Why Aboriginal People “Must Count” in the 2020 Census


Potential voters and leaders of the Quinault Indian Nation gather in Taholah, Grays Harbor County, October 29, 2018. Tribal leaders encourage Native Americans to vote in the upcoming election to be represented as a bloc of vote. This year, leaders are once again encouraging tribal members to participate in the U.S. census and the government to do a better job of creating a more accurate count. (Dorothy Edwards / Crosscut)

How does underestimation occur?

In the past, the Census Bureau has referred to historically underestimated populations as “hard to count communities.” But Elsa Batres-Boni, strategic census advisor with the Seattle Department of Neighborhoods, said calling them “undercounted” paints a better picture.

“When the census uses ‘hard to count’ it puts the blame on people,” she said. “It’s not that people don’t want to participate. When we call it historically underrated, we focus on the barriers to participation.

These barriers differ from community to community, sometimes including language barriers, a lack of internet access, or a simple lack of information. After all, it’s easy to overlook the details of an event that only happens once every 10 years. Batres-Boni said those obstacles are currently being exacerbated by the coronavirus outbreak, which has prompted community organizations in Washington to cancel in-person outreach events.

Even so, the work to increase the numbers in underrepresented communities began long before the virus hit. The Census Bureau launched the first efforts for the census in January in Alaska, focusing on Native Alaskan communities three months ahead of everyone else. The office also employed Aboriginal census liaison officers in Washington and other states to get a better idea of ​​what might stimulate Aboriginal participation.

The reasons for the low turnout are complicated, but tribal liaison and member of the Quinault Indian nation, Alaina Capoeman, said it often comes down to the government’s historic relationship with the tribes, which in the past has included all kinds of ‘oppression. Capoeman said it’s important for tribes to see people working for the Census Bureau who stand up for their values ​​and reflect their needs.

“We want more people who are like these communities, so some of that fear and unease is lessened,” Capoeman said. “And so they feel safe enough to answer these questions.”

Natives do not have to prove their tribal affiliation to mark themselves as “American Indian or Native of Alaska” in the census, which is one of the first things Capoeman tells people when they visit the villages. indigenous communities. In the census, the breed is completely self-identified.

“We’re so used to having to prove who we are,” she said. “But in the census, it’s not so much about proving that – that’s who you think you are.”

Funding bolstered by an accurate count will help tribes like the Quinault and others along the peninsula as they prepare to relocate due to rising waters that have placed their reserves in flood-prone areas, Capoeman said.

Capoeman and other census liaison officers partnered with tribes to educate Indigenous communities on how to prepare for the census through the Rez2Rez Voter Registration and Census Rally, led by Lummi activist and council member Freddie Lane. The tour has been postponed for the time being by the coronavirus outbreak, but in the stops it has made so far, it was a chance to educate and encourage people to both participate in the elections and the census. It’s similar to a tour that came before it: In 2018, Quinault Indian Nation President Fawn Sharp led a tour to rally the Indigenous vote in time for the midterm elections.

“The year my grandparents were born in the 1890s, they weren’t even recognized as US citizens,” Lane said. “We have come a long way with our mobilization capacities.

For all of the under-counted communities, Batres-Boni said what is important for them to know is that the information gathered during the census is completely confidential. Concerns about information leaks from the census questionnaire and the negative impact on the person filling it out are common, she said. Conversations last year about adding a citizenship question to the questionnaire are one example. Although the citizenship question did not make it to the final questionnaire, Batres-Boni said she made sure to pass this information on to the communities she spoke to because many are unaware she has been withdrawn.

In general, Batres-Boni said his job is to tell people why these numbers are so important. Children, for example, are the most underrated age group, and Batres-Boni said parents sometimes don’t realize the importance of not counting a child. When she raises awareness, she reminds them that this count will be official until the next census in 10 years, so it is important that they are represented now.

“If a child was not counted, that child is not represented for 10 years,” she said. It is the same for the other communities: if you are not represented now, the results excluding you will continue to define where the federal money goes and how the regions are represented politically for years to come.


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