Story at a glance

  • Native Americans have historically been undercounted in the U.S. census, especially in New Mexico.
  • With less federal funding than previous years, Native American tribes are stepping up their efforts to ensure their communities are fully counted.
  • Governor Lujan Grisham has also established the Complete Count Commission to ensure a more accurate count in the 2020 census.

In New Mexico, every person missed in the census count means a loss of about $3,000 in state funding, according to Ahtza Chavez, the Executive Director of the Native American Voters Alliance. Native Americans in New Mexico make up about 11 percent of the state’s population, which would mean millions in funding. 

In the last census, New Mexico had one of the lowest rates of returning the federal census survey along with Alaska, especially in Native American communities. This year, the state is determined to increase their return rate. Gov. Lujan Grisham established the Complete Count Commission in April 2019 to ensure a more complete count in 2020. But without efforts from people within the community, Chavez says, the government is facing an uphill challenge. 

“When you’re looking at what the census worker gets to be able to find the people, a lot of the geomapping isn’t consistent with where the households are,” she told Changing America. “When you have supervisors who are not from the community, then you have that unfamiliarity with where some of these residents might be located.”

That's why Chavez and other Native leaders have formed the New Mexico Native Census Coalition, which includes members from each of 19 pueblos as well as the chiefs of the Apache and Navajo nations.The first meeting of more than 70 people representing the state's tribes took place on Jan. 30 to strategize on how to "get out the count."

“This is really the first time that we’re trying to come together as tribal nations to be able to coordinate messaging that comes from us and that we know is going to resonate with our community,” Chavez said. 

One of the biggest priorities for the coalition is involving members of the community in the census count as enumerators and census supervisors. Small cultural insights can lead to better messaging; knowing their community’s affinity for college basketball, Chavez said the coalition has crafted a “get out the count” push for March Madness, which coincides with the beginning of the census count in New Mexico. 

Some efforts target large-scale infrastructure issues, like the lack of broadband internet access in many remote Native American communities. The coalition is planning to bring access to public libraries and other community centers on certain days to allow people to access the online census form. Other efforts are on a more local scale, such as educating people about what community services are funded by the census to educate them on the importance of participating in the count. 

“There’s a large distrust if you think about [the fact that] historically not only have these government officials come in and taken over lands and property, but even our children. So there’s that level of distrust that has to be overcome to achieve that accurate count,” Chavez said. 

The federal government has also provided less funding for census efforts than in previous years. Instead, several tribes received part of $400,000 available from the state Indian Affairs Department to implement strategies for their communities and create materials, such as informational videos in their own languages, according to a release. Additional funding is coming from the tribes themselves. 

Published on Feb 06, 2020