Indian country leaders urge indigenous people to be counted in 2020 census

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Native Americans living on reservations and in traditional villages were the most underrated people in the 2010 U.S. Census. This year, U.S. tribal leaders are urging Native Americans and Alaska Natives to be seen and counted in the 2020 U.S. Census.

The constitutionally mandated census counts everyone living in the United States every 10 years. The data obtained is used by federal and state governments to determine political representation and allocate funds to education, social services and other programs. Undercoverage translates into less money, less political representation and access to fewer resources.

The Census Bureau estimates that it underestimated American Indians living on reserves and Alaskan natives in villages by about 4.9% in 2010. This was more than double the rate of under – enumeration of the next closest population group, African Americans, who had an undercoverage rate of 2.1%. . This undercoverage was a significant improvement over previous censuses. In 1990, the census neglected more than 12% of American Indians and Alaska Natives living on their traditional lands.

The American government has counted and followed American Indians since the beginning of the 19th century, creating numerous “rolls” or lists. These roles were used for many reasons – to remove tribes from western Mississippi, to pay annuities outlined in government-to-government treaties, or to divide tribal lands into individual plots. Given this long history of counting Native Americans, why has the Census Bureau underestimated so many Native Americans?

Obstacles to an accurate count

Some traditional Native American lands may not have a mailing address, information requested in the count.
AP Photo / Blake Nicholson

Native Americans and Alaska Natives have proven difficult to count for a number of reasons. Perhaps more importantly, many Native Americans and Alaska Natives do not trust the federal government. Federal Indian policies removed tribes from their traditional lands and forced Indigenous children from their families to attend residential schools. For some tribal citizens, the arrival of a federal official at their doorstep may evoke memories of the historical trauma their parents and grandparents faced at the hands of the US government.

Some Aboriginal people who are ready to engage with the federal government may wonder if their information will be kept confidential and protected. Some researchers have taken advantage of the trust of Indigenous people and abused their information in the past, making them suspicious of how data collected about them will be stored and used.

The 2020 U.S. Census began in Toksook Bay, Alaska, a coastal village on the Bering Sea.
Photo AP / Gregory Bull

American Indians and Alaska Natives can be difficult to enumerate simply because more than 25% of them live in hard-to-enumerate areas. For example, the 2020 U.S. Census was launched in Native Alaskan villages in January because it may be easier to reach remote villages before the snow melts.

Some American Indians and Alaska Natives share characteristics of other hard-to-enumerate populations in rural America, such as poverty, isolated locations, housing insecurity, and a low graduation rate. lower secondary education.

Finally, the census is not well designed for American Indians or Alaska Natives. Not all American Indians and Alaska Natives speak English. This year, the census form is translated into a single Native American language, Navajo, although there are now approximately 175 Native American languages ​​spoken in the United States. Some Native communities in Alaska and New Mexico provide their own translations and instructions in their language.

Others face challenges because the forms do not provide enough space to write their names or the names of their tribes. They may not be able to provide the type of address required because they are using a post office box or because there is no civic address. Still others, especially if they are Métis, may have difficulty knowing which box to tick. Even though they are tribal citizens, in the past they may not have been counted as Indians under federal law or may have been eligible to receive federal services for Indians.

In addition to these obstacles, the 2020 U.S. Census will rely heavily on the Internet, a technology that a third of Indigenous people living on reserves and in traditional villages still do not have access to.

What’s at stake

Indigenous leaders know that census undercoverages diminish their political power and the funding allocated to them by the federal government. Politically, an accurate tally ensures that Indigenous peoples receive the representation they deserve in Congress.

Census data also inform federal policy. The US Constitution recognizes tribes as sovereign nations that have a government-to-government relationship with the federal government. Congress, rather than the states, is empowered to set federal Indian policy. Federal officials, members of Congress and tribal leaders rely on census data to develop policies that effectively meet the needs of Indigenous peoples. For example, inaccurate counts of Aboriginal youth may limit the behavioral health services provided to them, even though they face higher risks of suicide and substance abuse than other youth.

The federal government allocates nearly US $ 1 billion in annual federal resources to the Indian country based on census data. The Native American and Alaska Native governments use this money to provide education assistance to low-income children, employment and training programs, health services, special programs for the elderly, as well as Indian housing and community development. Without an accurate tally, tribal governments do not receive adequate funding for these programs and are less able to meet the needs of their people.

Overcome mistrust

Indigenous leaders in the United States have worked to educate Indigenous people about the importance of being counted in the 2020 US Census. The National Congress of American Indians, the oldest, largest and most representative of Native American and Native organizations in Alaska, launched a public education campaign and designed a toolkit to help tribes and natives participate in the census.

The tribes devoted considerable energy and resources to preventing another undercount. Starting in 2015, they consulted with the Census Bureau on how to forge collaborative relationships to overcome barriers to enumeration in the Indian country. Tribal leaders use their expertise to reach their own communities by developing outreach plans to encourage tribal participation and by hiring tribal citizens to collect census data. For tribes, an accurate tally will improve their ability to exercise sovereignty over their lands and people.

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