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Paper Genocide: The Barriers to an Accurate Count of Native People in 2020

Undercounting American Indians and Alaska Natives wreaks havoc on tribal communities today and for generations to come.

Madonna Sitting Bear is pictured with her children on April 4, 2019, in Mission, South Dakota. Undercounting of Indigenous communities has multiple negative consequences, including lowering representation of Native communities in Congress, causing funding deficits for health and human services, and hindering tribal recognition.

As the country prepares for the 2020 census, many tribal governments and communities are still awaiting an accurate count of the most undercounted group in the United States: American Indians (AI) and Alaska Natives (AN). Though the 2020 census is the first to offer an online response form, that will have little impact in increasing AI and AN participation given existing barriers. At the same time, the undercounting of AI and AN people wreaks havoc on tribal communities today, and it will for generations to come.

The AI and AN population is increasing at a faster pace than the total U.S. population, yet it remains among the hardest-to-count groups for the census. Dr. James Tucker testified before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs on February 14, 2018 that barriers to an accurate count of AI and AN people include a distrust of the U.S. government, a youth-heavy population nontraditional addresses, low internet access, language and literacy barriers, weather and road access issues, and high rates of poverty and houselessness. Despite acknowledgement of these barriers, the U.S. government has changed little to address them.

As I discussed in Part One of this two-part series on the U.S. census and Native communities, the undercounting of AI and AN people has multiple negative consequences, including lowering the representation of our communities in Congress, causing funding deficits for health and human services, and hindering tribal recognition and enrollment for AI and AN people. It also endangers voting rights: Political jurisdictions use census data to ensure, for example, that AI and AN voters have language assistance while voting. (Of the 350 languages spoken in U.S. homes, 150 of them are Native languages.)

An inaccurate census count is a form of paper genocide. It is another way for the United States to deny the treaty rights of AI and AN people and nations.

A “Hard-to-Count” Population

Approximately 26 percent of Native people live in what the Census Bureau considers “hard-to-count” census tracts. Many AI and AN people living on tribal lands don’t have traditional addresses. Their homes are often referenced by their proximity to a landmark, office, or intersection. These individuals typically use post office boxes to receive mail, and several families may use the same one. North Dakota legislators recently used this lack of traditional addresses to disenfranchise Native voters in the state.

Alaska, Arizona, and New Mexico have some of the highest percentages of hard-to-count populations partially due to weather and road access. Only one-fifth of the Navajo Reservation roads in Utah — part of the largest reservation in the country — have been paved, while one-quarter are gravel and more than half are dirt, according to the Rural Community Assistance Corporation (RCAC). “Hazardous under normal conditions, the roads frequently become impassable after heavy rain or snow, and Utah Navajos overwhelmingly agree that their roads are unbearable,” wrote RCAC’s Mariamne Beuscher.

Dee Alexander, intergovernmental tribal affairs specialist at the Census Bureau, told me that census enumerators will use bush planes, dogsleds, snowmobiles, ATVS, and horseback to access these areas.

Because some Alaska Native communities are only accessible via ice roads, and community members will often leave their homes for traditional hunting and fishing or warm-weather jobs, enumeration will begin in Toksook Bay, Alaska, in January 2020. The census will begin on April 1 for the rest of the country.

Group quarters — including military housing, jails, prisons, and other institutions — are also considered hard-to-count communities. After controlling for population size, AI and AN people are incarcerated at rates higher than any other ethnic group in the United States. (There’s scant data on AI and AN people in the criminal justice system given they are often not separated out in Bureau of Justice Statistics, but our communities are too familiar with the overrepresentation of AI and AN people in prisons and jails.) Alexander told me that group quarter enumeration will be separate from self-response forms and that people are counted based on where they live and sleep most of the time. For individuals who are incarcerated, institutionalized in civilian or military facilities or military personnel deployed, stationed, or on a military vessel ported out the United States on census day, the agency responsible for the facility provides the information using their recorded demographic data. Given the propensity to erase indigeneity in data collection, this will likely result in a large undercount of these populations.

Even when individuals have the opportunity to complete the census forms themselves, there remain limitations in how Indigenous people can report their ethnic and racial identities. AI and AN are used as racial categories by the Census Bureau for Indigenous people whose ancestral lands fall across the “Americas” regardless of their citizenship status. However, many of these Indigenous people may identify on the census as Hispanic. Native Hawaiians, despite being an Indigenous group, are included with other Pacific Islanders, which limits the reliability of data on Native Hawaiian populations. This has led some in the Indigenous community to question the outdated racial and ethnic categories of the census, which were last updated in 1997, and its potential of lowering the Indigenous response. This becomes even more detrimental for AI and AN people who are mixed race or of more than one tribal nation.

The National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), the longest-running AI and AN organization in the United States, is advising AI and AN people to only identify as AI and AN, and not as mixed race on the census. Checking AI and AN and another racial group will often result in population reports that lump the two groups into a single category as “two or more races,” along with all non-Native people who also report multiple races.

“While we never want to discount the multiple identities people have, we are aware that identifying these multiple identities defaults to the ‘majority’ race and then absents our community,” said Kerry Hawk Lessard, executive director of Native American Lifelines, an urban Indian health program funded by the Indian Health Services. “It is critical that we are counted, especially when … there is inconsistent data collection practices around AI/AN, particularly in health and morbidity reports.”

The same can be said of the gender question, which only allows respondents to choose male or female, erasing those that are Two Spirit, non-binary, and transgender.

Culturally Relevant Engagement

Distrust of the U.S. government and a lack of cultural competency by decision makers are also key barriers to an accurate count of AI and AN communities. In the most comprehensive survey to date of Native voters, the Native American Voting Rights Coalition (NAVRC) found a low level of trust in the federal, state, and local non-tribal governments.

Chief Randy Crummie of the Santee Indian Organization, a state-recognized tribe in South Carolina, said in a tribal consultation with the Census Bureau that an accurate count of the Santee people will never occur through the census because of the distrust in the U.S. government. More than 500 years of ongoing genocide, removals, environmental exploitation leading to human rights violations, and Trump’s anti-Indigenous violence and rhetoric have left many Indigenous people across the country afraid to respond to census questions.

When U.S. officials engage with tribal governments to ensure a fair and accurate count, their outreach often “lacks the cultural sensitivity necessary to be effective,” said Tucker in his Senate testimony. Tucker went on to explain that a member of the Yakama Tribe in Washington state attended a census meeting where a non-Native trainer attempted to explain to Native enumerators what actions they needed to take to be culturally appropriate for their communities. The Yakama member left the meeting and later told a fellow attendee that it was inappropriate for a non-Native to try and teach him about his own culture, according to Tucker’s testimony.

Some elected officials with historically undercounted constituents are working to address these cultural differences and the fears among AI and AN communities, but the issue is deeply rooted and the current administration isn’t helping. “Every single person in this country counts, but this administration continues its work to disenfranchise communities across this country and our state to instill fear in the census process,” Democratic Rep. Deb Haaland of the Laguna Pueblo in New Mexico told me. “I’m raising awareness so people aren’t afraid to fill out their census document and know how important it is to get an accurate count for our state.”

Haaland, one of the first two Native women to be elected to Congress, is working in partnership with the New Mexico state government as well as cities, counties, and local organizations and is planning outreach events and promoting census jobs and volunteer positions.

Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland told me that he’s “highly aware of the importance of an accurate census and has taken several actions to ensure that every single Marylander is counted.” His efforts have included advocating for appropriations that provide full funding for census operations, organizing town halls and other public events to highlight the importance of the census, hosting a discussion between the Maryland congressional delegation and Census Bureau leadership to discuss concerns over the prospect of including a citizenship question on census forms, and pushing for state leaders to address their preparations for the census with more urgency. The senator’s efforts are particularly notable considering that in 2017, funds were diverted from the Census Bureau call center in Hagerstown, Maryland, to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Maryland is home to three state-recognized tribes, which have expressed concern regarding the lower funding and resources they received for the census.

To further assist officials and Indigenous communities in explaining the importance of responding, NCAI has released a toolkit clarifying how the 2020 census will operate.

Internet Access on Tribal Lands

Internet access will also be a major issue for the 2020 census, as it is the first year people in the United States can participate online. According to the American Indian Policy Institute’s Tribal Technology Assessment, 18 percent of reservation residents lack internet access at home. Some tribal lands, such as the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming, have unreliable and very limited internet access. Nearly one-fourth of AI and AN people are living in poverty, so even if the internet is available nearby, they often can’t afford the technology to participate in the census online.

Federal officials have also raised concerns of internet trolls who might get in the way of an accurate count by spreading inaccurate information online. Given the general distrust of the U.S. government among Native populations, such activity might further dissuade AI and AN people from participating in the census.

Other Barriers to an Accurate Count

The Census Bureau will hire up to 500,000 temporary workers for 2020, according to Alexander. NCAI has raised concerns that the lower pay and temporary nature of the work will lead to higher employee turnover — a concern on tribal lands, where there will be few enumerators to conduct counts to begin with. The lower pay and temporary nature of the work lends itself to a high employee turnover, according to NCAI. At the same time, tribal liaisons, who coordinate among the Census Bureau, tribal governments, and tribal members to increase AI and AN participation in 2020, are unpaid positions. These liaisons are trusted members in tribal communities and are vital to the success of a proper 2020 count and are often appointed by tribal government. If NCAI is concerned with turnover for those that are paid, then it stands to reason that the tribal liaisons could be ineffective at ensuring an accurate count.

Funding issues around the 2020 Census don’t end at the pay of enumerators and tribal leaders. Congress and the federal government chronically underfunds the Census Bureau. According to Alexander, “budget uncertainty” led the Census Bureau to cancel tests on the Standing Rock Sioux and Coleville reservations, which would have helped the government better understand the best questions and formats to use to ensure high AI and AN response in 2020. At least one test was held in Providence County, Rhode Island, but there is a low recorded AI and AN population in the region, at 1.4 percent in the county and 1.1 percent in the state. So the test may not be reflective of the broader challenges facing Native people across the country.

Due to federal funding concerns, some state and city governments are now picking up the federal government’s slack by funding their own census count projects. California and New York City have allocated funding to ensure an accurate 2020 count for all of their residents.

The California Complete Count – Census 2020 office notes that it is coordinating the “state’s outreach and communication strategy, which focuses on the hardest-to-count Californians.” Of all regions in the 2010 census with residents who identified as American Indian and Alaska Native alone or in combination with another race, California had the largest percentage, with 110 federally recognized tribes in the state and nearly 80 more petitioning for recognition. For its 2020 effort, the state has allocated $3.12 million to fund multiple prongs of AI and AN outreach, including a media campaign to provide services specifically to tribal governments and AI and AN urban communities.

In New York City, the 2010 census found the AI and AN population was 111,749, the largest urban Native population in the country. That same census reported a response rate of less than 62 percent in the region, 14 percent lower than the national average. To combat this, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office and the City Council has funded a multi-pronged operation, called NYC Census 2020, totaling $40 million. The efforts will include multilingual, tailored messaging and an engagement plan that “seeks to leverage the power of the City’s 350,000-strong workforce and the city’s major institutions, including libraries, hospitals, faith-based, cultural, and higher educational institutions, among others, to communicate with New Yorkers about the critical importance of census participation,” according to the initiative’s website.

“NYC Census 2020 is deeply committed to a full and accurate count of all New Yorkers in the upcoming census, especially those in historically undercounted and marginalized communities,” Julie Menin, director of NYC Census 2020, told me. “This is why … we are collaborating with hundreds of advocates and organizations across all groups in New York City, including local Native American community leaders, to increase our city’s overall self-response rate. Our efforts aim to combat the historic erasure of indigenous cultures and peoples and to ensure that every New Yorker gets their fair share of political representation.”

Kathleen Daniel, field director for the NYC Census 2020, added that the censusis your RSVP to what could be the greatest party on the planet: living in America … by filling in the census you’re RSVPing so your host, the amazing country that we live in, can be prepared for you.”

No one I contacted at the NYC 2020 Count program, however, could list a single AI and AN community leader or organization they’re partnering with to ensure an accurate count. Given the contentious relationship that many AI and AN people and tribal nations have with the United States and lack of trust in the census, it seems unlikely New York City’s effort will appeal to many AI and AN people in the region.

In NCAI President Jefferson Keel’s testimony before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs in February 2018, he cited the 2010 Census Barriers, Attitudes, and Motivators Survey (CBAMS) to give evidence of the AI and AN population’s distrust of the census. CBAMS stated that AI and AN people didn’t consider the census a “civic responsibility,” and that they had a “unique belief profile.” AI and AN people expressed skepticism of the purpose, use, and security of census data more than any other racial or ethnic group. They were “particularly characterized by suspicion about the use and purpose of the Census,” according to Keel.

Despite the many valid reasons of suspicion and distrust in the U.S. government and census, it’s vital that an accurate count of Indigenous communities occurs. Without this, we experience not only the loss of resources that our ancestors gave through their blood and land in treaty negotiations, but we suffer a continued genocide through data erasure. If we are to stand with our ancestors and fight for the well-being of the seven generations to come, then we must push local, state, and federal governments to meaningfully and respectfully work with tribal government and community leaders to finally achieve an accurate count.

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