Story at a glance
- The Native American and indigenous population has historically been undercounted in the United States census.
- The U.S. Census Bureau has made an effort to reach out to these communities for the 2020 census.
- The coronavirus pandemic, which has hurt many tribal communities, has been a major setback to outreach efforts.
The first person counted in the 2020 Census was an Alaskan Indian. The United Census Bureau, which began the count on Jan. 17 in Toksook Bay, Alaska, hoped to send a message that they were serious about reversing the historic undercounting of native people in the census.
“We are committed to a complete and accurate count of the Native American and Alaskan Indian populations,” said Tim Olson, associate director of field operations for the Census Bureau, during a recent webinar. “We’ve gone too long, [had] too many censuses, where there have been undercounts.”
Three days later, the coronavirus pandemic brought field operations to a sudden halt. Nearly a decade of planning had not factored in a global pandemic that would make the process of going door to door potentially fatal.
For some parts of America, the census is easily accessible online, and the current response rate is now 60.1 percent of the country. But in more remote parts of the country where many residents don’t have reliable internet access or traditional mailing addresses, field operations are vital.
In March, the Bureau began restarting field operations in rural areas, but even now there are still parts of the country where residents have not received an invitation to participate in the census.
“We understand that when it comes to the census, especially in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, there is uncertainty and confusion,” said Dee Ann Alexander, tribal affairs coordinator for the Census Bureau, in a webinar.
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As the pandemic ravages many Native American communities, the highest response rate in a tribal area is Oneida, Wisconsin, where the self-response rate is 76.8 percent. Most tribal areas, however, have response rates below 50 percent, with exceptions in Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin. Some, including Navajo Nation, which has the highest rate of COVID-19 cases per capita, have closed their borders in order to prevent further spread of the coronavirus. The Navajo Nation’s current self response rate is 0.8 percent of the population, last recorded at 173,667 in 2010.
“Keep in mind that the residents have not received an invitation yet so the fact that they have any response is pretty remarkable,” Olson said.
In other states, such as Montana, field operations have resumed, but reservation lands remain closed off. Olson said the Bureau has been in contact with tribal leaders to coordinate the restarting of door-to-door operations once the public health risk has decreased. Some of those tribal members were on the webinar on May 26 to learn more about the resources available to their communities.
“It’s going to shape our future for the next decade. it’s going to shape us for the next decade. Now that you have that opportunity at your door, please fill out the census,” Olson said.
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