WASHINGTON - Federal officials and tribal leaders have launched a multipronged effort to help ensure an accurate tally of 5.2 million American Indians and Alaska Natives in the 2020 Census count that starts next spring.
American Indians routinely are undercounted in the decennial count, raising concerns among tribal leaders that they don't have enough say in how the federal government spends billions annually on housing, health care, education, roads and public safety. Officials say the undercount stems from some American Indians living in isolated communities, a long-standing distrust of the federal government and others simply not knowing the importance of the census.
For 2020, the Census Bureau hired 100 American Indians to promote the count, reaching out to tribes earlier than in the past. Officials also have consulted with tribes to hear their concerns about the census, while testing ads and messaging campaigns with tribal leaders. One tribe in Virginia, which has 11 recognized tribes, is handling its first census count.
And for the first time, the public can fill out census forms online - a feature officials also are encouraging American Indians to use.
"We're educating people and telling them we're not out to get anything from you," said Dee Alexander, who runs the Census Bureau's intergovernmental tribal affairs office. "We want to get the word out that numbers are power. Numbers are money."
In Virginia, the small Nottoway Tribe, which the state recognized in 2010, said it's hoping to get an accurate count of its members so the tribe can determine what grants and government funding it's eligible to receive.
Leaders of the tribe - located near Franklin, Virginia, about 50 miles west of Norfolk - said because the tribe of 120 wasn't formally recognized in 2010, its members weren't counted as American Indians.
"They were probably counted as ordinary citizens and not Native people," said Asphy Turner, one of the Nottoway's tribal leaders. "I think it will make a difference if people know we're here and we're counted."
Anne Richardson, chief of the Rappahannock Tribe in Indian Neck, Va., about 100 miles south of Washington, said tribal members "need to be counted to ensure their identity" and because the figures are used to determine funding for several tribal programs.
The Rappahannocks have about 250 enrolled members and were one of six Virginia tribes that received federal recognition in 2018.
There are more than 570 federally recognized tribes across the country. Virginia is home to seven such tribes, plus four that only the state recognizes. Maryland has no federally recognized tribes, but two that the state recognize.
Census numbers are used to help determine how federal money is spent and the size of each state's congressional delegation. Local and tribal governments use the data for budgeting programs, deciding land use and responding to disasters. But counting American Indians who reside on about 320 reservations across the country is no easy task.
Census officials said American Indians on reservations were undercounted by as much as 12% in 1990. In 2010, they were undercounted by 4.8%, making them one of the most undercounted minority groups in the country.
Counting American Indians comes with a unique set of challenges, experts say.
Issues range from counting people in transitional housing to reaching those in remote geographic areas, where Internet access can be poor, or nonexistent. Other challenges include overcoming many American Indians' distrust of the federal government and worries about exposing personal privacy.
"Treaties have been broken by the federal government with sovereign nations and we were forcibly removed from our homelands," said Alexander, a member of the Cheyenne Arapaho tribes. "The history is there of why there is a mistrust."
For the 2020 Census, there's an added concern of what effect a proposed question about citizenship status could have on tribes.
Civil rights experts warn that adding the question could result in about 6 million Hispanics not being counted, which could have a ripple effect on American Indians. Arizona, California, Texas, New Mexico and Colorado - places where there are large American Indian populations - could have some of the highest undercounts of Hispanics if the question is asked. The Supreme Court is expected to take up the citizenship question this month.
"That would likely reduce the population count for a state and then that reduces the money going into the state," said Norm DeWeaver, a consultant on census issues to tribes in the Southwest. "That then causes the state to tighten its eligibility requirements for everybody, and that could potentially impact how much money American Indians get."
In recent years, the Census Bureau has hosted dozens of sessions with tribes. At the Tohono O'odham Nation in Arizona, which has 30,000 enrolled members, leaders encouraged census officials to improve communication with the tribal liaison, who can help guide enumerators to remote areas and understand cultural practices.
Many Alaska Natives and American Indians prefer strangers stay in their car until the homeowner comes out to greet guests. Census-takers who "understand those customs in a community often get a better response than those who don't," said Gabe Layman, who chairs the Alaska Census Working Group in Anchorage.
Even the task of finding people can be difficult.
The census count officially kicks off April 1, 2020. In Alaska, it’s starting Jan. 21 in Toksook Bay, in the southwest corner of the state, home to about 660 people. Census takers are getting a jump-start in remote areas because many tribal members move to seasonally hunt and fish. Reaching residents can require a dog sled or snowmobile.
Even in the Lower 48, some tribal residents live in rural areas or on unmarked roads, making it hard for census-takers to find them at an address on a GPS device. One tribe, the Havasupai, lives at the rim of the Grand Canyon, a spot Alexander calls about as "rural as you can get."
Other tribes, like the Navajo, are challenged by their sheer size of roughly 350,000 members in four states.
Language barriers can also create obstacles, with more than 100 languages spoken among Natives in Alaska. An advocacy group is trying to raise money to translate census forms into some of those languages before the census begins early next year.
At the Chickasaw Nation in Oklahoma, leaders created a committee to promote the census among its 40,000 members. Kyle Key, executive officer of self-governance at the Chickasaw Nation, said the data is used for health clinics, education and infrastructure, and for helping businesses decide where to locate.
“All of that is impacted by census data,” he said. “So it’s critical we get tribal citizens to participate.”