The Census Badly Undercounts Native Americans. In 2020, Tribal Leaders Hope to Change That

Kirsten Carlson March 14, 2020

People dance at the "Come to Your Census" Pow-wow at the Minneapolis American Indian Center, where Native Americans from all over the area gathered to promote participation in the 2000 census.

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

The Cen­sus, man­dat­ed by the Con­sti­tu­tion, counts all peo­ple liv­ing in the Unit­ed States every 10 years. The result­ing data is used by fed­er­al and state gov­ern­ments to deter­mine polit­i­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tion and allo­cate funds for edu­ca­tion, social ser­vices and oth­er pro­grams. An under­count trans­lates into less mon­ey, less polit­i­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tion and access to few­er resources.

The Cen­sus Bureau esti­mates that it under­count­ed Amer­i­can Indi­ans liv­ing on reser­va­tions and Alas­ka Natives in vil­lages by approx­i­mate­ly 4.9% in 2010. This was more than twice the under­count rate of the next clos­est pop­u­la­tion group, African Amer­i­cans, who had an under­count rate of 2.1%. This under­count was a sig­nif­i­cant improve­ment over pre­vi­ous Cen­sus­es. In 1990, the Cen­sus over­looked more than 12% of Amer­i­can Indi­ans and Alas­ka Natives liv­ing on their tra­di­tion­al lands.

The U.S. gov­ern­ment has been count­ing and track­ing Amer­i­can Indi­ans since the ear­ly 19th cen­tu­ry, cre­at­ing numer­ous rolls” or lists. These rolls have been used for many rea­sons – to remove tribes from west of Mis­sis­sip­pi, to pay annu­ities out­lined in gov­ern­ment-to-gov­ern­ment treaties or to divide up trib­al lands into indi­vid­ual parcels. Giv­en this long his­to­ry of count­ing Native Amer­i­cans, why has the Cen­sus Bureau under­count­ed so many Native people?

Bar­ri­ers to an accu­rate count

Amer­i­can Indi­ans and Alas­ka Natives have proven chal­leng­ing to count for a num­ber of rea­sons. Per­haps most impor­tant­ly, many Amer­i­can Indi­ans and Alas­ka Natives do not trust the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment. Fed­er­al Indi­an poli­cies have removed tribes from their tra­di­tion­al lands and forced Native chil­dren to leave their fam­i­lies to attend board­ing schools. For some trib­al cit­i­zens, the arrival of a fed­er­al offi­cial on their doorstep can con­jure up mem­o­ries of the his­tor­i­cal trau­ma their par­ents and grand­par­ents faced at the hands of the U.S. government.

Some Native peo­ple who are will­ing to engage with the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment may be wary about whether their infor­ma­tion will remain con­fi­den­tial and pro­tect­ed. Some researchers have tak­en advan­tage of Native people’s trust and mis­used their infor­ma­tion in the past, mak­ing them leery of how data col­lect­ed about them will be stored and used.

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

Some Amer­i­can Indi­ans and Alas­ka Natives share the char­ac­ter­is­tics of oth­er hard-to-count pop­u­la­tions in rur­al Amer­i­ca such as pover­ty, iso­lat­ed loca­tions, hous­ing inse­cu­ri­ty and a low­er rate of high school graduation.

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, even though there are approx­i­mate­ly 175 Native Amer­i­can lan­guages spo­ken in the U.S. today. Some Native com­mu­ni­ties in Alas­ka and New Mex­i­co are pro­vid­ing their own trans­la­tions and instruc­tions in their languages.

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 kind of address that is required because they use a post office box or because there are no street address­es. Still oth­ers, espe­cial­ly if they are mixed-race, may strug­gle with which box to check. Even if they are trib­al cit­i­zens, in the past they may not have been count­ed as Indi­an peo­ple under fed­er­al law or have been eli­gi­ble to receive fed­er­al ser­vices for Indians.

In addi­tion to these bar­ri­ers, the 2020 U.S. Cen­sus will rely heav­i­ly on the inter­net, tech­nol­o­gy that a third of Native peo­ple liv­ing on reser­va­tions and in tra­di­tion­al vil­lages still can­not access.

What’s at stake

Native lead­ers know that Cen­sus under­counts dimin­ish their polit­i­cal pow­er and the fund­ing appro­pri­at­ed to them by the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment. Polit­i­cal­ly, an accu­rate count ensures that Native peo­ples receive the con­gres­sion­al rep­re­sen­ta­tion they deserve.

Cen­sus data also informs fed­er­al pol­i­cy. The U.S. Con­sti­tu­tion rec­og­nizes tribes as sov­er­eign nations that engage in gov­ern­ment-to-gov­ern­ment rela­tion­ships with the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment. Con­gress, rather than the states, is autho­rized to make fed­er­al Indi­an pol­i­cy. Fed­er­al offi­cials, mem­bers of Con­gress and trib­al lead­ers rely on Cen­sus data to devel­op pol­i­cy that effec­tive­ly meets the needs of Native peo­ple. For exam­ple, inac­cu­rate counts of Native 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 $1 bil­lion in annu­al fed­er­al resources to Indi­an Coun­try based on Cen­sus data. Amer­i­can Indi­an and Alas­ka Native gov­ern­ments use this mon­ey to pro­vide edu­ca­tion­al assis­tance for low-income chil­dren, employ­ment and train­ing pro­grams, health ser­vices, spe­cial pro­grams for elders, and Indi­an hous­ing and com­mu­ni­ty devel­op­ment. With­out an accu­rate count, trib­al gov­ern­ments do not receive ade­quate fund­ing for these pro­grams and are less able to meet the needs of their people.

Over­com­ing mistrust

Native lead­ers across the U.S. have been work­ing to edu­cate Native peo­ple about the impor­tance of being count­ed in the 2020 U.S. Cen­sus. The Nation­al Con­gress of the Amer­i­can Indi­an, the old­est, largest and most rep­re­sen­ta­tive Amer­i­can Indi­an and Alas­ka Native orga­ni­za­tion, has under­tak­en a pub­lic edu­ca­tion cam­paign and designed a toolk­it to help tribes and native peo­ple par­tic­i­pate in the Census.

Tribes have devot­ed con­sid­er­able ener­gy and resources to pre­vent­ing anoth­er under­count. Begin­ning in 2015, they have con­sult­ed with the Cen­sus Bureau on how to build col­lab­o­ra­tive rela­tion­ships to over­come the bar­ri­ers to count­ing peo­ple in Indi­an Coun­try. Trib­al lead­ers are using their exper­tise in reach­ing their own com­mu­ni­ties by devel­op­ing out­reach plans to encour­age trib­al par­tic­i­pa­tion and hir­ing trib­al cit­i­zens to col­lect Cen­sus data. For tribes, an accu­rate count will enhance their abil­i­ty to exer­cise sov­er­eign­ty over their lands and people.


Kirsten Carl­son, Asso­ciate Pro­fes­sor of Law and Adjunct Asso­ciate Pro­fes­sor of Polit­i­cal Sci­ence, Wayne State University

Edi­tor’s Note: This arti­cle is repub­lished from The Con­ver­sa­tion under a Cre­ative Com­mons license. Read the orig­i­nal arti­cle.

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