The 2020 census was planned well in advance to ensure that Native Americans living on reservations were counted more accurately than they were in 2010, when nearly 5% of the population was missed.
COVID-19, politics, and an ever-changing deadline that shortened the decennial count were not in those plans.
Instead of canvassing neighborhoods and setting up at large events like the Gathering of Nations in New Mexico, advocates resorted to phone banking, leaving promotional materials at the entrances to tribal lands that were closed to visitors, and bribing people to fill out the census with sacks of flour and potatoes at roadside stands.
Despite a well-funded campaign, Native Americans believe those living on approximately 300 reservations across the United States will be undercounted. They’ll find out on Thursday how well the Census Bureau thinks it did in counting every U.S. resident during the 2020 census when the statistical agency releases two reports assessing the national count based on race, Hispanic origin, gender, and age.
According to the 2020 census data, there are now 9.7 million people who identify as American Indian or Alaska Native, either alone or in combination with another race — a significant increase from 5.2 million in 2010.
Because the census allows people to self-identify, the numbers don’t match up with tribes’ own enrollment figures. Tribes have stricter enrollment criteria, which can include calculating one’s ancestry percentage or tracing lineage to a list of names. Even so, evidence that people were overlooked can be startlingly obvious. The Havasupai Tribe in northern Arizona, for example, had no one who self-reported to the census, according to census data.
According to the tribe’s chairman, Thomas Siyuja Sr., that is impossible because he knows people who completed the census online and by mail and encouraged others to do the same. He speculated that some tribal members may have been hesitant to open their doors to a census taker who went door to door in Supai Village, which is located deep in a gorge off the Grand Canyon.
Until the twentieth century, Native Americans were not routinely counted in the once-decade census. They were first counted on reservations and in the general population in 1900, decades before the United States recognized them as citizens. More recent changes allow Native Americans, Alaska Natives, and other Indigenous peoples to write in their tribal or community affiliations.
Even before the results were released on Thursday, tribal leaders were concerned that the coronavirus pandemic would contribute to an undercount. Tribes across the country closed their reservations, making follow-up interviews with unresponsive households difficult for door-knocking census takers and forcing advocates to get creative.
Tribal advocates in New Mexico campaigned on social media, radio, and through videos produced in eight Indigenous languages. They distributed census-themed coloring books, set up Wi-Fi hotspots to assist communities struggling with internet access, and distributed flyers informing people that census data is used to fund head start programs, health care, and housing, according to Chavez.
The Klamath Tribes, based in Chiloquin, Oregon, held raffles and drive-thru dinner events to help people fill out the census, and drew attention to inaccurate tribal housing figures in the 2010 census in a video. According to Tribal Councilwoman Willa Powless, the data showed 38 homes on tribal land, but the tribe had more than 80.
The Census Bureau initially planned to send up to 1,000 census takers to the Navajo Nation, the country’s largest Native American reservation, which spans 27,000 square miles (69,000 square kilometers) in Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona. According to James Tucker, an attorney with the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights who chairs a Census Bureau advisory committee, the peak number was less than 300.
North Dakota state Rep. Marvin Nelson, whose district includes the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa reservation, is concerned about a severe undercount in his district as a result of the pandemic’s disruption of census operations. According to him, his county is expected to have 12,000 residents in the 2020 census, while federal figures put the tribal population alone at 17,500 people.