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The 2020 Census and Indian Country
You may have seen the ads while scrolling through your social media feeds. Or maybe you’ve heard about it on your favorite public radio station. Regardless of your preferred news source, you’ve probably received the message that the 2020 Census is coming. But how much do you actually know about the Census, anyway? And is this once-in-ten-years process even worth caring about?
The Census has implications far beyond simply checking boxes on an online form. Data collected via the Census impact political representation, federal funding, public policy, and many other processes and systems that shape our day-to-day lives. We could write an entire book on the importance of the Census, but we’re going to narrow our focus to a topic that’s near and dear to us at Native Governance Center: Tribal sovereignty.
We sat down with our Executive Director, Wayne Ducheneaux II, and asked him a range of questions about the 2020 Census, its implications for Indian Country, and its impact on Tribal sovereignty. Wayne leads Native Governance Center’s effort to support Tribes in mobilizing their citizens to respond to the 2020 Census. Here’s what we learned:
Native Governance Center (NGC): When is the 2020 Census?
Wayne Ducheneaux (WD): Census Day is April 1, 2020. Really, the process lasts from April on into the early summer. The hope is that a lot of people will respond by April 1. The on-the-ground work of counting people begins after April. Census counters go out door to door and survey those who did not respond to the original request for data. A lot of the Tribes that we’re working with are creating Census kickoff events. These events include everything from Census powwows to parades.
NGC: Do Census counters (enumerators) collect data on reservations? How does that work?
WD: The United States Census Bureau hires people to collect data. In Indian Country, Tribes are currently recruiting for on-reservation Census counters. During the 2010 Census, while the focus was on hiring Indigenous Census workers, there was some pushback because the counters weren’t always serving in their specific communities. So really, the effort this year is to get people from the community out counting the community. It’s a friendly face; ideally, it’s someone you know and someone you trust. Native Governance Center is providing grants to Tribes in support of their Complete Count Committees. These committees operate to raise awareness about the Census.
NGC: According to the United States Census Bureau, the 2010 Census undercounted American Indians and Alaska Natives living on reservations by 4.9 percent. What are some of the challenges that occur when doing Census work in Indian Country?
WD: Many people hold misinformation about how the government uses Census data. It’s important to remember that your individual Census responses are confidential. Despite that, some people fear that if they answer the Census accurately, the Census Bureau will turn their information over to other government agencies with negative consequences. For example, with on-reservation government housing, there are limits in place regarding how many individuals can live in a particular home. These limits are often incompatible with our intergenerational family structure, and families exceed those limits with extended family living in the same home.
The federal government’s own actions also are a barrier to accurate Census counts. There are very few instances in which the federal government lives up to its obligations to Indian Country. As a result, people worry that the government won’t use Census data to further Tribes’ best interests. Finally, sometimes Tribal citizens believe that if they are enrolled in their Tribe, they don’t have to participate in the Census because the federal government already has enrollment numbers. Both processes are necessary and used for different purposes.
NGC: Why should people stand up and get counted in April?
WD: As Tribal citizens, we need to participate in order to ensure that government resources are distributed equitably and to hold the federal government accountable for its promises. The federal government directs nearly $1 billion in resources (such as funding for schools, health, housing, roads, etc.) per year to Indian Country using Census data. And finally, all of us should engage in civic life. We need to educate each other on the importance of the Census, encourage people to get counted, and hopefully create more efficient systems to make it easier in the future.