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US census challenge: Counting every Native American and Alaska Native

Count determines allocation of funds, but some Native leaders say that asking for tribal affiliation is confusing

SAN DIEGO — There are 566 federally recognized American Indian and Alaska Native (AIAN) tribes in the U.S. and 80 more recognized by the states. Counting every member is a mandate of the U.S. Census Bureau when it takes a national population count every 10 years.

But the agency also has to count people who identify as American Indian or Alaska Native, even if they’re not affiliated with any tribe.

And that's where the challenge lies as the 2020 decennial census approaches.

Already, government counters are organizing eight tribal consultations at major events across the country to get feedback from tribal leaders on how to best count this Native population and avoid the estimated 4.9 percent undercount that occurred in 2010.

The census numbers are used to determine the allocation of almost $400 billion a year for such things as schools, housing, roads and job training. They’re also used to determine every state’s share of the 435 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. Having more people equals having more seats in Congress.

Undercounting any population in any part of the country means less money and less power. And for the 1 in 4 American Indians living in poverty, being counted is crucial for getting state and federal aid.

U.S. Census Bureau

According to the 2010 census, 5.2 million people identified as at least part American Indian and Alaska Native. More than half (2.9 million) identified as AIAN alone. About 2.3 million reported being AIAN in combination with at least one other race —a segment that grew 39 percent compared with 10 years earlier.

Being counted is “pivotal to democracy, civic engagement, federal dollars, economic development,” said Amber Ebarb, a policy analyst at the National Congress of American Indians. “And if there’s an undercount in Indian country, especially on reservations, that’s where the need is greatest.”

Census officials were in San Diego in October at the congress’s annual convention, reaching out to tribal leaders to get input on how best to enumerate a population that is largely not fond of any inquiry from government agencies.

“When we do enumeration, we work with tribal governments,” said Nancy Potok, the deputy director and chief operating officer of the Census Bureau. “We have a long history of trying to get involved, but I think we can do better with the use of technology and partnerships.”

The online decennial census will make its national debut in 2020, and although the goal is to make it easier for people to respond to the questionnaires, that may not be the case for those in remote areas with poor or no Internet connectivity.

A recent survey showed that almost 400,000 AIAN households don’t have an Internet service provider and more than 18,000 others have dial-up Internet only.

The San Diego meeting with tribal leaders was behind closed doors, but many attendees discussed their concerns openly.

“They do a great job trying to do outreach, but obviously there’s a problem,” said Aaron Payment, the chairman of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians in Michigan, the largest tribe east of the Mississippi, with 43,000 members.

He said tribes are in a better position to count their members than the government. His tribe has hired a data analyst and is conducting its own census with the help of a grant from the National Congress of American Indians. He is pushing for the government to let the tribe do the count, using the government’s methodology.

“We do our own census. We have actual data,” said Payment, who estimated that the government’s American Community Survey count of people living in his tribe’s service area is off by 21 percent.

Tribal geography is another complication. There are service areas. There are reservations. And there are different tribal rules for who qualifies as a member.

Federally recognized tribes still operate under a blood quantum rule. Most require one-quarter American Indian blood to qualify for tribal membership. Others ask for less, some more.

“There are a lot of people who are less than a quarter who don’t think they’re Indian,” Payment said.

And when they’re not tribal members, they may hesitate to identify themselves as American Indian.

The census is testing adding to its questionnaire a tribal membership category, which has been embraced by some and resisted by others.

“The tribal affiliation regime was imposed by the U.S. government, and it doesn’t capture the complexities,” said Will Micklin, the first vice president of the Central Council of southeastern Alaska and the CEO of the Ewiiaapaayp Band of Kumeyaay Indians in California’s San Diego County.

As more American Indians intermarry, fewer feel comfortable identifying themselves as Native because they have no tribal connection, he said.

Micklin is also concerned that the count, which is divided into census blocks, does not capture the full extent of poverty in Indian country. “You have millionaires who buy ranches,” he said. Their presence immediately jacks up the household income of the area.

He would like to see every tribe listed on the census form to make sure people can properly identify — not something that the census is likely to do.

“Every race, every ethnicity would like every option listed,” Potok said. She said that nothing will be done without the input of the AIAN community. “We have no dog in this fight.” 

But not all agree.

“These are categories that were forced on us,” said Micklin, who said that suspicion of government is a huge barrier to an accurate count. American Indians “are worried about the consequences of reporting. What they know is that when Indians were ID’d, bad things happened.”

He too would like to see tribes conduct their own census.

“The challenging piece of this is capturing the affiliation correctly, because it varies a lot,” Potok said. “Each tribe has different [membership] criteria.”

‘What they know is that when Indians were ID’d, bad things happened.’

Will Micklin

CEO, Ewiiaapaayp Band of Kumeyaay Indians

W. Ron Allen, the chairman of the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribal Council in Sequin, Washington.
Haya El Nasser

Nowhere is the potential for confusion greater than in Alaska, a state that has only one reservation.

“How we self-identify is not as simple as in the Lower 48,” said Carol Gore, the president and CEO of the Cook Inlet Housing, a regional Indian housing authority. She is also the vice chair of the Census National Advisory Committee.

“If you’re Navajo and live on a Navajo reservation, it’s pretty simple to fill out,” she said. “For Alaska, it’s very different. I first describe myself as Alaska Native of Aleut descent. I next describe myself, under the Alaska Natives Claim Settlement Act, as a shareholder of my village, Ninilchik.”

But Gore lives three hours north in Anchorage. “So what is enrollment?” she said. “We identify largely along ethnic lines.”

If a tribal affiliation question is added, she will answer “Native village of Ninilchik.”

“I know that, but most people don’t,” she said.

Most would identify as Aleut, an umbrella category that includes hundreds of villages that are individually recognized by the federal government.

That’s why many Alaska Natives don’t want the census to add a tribal affiliation category and certainly don’t want to limit the count of Native Americans to federally enrolled members of tribes.

“We estimate that we’re already undercounted, and limiting that self-identification to enrollment limits us,” Gore said. “Not only do we have to encourage members to participate, but now we have to tell them they have to answer in a particular way to be counted … With the census, you only have one chance to get it right.”

That’s why the tribal consultations the Census Bureau is conducting are crucial to the AIAN count, even if not all tribes agree on the best way to conduct it.

“It’s a new conversation,” Gore said. “The complications of how we self-identify is new to them.”

The agency is just testing the change at this point, Potok said.

She said that those who do not have access to the Internet will still be counted. The census and tribal partners will set up counting centers in places, such as schools or libraries, that have computer banks. A secure census form app will be available for electronic devices. Paper forms will still be available to those who don’t have access.

“It’s going to take an awful lot of work,” Gore said. “It’s so critical that people participate and understand that it’s confidential, authentic and truthful … The state is looking at how many students are in school and deciding based on census numbers which schools are open or closed.”

W. Ron Allen, the chairman of the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribal Council in Sequin, Washington, said that 60 percent of their members live in the tribe’s service area in two counties but that no one lives on the tribe’s reservation.

“It’s not just the citizens of a particular tribe or American Indians living in that area that need to be counted but the extended families’’ who may live in another state, he said.

“It’s a historical and cultural challenge,” he said. “For the most part, Indian country just wants accurate numbers.”

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