the Census Bureau fell, and the census now gets about half the funding it did in 2000 and two-thirds of what it had in 2010, according to the Urban Institute. Add to that some faulty technology, difficulty hiring local enumerators and a pandemic, and you have new barriers to the areas that are the hardest to reach.

“I’m hoping that we’re able to do it, but with all these challenges we could easily fall even more behind,” Nez said.

On top of it all, the Census Bureau announced Tuesday that data collection for the census would end a month earlier than planned, on Sept. 30.

Forty-three tribal organizations signed a letter to congressional leaders Aug. 5 urging them to restore the Oct. 31 deadline released in April and provide $400 million to support the expanded effort in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. The letter notes the hardships Native American communities have suffered during the pandemic; the Navajo Nation, for example, has had more deaths per capita from the novel coronavirus than any U.S. state.

There’s a lot at stake. The census will help determine funding for critical services like water and electricity, and it counts toward political redistricting and representation. In the simplest sense, the census validates Native Americans’ connection to their land.

“People are here, this is our land, this is our aboriginal land, and they need to honor our request to allow the opportunity to be counted as citizens of the United States,” said James Adakai, head of the Navajo Nation’s Complete Count Commission. “The census is a way to survive as First Americans, to survive with our culture, our land and our identity.”

The right to be counted

Native Americans were intentionally excluded from the census when the Constitution was written. Directly before the infamous “three-fifths” clause, Article 1, Section II of the Constitution states that “Indians not taxed” would not be included in the census count. It wasn’t until 1850 that Native Americans were counted in an organized manner at all, and that was mostly targeted toward “assimilated” Native Americans who lived in predominantly white communities and owned land on U.S. soil. In the first few censuses when Native Americans were counted, many were also skeptical of the federal government’s efforts: after all, this is the same government that had killed hundreds of thousands of Native Americans and pushed many off their land.

During the 20th century, the Census Bureau gradually changed the census to allow for a fuller count, adding a question about “tribal affiliation” in 1970. Political power had been hard to earn: Native Americans weren’t full U.S. citizens until 1924.

Reverend Smith enumerates a Navajo family during the 1930 census. The United States did not begin counting Native American residents until the mid-1800s.

In the 1940s, the National Congress of American Indians was formed, intent on securing voting rights and giving Native Americans a say in the nation that funds basic services on their lands.

“We have sort of a dual citizenship role. You know, we have our citizenship responsibilities for our tribal nations, and then we also have our citizenship responsibilities to the state and the country in which we reside,” said Lycia Maddocks, NCAI’s vice president of external affairs.

Because it counts who lives in the U.S., the census is tied to political power. Census information shows that the population of Native Americans is growing, but is underrepresented. From 2000 to 2018, the group’s share of total population doubled, according to census data.

Yet in the 2010 census, an estimated 4.88% of Native Americans living on reservations were undercounted, the biggest undercount of any ethnic group. That affects funding for health care and broadband, which are vital during a pandemic.

Maddocks said that because the government uses those low numbers, it can deprive Native Americans of basic services.

“Many people, including my mother, live down a dirt road,” Maddocks said. “If we’re undercounted, then we’re underfunded. That’s the bottom line.”

Natalie Landreth, a senior attorney at the Native American Rights Fund, said each person who does not answer the census costs their community $3,200.

In 2015, members of NARF like Landreth and other advocacy organizations formed the Native American Voting Rights Coalition to improve political representation of Native Americans. Landreth gives the example of the Yakima reservation in Washington state, where there is a clear, concentrated population of 30,000 Native Americans who might ordinarily be drawn into their own voting district. Instead, they’re divided into four voting districts, diluting their ability to elect a politician who represents their interests.

“The coalition identified problems in redistricting, and we walked back from there and we set a plan that we really needed to start with the census, and that’s why we’re here,” Landreth said. “That census data is really intricately linked more to political power, voting cases, redistricting cases, language assistance cases.”

Indeed, redistricting is proving to be a sticking point when it comes to the 2020 census. In response to questions from reporters, census officials have repeatedly said they are unable to meet key deadlines for reporting data to the federal government and to individual states. But states such as Colorado would ordinarily rely on the data to redistrict as early as 2021, and without a timely update, some are already considering pushing back redistricting efforts for at least two years to account for the lost time.

How those numbers will be determined, and whether they’ll be more or less accurate, remains unclear.

Making the 2020 census work

To boost response rates, the Census Bureau has invested in new technologies to make it easier for people to self-respond. But the most notable innovation, an online census, is ineffective in remote tribal communities where many don’t have access to broadband.

Nez, the Navajo Nation’s liaison, has been frustrated with the way the census has used technology this year. Enumerators in remote communities used laptops that were intended to use GPS and cellular service to help navigate and geolocate a person’s home. But the cellular service maps vastly overstated signal strength in rural Navajo country.

“During the tribal consultations, we had raised that issue that you know, if you rely on internet access, if you rely on cellular service on the Navajo Nation, it’s actually not a good strategy,” Nez said. “Some of these enumerators, they’re not adventurers. They don’t use maps very often. ... Those kinds of people were really lost.”

Beyond new technologies, the Census Bureau spent several years working with tribes on how to increase response rates. The Ute Mountain Ute and Southern Ute Indian tribes, for example, have put out PSAs to their communities and established booths at PPE dropoff locations to assist residents with completing the census.

Anabelle Talk, the Ute Mountain Utes’ census liaison, said her community planned several in-person events before the pandemic hit. On March 12, the tribal government held its first census event at the Towoac Recreation Center, where attendees used iPads to complete the questionnaire. She planned a big follow-up event for April 1, with another questionnaire booth and barbecue, but it was canceled by the pandemic.

“We were starting off really good in March,” Talk said. “We had it all planned out that we’re going to have this many events, and even April 1 was our big event.”

But the April 1 event was canceled. Since then, the reservation has been largely shut down, though Talk persuaded census employees to drop off census questionnaires on residents’ doorsteps. Nearly a dozen community members were hired to perform the in-person follow-ups to help people feel safe enough to open their doors and respond to questions.

“Our people here are comfortable with people with familiar faces that are coming to their door,” Talk said. “They can speak their own language, so if they can come across elders that don’t understand they can (still) speak.”

The Southern Ute Indian Tribe has performed outreach efforts of its own. In a statement provided to The Durango Herald, Southern Ute Indian Tribe spokeswoman Lindsay Box said the tribe considered the census “extremely important.” The tribe’s response has already exceeded its self-response rate from the previous census.

Currently, the Southern Ute Indian Tribe’s response rate is at 47.2%, among the highest of all reservations. The Ute Mountain Ute Tribe has a 30.5% response rate, and the Navajo Nation has a 14.7% response rate, among the lowest of all reservations.

Randall Akee is an associate professor of economics and American Indian studies at UCLA-Luskin, and served on the National Advisory Council on Race, Ethnic and Other Populations at the U.S. Census Bureau from 2013 to 2019. He said before the pandemic, it seemed the census was taking the issue of reaching out to underrepresented communities seriously.

“One of the big things we were always focused on is how to reach the hard-to-count population,” Akee said.

But the pandemic means that “everything went weird,” Akee said. The online option likely mitigated some of the response concerns, but remote communities simply need more time and resources for an accurate count.

“There are high costs of getting to places and getting to people in these particular communities, which is the reason why undercounts are prevalent.” Akee said.

On Aug. 11, census enumerators will begin the Non-Response Follow Up process, during which they travel to each house that has not responded to the census to help fill out the questionnaire. Adakai, the head of the Navajo Nation’s Complete Count Commission, said the nation’s government will do everything it can to push for a high response rate. But absent intervention from Congress, he’s worried it’s too late for a representative count.

“It seems like we’ve been forgotten too long, and we’re still being forgotten, and that’s why I think people need to come down from Washington and look at what we’re facing down here,” Adakai said. “People are strong, resilient. We just have to support one another and fight the challenges, fight the pandemic and fight the census count and make sure we’re not undercounted again.”

Jacob Wallace is an intern for The Durango Herald and The Journal and a student at American University in Washington, D.C.

Native Americans and the census

1789: Article 1, Section II of the Constitution states “Indians not taxed” are excluded from population counts, which was meant to specifically exclude Native Americans living in their own communities (as opposed to those of mixed descent living in white communities) or, later, on reservations.

1850: Rough estimates of the Native American population were published in the census for the first time, though these numbers were based on those prepared by the newly created Indian Department for the Secretary of War.

1860: Native Americans who were considered “assimilated” were counted in the census, and were noted as “civilized Indians” in census documents.

1890: The first time Native Americans were counted throughout the country and those results were published in official census totals, though relatively few resources were devoted to the endeavor. A single agent was sent to enumerate the entire Navajo reservation.

1930: The census includes an additional form in its questionnaire for Native American populations.

1940: The first time Native American populations were included in the total census population count. Enumerators themselves chose the race of census respondents.

1970: The census includes a question about tribal affiliation for the first time.

1980: The census counts Inuits and Aleuts for the first time as distinct ethnic groups.

2000: The census combines the Native American/Alaska Native ethnic group in its questionnaire, which remains the case today.

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