FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — Plans for the 2020 census were made well in advance to ensure Native Americans living on reservations are counted more accurately than in the 2010 census, when nearly 5% of the population been missed.
COVID-19, politics and an ever-changing timeline that has reduced the 10-year count were not in those plans.
Instead of soliciting neighborhoods and settling in at gigantic events like the Gathering of Nations in New Mexico, advocates have turned to phone banking, dropped off promotional materials at entrances to tribal lands closed to visitors and tried to entice people to fill the census with sacks of flour and potatoes at the roadside stalls.
Despite a well-funded campaign, Native Americans expect those who live on roughly 300 reservations across the United States to be underappreciated again. They will find out on Thursday how well the Census Bureau thinks it has done counting every U.S. resident in the 2020 census when the statistical agency releases two reports assessing the national tally based on race, Hispanic, of sex and age.
“At the end of the day, when you have your whole religious calendar that’s been interrupted, when you’re watching ‘How can I bear this huge health risk in my community’, it really wasn’t at the forefront of the everyone’s mind,” said Ahtza Chavez, executive director of the NAVA Education Project, which led the New Mexico Native Census Coalition.
2020 census figures showed there are now 9.7 million people who are Native American and Alaska Native, alone or in combination with another race – a significant increase from 5.2 million in 2010.
The numbers do not match tribal registration numbers, in part because the census allows people to identify themselves. Tribes have stricter registration criteria which may include calculating one’s ancestry percentage or tracing lineage to a list of names.
Yet the evidence that people have been missed can be surprisingly obvious. For example, census data showed that the Havasupai tribe in northern Arizona had no one who responded to the census.
Tribal members were encouraged to complete the census online and by mail, and respond to an enumerator, said tribal chairman Thomas Siyuja Sr. They might have been reluctant to open the door, however, because of the coronavirus, he said. The tribe’s reservation at the bottom of a gorge off the Grand Canyon has been largely closed to outsiders during the pandemic.
“It is not certain that our census count is zero because obviously we exist as a tribe, and we have tribal members and other residents who live in Supai,” Siyuja said in an email on Tuesday.
Until the 20th century, Native Americans were not regularly counted in the once-a-decade census. They were first counted on reservations and in the general population in 1900, decades before the United States considered them citizens.
More recent changes allow Native Americans, Alaska Natives, and other indigenous peoples to write about their ties to specific tribes or communities.
The numbers are important because they are used to distribute $1.5 trillion in federal funding each year and to determine representation in Congress. Montana won a congressional seat after the last census, but Arizona fell short of the number needed to add one.
The tribal self-response rate among tribes in Arizona, not including the Navajo Nation, was less than 27%. The tribes of Montana and the Dakotas did not fare much better. Washington State had the highest self-response rate for tribes, at around 60%.
Even before Thursday’s results were released, tribal leaders feared the coronavirus pandemic was contributing to an undercount. Tribes across the country have closed their reservations, making follow-up interviews with unresponsive households nearly impossible for enumerators going door-to-door and forcing advocates to get creative.
In New Mexico, tribal advocates campaigned on social media, radio and through videos produced in eight indigenous languages. They handed out coloring books with census messages, rolled out Wi-Fi hotspots to help communities struggling with internet access, and printed flyers to let people know that Starter Centers, Care Health and housing are funded by census data, Chavez said.
“We went above and beyond like miracle workers,” she said.
The Klamath Tribes, based in Chiloquin, Oregon, held raffles and drive-through dinners to help people fill out the census and drew attention in a video to inaccurate tribal housing counts during the 2010 census. Tribal Councilor Willa Powless said the data showed 38 houses on the tribe’s land, but the tribe had more than 80.
“It really motivated people to want to participate,” she said. “It was a shock to the tribesmen to see how underappreciated we were.”
In the last census in 2010, there was a 4.8% net undercount of Native Americans and Alaska Natives living on reservations, the highest of any race. Blacks were underrated by more than 2%, Hispanics were underrated by 1.5%, and Asians were underrated by 0.08%. Non-Hispanic whites were overcounted by 0.8%.
Chavez thinks the undercount will be higher for Native Americans this time around. While a handful of pueblos have had high self-response rates due to previous broadband investments, others have not, she said.
Many tribal lands were still closed when field census operations ended in mid-October 2020. By then, plans had already gotten complicated.
The Census Bureau originally planned for up to 1,000 enumerators to spread across the Navajo Nation – the largest Native American reservation in the United States, covering 27,000 square miles in Utah, New Mexico and Arizona. He ended up with fewer than 300 people at the top, said James Tucker, an attorney with the Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights who chairs a Census Bureau advisory committee.
North Dakota State Rep. Marvin Nelson, whose district includes the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa reservation, has been concerned about severe undercounts in his district since census operations were halted by the pandemic. He said his county was believed to have 12,000 people at the 2020 census, while federal numbers put the tribal population alone at 17,500.
“The way the census was conducted was really problematic,” Nelson said last week. “Hardly anyone received a census mailing, and then due to COVID there was no door-to-door from the census takers.
Fonseca covers Indigenous Peoples for AP’s Race and Ethnicity team. Follow her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/FonsecaAP. Schneider reported from Orlando, Florida. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/MikeSchneiderAP