The 2020 Census at Red Lake Nation

Challenges during the 2020 census resulted in a net undercount of 5.64% for Native nations. Red Lake Nation in Mni Sota Makoce, however, achieved a count of 100% of known housing units. Read this case study to learn how they accomplished this.

This case study, created by Native Governance Center in partnership with Red Lake Nation and the State of Minnesota, looks at the context for the 2020 census, how the census unfolded at Red Lake Nation, and key takeaways from their process.


Mandated in the US Constitution, the census has a dismal record of undercounting certain population groups, in particular Native Americans residing on reservations. It affects federal representation and redistricting by states. It has an impact on the funding available to Native communities for investment in infrastructure, health care, education, and a host of social programs.

On top of this long-standing failure, the 2020 census faced two unprecedented challenges: the COVID-19 pandemic and political interference by the Trump administration. For Native communities across the country, the result was a net undercount of 5.64%. At Red Lake Nation in northwestern Mni Sota Makoce (Minnesota), however, through outstanding leadership and a series of actions that embody Native nation rebuilding principles, Red Lake Nation achieved a count of 100% of known housing units. This case study looks at the context, how the census unfolded at Red Lake Nation, and key takeaways from their process.


Native Governance Center (NGC) is a Native-led nonprofit organization serving the Native nations that share geography with Mni Sota Makoce, North Dakota, and South Dakota. This research is jointly funded by NGC and the State of Minnesota acting through its Department of Administration, Office of the State Demographer. This case study was designed by NGC staff, and primary research was conducted by Deanna StandingCloud (enrolled citizen of Red Lake Nation).

Why Count?

The 2020 census is estimated to have cost $14.2 billion, or “roughly $96 per household, compared to $92 for 2010, $80 for 2000, and $45 for 1990 (adjusted for inflation).” Some would argue this expense alone demands the question: why do we count?

The decennial (occurring every ten years) is mandated by the US constitution and serves several purposes:

  • Apportionment: Apportionment is the word used in the US Constitution to describe the dividing up of the seats in the US House of Representatives between the states, based on population counts. For example, because of the results of the 2020 census, “Texas will gain two seats in the House of Representatives, five states will gain one seat each (Colorado, Florida, Montana, North Carolina, and Oregon), seven states will lose one seat each (California, Illinois, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia), and the remaining states’ number of seats will not change…”
  • Redistricting: States use the census to redraw electoral district boundaries. In Minnesota, for example, while the statewide growth was 7.6%, 78% of that growth occurred in the seven-county Metro area, while some rural counties saw little or no growth, or decreased in population.
  • Distribution of Resources: The census facilitates the equitable distribution of billions of dollars in federal support in grants to states, communities, and programs. For example, public health agencies rely on census data for “just about every aspect of work, from research and surveillance to funding levels and policymaking.” These data (and sometimes their absence) have had a profound impact on the course of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Historical Perspective

From the very first US census in 1790, Native Americans have been undercounted or omitted from the enumeration. Indeed, the U.S. Constitution explicitly excluded them from the census. Beginning with the 1860 census, some Native American populations were counted and included in special schedules (separate from the general population). It was not until after the passage of the 1924 Indian Citizenship Act that Native Americans would be fully counted as part of the main population.

Enumeration is a complete, ordered listing of all the items in a collection. This is important because the Census Bureau is required to count residents one-by- one, rather than by using other means to estimate the population.

2020 was thus the ninth census in which Native Americans were—theoretically— fully counted as part of the entire population of the United States. And yet, the Census Bureau estimates that Native Americans residing on reservations were undercounted in 2020 by a net 5.64% (compared with the estimated overall count accuracy- a net undercount of 0.24%). By comparison, the 2010 census undercounted Native Americans on reservations by 4.88%.

The census generally tends to undercount members of BIPOC groups and to overcount the white population, further marginalizing groups already discriminated against by mainstream society and its institutions. The undercount of on-reservation Native Americans in 2020 was likely around 100,000, with “more than a $300 million loss in federal funding for Indian Country annually.”

2020 Census

Collective memory of the 2010 census, widely recognized as damaging to Indian Country, loomed large in the years leading up to 2020. National organizations such as the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) invested in initiatives to educate funders and mobilize public opinion in support of an accurate count of Native Americans. For example, NCAI launched its “Indian Country Counts” project in 2017, and in February 2018, provided written testimony for the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs outlining the ways in which an inaccurate census would have a negative impact on Native peoples. This impact would be felt in terms of political under-representation and the inequitable distribution of resources. The testimony points to the dramatic contrast between the proposed funding for the 2020 census in comparison with funding patterns for the 2010, 2000, and 1990 censuses.

Perhaps foreshadowing the Trump administration’s general attitude towards the census, these plans to underfund the 2020 census were followed with other tactics to sabotage the count, including the attempted introduction of a citizenship question. Although the Supreme Court struck this attempt down in June 2019, it would continue to plague the census process.

A Freedom of Information Act request and lawsuit filed by the Brennan Center for Justice revealed systematic efforts by the administration to influence the census process throughout 2020. The administration attempted “to exert partisan influence, and make the process less transparent, while the administration was in communication with anti-immigrant groups.” It further attempted to “illegally… remove undocumented populations from the apportionment count due at the end of December 2020.”

It was in this climate of distrust and partisanship that the COVID-19 pandemic struck, the first U.S. case being confirmed in Washington State on January 20, 2020. While counting was planned through July 31st, the Census Bureau’s response (announced April 3, 2020) would have extended the window for field data collection and self-response to October 31, 2020. This extension was broadly welcomed by government entities and citizens’ rights groups, and nonprofits such as NCAI and NARF.

Although this extension was initially supported by the White House, Congress refused to extend the statutory deadlines in order to ensure an accurate count. The Bureau abruptly reduced the extension on August 3rd by announcing September 30th as the new deadline for data collection. This decision was condemned by numerous experts including four former directors of the Bureau, who had served under both Democratic and Republican presidents. The Bureau itself had admitted that the accelerated “Replan” posed a threat to the accuracy of the count, and on September 24th, a federal district court handed down a temporary ruling that the count would continue until a final ruling decided for or against the new deadline. The count thus continued after September 30th, and the US Ninth Circuit court refused to overrule the district court’s decision. The case made it to the Supreme Court, which effectively allowed the count to stop early. The last data was collected at 11:59 PM on September 15th, Hawaii time.

The 2020 census was a prime example of a political power-grab. The Biden White House released a general “Protecting the Integrity of Government Science” white paper, which used the 2020 census as a case study. It noted that Bureau employees saw it as such:

“Since census counts are used for the purpose of redistricting and reallocation of representation in the House of Representatives, these challenges to the 2020 census deadline were viewed as political interference that would undermine the integrity of the census counts.”

In addition to the net undercount of Native Americans living on reservations, the 2020 census has proved, overall, to be inaccurate. By the Bureau’s estimate, the “Black or African American” population was undercounted by 3.30%, the “Hispanic or Latino” population by 4.99%, and the overall population was by 782,000.

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