The Problem With Native Americans and the Census

Posted By BrittanyLCerny March 23rd, 2021 Last Updated on: March 10th, 2022

Unsurprisingly, the 2020 census undercounted the U.S. population by 18.8 million and grossly underrepresented indigenous people…again.

Did you know that Native Americans were not counted as people living in the United States until 1860? And 1890 was the first year that they were counted across the country, including on reservations and on unrecognized settlements. During the late 19th century and early 20th century, many Native people were being undercounted at disproportionately high rates.

Things are getting better, but they're far from perfect.

Before the 2020 census count began, hundreds of tribal leaders met with agency officials to discuss how to best count  Native American populations. The goal was to begin fostering relationships with each other and dig down deep into the systemic problem of Natives being underrepresented during the census count. Together they wanted to determine the root causes, build trust between Native communities and the government, and find ways to ensure Natives in all areas of the United States will be counted. 

Why is the census so important to Native American communities?

Over $1.5 trillion of federal money is allocated across the country each year based on census data, according to new research from George Washington University. 

The function of the census is not merely to get a headcount of people living in the United States. The headcount carries a lot of weight and ultimately gives communities funding and much-needed programs.

When a group of people is undercounted, they receive “significantly less of much-needed funding from crucial federal programs, scant improvements on reservation infrastructure and health care, and even the loss of political representation,” according to a report from NBC.

In fact, funding for the following programs that help Native American communities is dependent upon population:

  • Title I Grants to Local Education Agencies 
  • Head Start Program 
  • Native American Employment and Training
  • Indian Health Service (IHS)
  • Medicaid
  • Urban Indian Health Program (UIHP)
  • SNAP
  • Special Programs for the Aging Title VI, Part A
  • The Indian Housing Block Grant
  • Indian Community Development Block Grants (CDBG)
  • Section 8 Housing Choice Vouchers Program

What factors hinder Native Americans from being counted?

Several factors create a barrier between Native American communities and the government during census time. 

Many Natives live in hard-to-count areas, such as on reservations or in remote, sparsely settled areas. For example, census takers in 2020 trekked to Alaska’s western coast to count its residents and needed access to a bush plane and snowmobile to get out there. This was the first attempt at ensuring those groups of people were included; before the 2020 count, the government was not as invested. Also, people who live on reservations or in remote areas often travel in order to hunt and fish for their communities or have other warm-weather jobs, which makes it difficult to get an accurate count for the April 1 Census Day.

This can quickly become a lose-lose situation in that these areas are typically impoverished, and when they cannot be counted accurately, the people living there are the ones who suffer.

Another factor that hinders Native Americans from being counted is the historical and continued mistrust in the government. Many Natives are wary of giving their personal information and data to the government.

There's also the issue of language barriers. Some Native communities, especially elders within those communities, only speak their Native language. The census form is only in English and many times it is difficult to find specific tribal language-speaking people to help go door to door and translate. 

“Non-natives trying to navigate through a reservation community is really difficult,” Kevin Allis, CEO of the National Congress of American Indians, told the Smithsonian. “They're not familiar with the environment. They're not familiar with the traditions and customs, and so it's really important that the enumerators be from the community or from an American Indian or Alaska Native community and familiar with the nuances that exist on tribal reservations.”

Lastly, those living in poverty or in hard-to-reach areas are much less likely to have a telephone or internet service, which would make it easier for them to complete census documents without someone coming into their communities. 

How has COVID affected the 2020 census count?

Native Americans Census - COVID-19

Image Credit: CNN

Plans had been in the works since 2019 to solve the problem of undercounting and misrepresentation within Native American communities across the country. Then COVID-19 hit. And it hit Natives hard. 

The U.S. Census Bureau suspended on-the-ground field operations, and many reservations in the West and Southwest—including the Navajo Nation, the largest in the country—closed their borders to outside visitors and tourists in March, hoping to contain the disease, according to the Smithsonian

“The timing of this pandemic could not be worse for all these communities because representation and federal funding are all going to be tied to this dataset for the next decade,” Allis said.

While things aren’t looking great, the government is aware that COVID-19 has hindered the accuracy of the census. There's hope that the new administration can implement measures to help Native communities all around the country. 

There are some major lessons to be learned for the next time around in 2030. During the next 10 years, Native communities will have time to work with government officials on determining new and effective ways to ensure that their voices are heard and their heads are counted.




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linda ( L J wilson

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