Skip to content Skip to footer

Making Sure the Census Counts Indian Country

Undercounting in the last census adversely affected tribal governments’ funding.

Demonstrators rally at the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., on April 23, 2019, to protest a proposal to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census.

It was easy to miss an important case from the Supreme Court last week. There were a lot of folks waiting for that last-minute decision from the Murphy case looking at the reservation status of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation.

But just as important: How the country counts the population.

The Supreme Court ruled last week in the New York v. United States Department of Commerce case to keep the citizenship question off of the Census forms in 2020. Tuesday afternoon the Trump administration announced it would print census forms without the citizenship question.


Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference Education Fund, said: “The people have spoken, the courts have spoken, and finally, the Trump administration has conceded — there will be no 2020 Census citizenship question.”

“Now we double down on the work to ensure a fair and accurate count. We remain particularly committed to ensuring that hard-to-count communities, especially those understandably fearful of this administration’s motives, take part in the next census,” said Gupta. “Through our Census Counts campaign, and alongside our allies, we will stay focused on making sure everyone is counted so that all of our country’s communities get the representation and resources they deserve.”

Oliver “OJ” Semans, Rosebud Sioux and executive director of Four Directions, is involved in one of the four cases opposing the citizenship question on the Census. He is listed as an individual plaintiff in the La Union Del Pueblo Entero v. Ross case in the Maryland court. There is no rush on his case anymore.

Semans said it was a “proper” decision made by the Supreme Court.

The justices decided to kick the case back to the lower courts because the government didn’t give a strong enough reason for why the question needed to be added in the first place. The case is a matter of discriminatory action now.

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the majority opinion and said there is a “disconnect between the decision made and the explanation given” by the Trump administration.


Wilbur Ross, commerce secretary, who supervises the Census Bureau, gave the greenlight to add the question last year. Ross said the question would enforce the Voting Rights Act. The act was passed in 1965 and the citizenship question hasn’t appeared on the Census forms since.

The Supreme Court needed to make a decision before July 1 so the 1.5 billion Census forms and mailings could be printed.

As of yesterday, the printing did not start. NPR reported that the census materials “did not appear to have been officially approved by the White House’s Office of Management and Budget.”

However, little does mainstream media (and some of Indian Country) understand or know that tribal citizens do get confused about the citizenship question, too.

Semans does know. He said Indian Country is “unaware” of how a citizenship question on the 2020 Census could cause harm to Native communities.

If the citizenship question were to be included Semans said it “will result in a larger undercount from previous Census.”

“The main reason our organization, Four Directions, and me personally became involved is our work in Indian Country, in the U.S., we have come into situations over and over where tribal members identify their citizenship with their tribal nations and not the United States,” he said. “We thought it was very important to have the court distinguish that citizen question because of that.”

His organization has been involved heavily in voting rights coalition since 2004. They traveled around the country to different communities in Indian Country and heard the same questions and concerns about the citizenship question.


Seman said Indian Country is already undercounted from the last Census and it “adversely affected tribal governments funding.”

The Census Bureau reported an undercount of American Indians in the last three Censuses. In 1990, there was a 12.2 percent undercount of American Indians on reservations, a 0.7 percent undercount in 2000, and a 4.9 percent undercount in the 2010 Census.

Not being counted hurts Indian Country, Semans said.

“Basically for every person that is not counted in Indian Country, you can put the amount of $3,000 on each person,” he said. “If they identify themselves as a citizenship of their tribal nations and that is on there, it’s really going to be hard. It’s going to cost us more as far as tribes, tribal housing and transportation, health services so that’s the main reason why we decided that we need to be part of this.”

The majority of the funding comes from the treaty obligation but the government uses the Census data to determine how much money that is, Semans said.

Kitcki Carroll, executive director of the United South and Eastern Tribes, Inc., asked the executive committee of the National Congress of American Indians at the organization’s mid-year meeting, why tribal nations should participate in a process that is race based when tribal nations are sovereign nations and political entities.

Semans agrees.

“That type of attitude is correct,” Semans said. “We’re nations that have been created by treaties.”


On top of the citizenship question, Indian Country faces the hurdles of being one of the hard-to-count populations and not trusting the government at all.

The decennial census helps the government how the $900 billion should be allocated across the country.

President Donald J. Trump is hoping to delay the Census.

“Seems totally ridiculous that our government, and indeed Country, cannot ask a basic question, of Citizenship in a very expensive, detailed and important Census, in this case for 2020,” he tweeted. “Can anyone really believe that as a great Country, we are not able the ask whether or not someone is a Citizen. Only in America!”

While everyone is asking why such a question should be added, the Brennan Center for Justice thinks the move may have “political motives.”

The center says those who want the question included on the Census forms may want to change the apportionment of congressional seats and they want to “meddle in the next round of redistricting.”


The Census data is used to help redraw district lines so the number of congressional seats matches the population correctly.

The first count is set to start in January in Toksook Bay, Alaska.

A critical message, before you scroll away

You may not know that Truthout’s journalism is funded overwhelmingly by individual supporters. Readers just like you ensure that unique stories like the one above make it to print – all from an uncompromised, independent perspective.

At this very moment, we’re conducting a fundraiser with a goal to raise $46,000 in the next 8 days. So, if you’ve found value in what you read today, please consider a tax-deductible donation in any size to ensure this work continues. We thank you kindly for your support.