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Know the West

An inaccurate census has major implications for Indian Country

Indigenous people are frequently undercounted, undermining political power and representation.


The first place the U.S. Census Bureau surveyed for the 2020 census was Tooksook Bay, Alaska, part of the agency’s long tradition of conducting early counts in the state’s remote villages. In March, with about half of rural Alaska still uncounted, enumerators were pulled out of the field because of COVID-19, as the bureau shifted its schedule to accommodate the barriers the pandemic presented. Then, in August, the Census Bureau quietly released an updated deadline for the census, moving it from Oct. 31 to Sept. 30, eliminating four weeks of critical outreach. September is moose-hunting season in Alaska, so people are generally harder to reach; it’s also the beginning of storm season, which means power outages and delays for mail delivery by plane. As a result, despite the early start, Alaskans in general and Native Alaskans in particular are still lagging behind the national average in their response rates.

“In terms of wrapping up the census, there’s not a worst time for rural Alaska and Alaska Natives,” Nicole Borromeo (McGrath Native Village), executive vice president and general counsel of the Alaska Federation of Natives. This is the first time the census has been available to complete online or by phone in Alaska, a necessary option given the pandemic, but the process has run into issues of internet and phone connectivity. Meanwhile, many Alaska Natives are still waiting for someone to show up at their door, questionnaire in hand, though Borromeo has warned, “A numerator in rural Alaska is not coming. Do not wait a second longer.”

Selena Rides Horse speaks with Gerald Pease at a drive-thru station set up by Western Native Voice in Lodge Grass, Montana, to help members of the Crow Indian Tribe participate in the U.S. Census.
Matthew Brown/AP Photo

The current census hurdles are not only affecting Alaska Natives: The pandemic has severely stymied the 2020 census throughout Indian Country, as many tribes closed reservation borders to nonresidents, including census workers. The U.S. census typically undercounts Indigenous populations, more than any other group in the country. This ultimately limits Indigenous political representation, owing to redistricting, and it also decreases federal funding for things like schools, houses and health care.

Data from the U.S. census provides the primary measurement by which federal funds are directed to tribal governments, putting $675 billion at stake. To distribute funds to tribes for the Coronavirus Aid Relief and Economic Security Act, for example, the federal government relied on the 2010 census. That census had an estimated undercount of 4.9%, so tribes received less than they would have, given an accurate count. This year’s count is shaping up to be much lower — something closer to 1990’s 12% undercount — meaning tribes will have far fewer resources in the decade ahead to recover from the pandemic and the economic turmoil it has produced. “The communities that are being undercounted are the same ones being hardest hit by COVID-19,” said Jaime Gloshay (White Mountain Apache), the founder of Native Women Lead, who has worked on get-out-the-count efforts in New Mexico.

“So if we don’t have an accurate and complete count of Native Americans and Alaska Natives, the federal government is breaching its special responsibility to our people.”

An accurate count is not just about funding, or districting, or representation in government; it also reflects the U.S. government’s trust obligations to Indigenous nations. “Today, that trust responsibility is upheld primarily through federal funding formulas, based on census data,” Borromeo said. “So if we don’t have an accurate and complete count of Native Americans and Alaska Natives, the federal government is breaching its special responsibility to our people.”

The Trump administration does not appear to be invested in an accurate count. In July, the White House published a memo excluding undocumented immigrants from the census. In it, President Donald Trump wrote that states that “encourage” undocumented immigrants “should not be rewarded with greater representation in the House of Representatives,” and that such exclusion is “more consonant with the principles of representative democracy underpinning our system of Government.” Soon after, the U.S. Census Bureau shortened the count.

Tribal nations, meanwhile, have played a large role in pushing for a longer, more accurate count. In early September, a lawsuit to reinstate the longer count was brought by nonprofits, local governments and tribes, including the Navajo Nation, whose census response rate at the time was just 12.8%.

The Native Voice Network, a nationwide coalition of 40 Native-led organizations, also began pushing Congress to restore the original Oct. 31 deadline, reaching out to individual lawmakers and organizing petitions with thousands of signatures to call for an accurate count. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, whose constituency is heavily Indigenous, joined a bipartisan group of 48 members of Congress to call for an extension. “People understand that this is a politically motivated effort to undermine our political clout and to strip us of resources,” Chrissie Castro (Navajo), who helps coordinate the network’s efforts, said in an interview. “We’re already stripped of so many resources, so this is just particularly egregious and very shortsighted.” 

Anna V. Smith is an assistant editor for High Country News. Email us at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor