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. In Virginia, which has 11 recognized tribes, one tribe 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 hopes to get an accurate count of its members so the tribe can determine what government grants and funding it’s eligible for.
Leaders of the tribe — based 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, Virginia, 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.
The federal government has recognized more than 570 tribes across the country. Virginia is home to seven such tribes, plus four that only the state recognizes.
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.
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.”