Respect Diversity + Inclusion

The 2020 Census starts tomorrow. Will Native Americans be undercounted?

an alaskan landscape

Story at a glance

  • The 2020 census kicks off in Alaska on Jan. 17.
  • Native American people have historically been undercounted in the census, especially in Alaska and New Mexico.
  • The federal government has cut funding for translations in multiple indigenous dialects, leaving states to make up the difference.

As the sun comes up at around 10 a.m. on Jan. 17, census workers will begin trekking through some of the most remote parts of the country to carry out a constitutional duty — a count of all people, citizens and noncitizens, living in the U.S. 

The 2020 census will begin early in Alaska, one of the few places where the count is still taken in person, in order to reach an indigenous community that has historically been undercounted. Alaska and New Mexico were the most undercounted states in the last census, and their Native American populations account for a significant portion of those uncounted people. And since census counts are used to determine both federal funding and the number of legislative representatives for states, this will limit the resources available to these communities. 

In New Mexico, Gov. Lujan Grisham established the Complete Count Commission in April 2019 to ensure a more complete count in 2020. 

“We need to do everything we can to ensure the 2020 count accurately and fairly reflects our state population and that New Mexico receives every federal dollar to which we are entitled. A one-percent under count would cost us hundreds of millions over the next decade. We’re starting early, and we want every community in the state on board in fighting for our collective resources,” Grisham said in a release

There are a number of barriers for Native Americans to be counted in the census, including a lack of access to broadband internet as the census moves primarily online. But another is language. 

“There are census tracts in Alaska where 75 percent of the households don’t speak English at home,” Natalie Landreth, a Chickasaw Nation member and an attorney for the Native American Rights Foundation (Narf), told the Guardian.

For previous census efforts, the Census Bureau has funded translation services for multiple indigenous languages, but this year is only funding Navajo, which is primarily spoken in the southwest. 

In New Mexico, the Complete Count Commission is producing audio recordings explaining how to fill out census forms in other languages spoken by the state’s Native American tribes — Tiwa, Tewa, Towa, Eastern and Western Keres, Zuni, Jicarilla Apache and Mescalero Apache — as well as Navajo.

Keegan King, policy and legislation bureau chief for the New Mexico Department of Indian Affairs, which is carrying out the audio recording project, told the Santa Fe New Mexican that even the written instructions provided in Navajo can be difficult for people to understand. 

“A lot of the census language is highly technical,” King told the Sante Fe New Mexican. “It’s not the same colloquial version of the language people are used to and can be difficult to translate and understand. In Pueblo communities, even those that have a written alphabet, most of it is an oral language, so we’re really focused on working to identify enumerators so that people in the community that are bilingual can be doing that work.”

In Alaska, where Navajo isn’t spoken, community groups are working to translate the census materials on their own. When the census starts tomorrow, their work will be put to the test.