The 2020 U.S. Census and Indigenous peoples

The 2020 Census is in full swing in the United States. By the end of the Census in December, virtually every American citizen will have been asked to provide information to the Census—whether it is via the traditional forms we receive in the mail, via telephone, or online. Americans are consistently reminded of the importance of the Census—besides providing a more accurate count of the population of the country, its states, and the many counties/parishes/boroughs, cities, towns, villages that comprise each state, it has economic and political ramifications. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Federal funding is guided by population shifts, states can gain or lose Congressional representation based on their new populations, and local governmental units draw boundaries or allocate resources based on information gathered in the Census. If those reasons aren’t enough, we also are faced with the ‘threat’ of a Census enumerator coming to our front doors to collect the information, or in some cases, a $100 fine. Clearly, it is important for Americans to do the Census.

However, for one group of Americans, the Census both carries deeper historical and contemporary significance. For the over 570+ Federally recognized tribes (including Alaskan Native tribes) in the United States, information from the Census helps influence Federal funding for tribally-focused programs, as well as allowing tribes to make local planning decisions for tribal programs and services. However, Federal counting of Indigenous peoples in the United States has a very fraught history that is linked with colonialism and dispossession of tribal lands and political power. For example, tribal ‘rolls’ were routinely used from the late 19th century to count members of tribes and determine their blood quantum, deeming them worthy or unworthy of allotments and/or tribal citizenship. Federal policies such as relocation/termination and sending Indigenous children to boarding schools have created a legacy where many tribal members do not trust the Federal government or its initiatives, making it very difficult to secure Indigenous buy-in to the Census, as Kirsten Carlson writes.

Even when Indigenous people have participated in the Census, there has been notorious undercounting of Indigenous tribes and individuals; according to this report by the National Congress of American Indians, the percentage of Indigenous people that have been undercounting has ranged anywhere from 4.9% (in the 2010 Census) to 12.2% (in the 1990 Census). The same report echoes the relative mistrust in Indigenous communities as to the purposes and benefits of doing the Census. The rise of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United State also represents a barrier to participation, as does technological barriers that are often present on reservations (lack of Internet access, etc.) and the fact that the Census Form is not offered in tribal languages. Of course, there is also the fact that the Federal definition of who is an ‘American Indian’ or ‘Alaska Native’ does not always matchup with tribal or individual definitions of Indigeneity (see Liebler, 2018 for a more detailed explanation).

With clear political and economic ramifications at stake, and in an effort to counteract the problematic history of counting Indigenous people, the U.S. Census Bureau has undertaken a massive effort to attempt to solicit as much participation in the 2020 Census by Indigenous peoples in the United States as possible. One way that this has occurred is through an increase in the dissemination of information related to what the Census is, and what it means for Indigenous communities in the United States. A wide variety of press releases, handouts and multimedia have been made available for tribal governments and tribal citizens to learn more about the Census, including articles, brochures, podcasts, sample invitation letters, and even videos that explain more about the Census enumeration process. A press kit provides additional information, including a really great blog post from the Director of the U.S. Census Bureau, that talks specifically about the importance of the Census for Indigenous people, with a particular focus on Alaskan Natives.

However, the Census Bureau is not the only ones that are working hard to ensure an accurate count of Indigenous people in 2020. Indigenous people themselves have taken many steps in order to get the word out in their own communities to explain the importance of participating in the 2020 Census. Much of this work occurs at a national level, such as via the U.S. Indigenous Data Sovereignty Network, founded by Northern Cheyenne tribal member and all-around Indigenous badass Dr. Desi Rodriguez-Lonebear. But, there is also a lot of work that happens at a local level. Tribes such as the Pullayup Tribe in Washington, the Navajo Nation, and many others have not only built relationships with the U.S. Census Bureau, but they are also taking their own actions to help drive up participation. Tribal nations have sought to overcome mistrust regarding the Census is by involving Indigenous people in the collection process. My own tribe, the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe sent out a call earlier this year for Census takers, for example:

Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe Posting

It is clear that tribal nations understand the importance of the Census to their communities, and to holding the Federal government accountable to its obligations to tribes as part of the nation-to-nation framework that characterizes the relationship between Indigenous nations and the United States. Through cooperation between tribes and the Census Bureau, as well as steps that tribes are taking themselves, the process of including Indigenous people in the Census will hopefully improve, allowing for the conditions necessary for Indigenous nations to receive the support and services they need.

Deondre Smiles (Ph.D., 2020, OSU Geography)

President’s Postdoctoral Scholar

Department of History

The Ohio State University