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US Census says American Indian undercounted by tens of thousands

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In this August 2020 file photo, Lauri Dawn Kindness, left, helps a family participate in the U.S. Census as part of a campaign to increase Native American participation in the count, on the Crow Indian Reservation, in Lodge Grass. Some predict a historic undercount of Native Americans in this year's census as the coronavirus complicates efforts to encourage participation. 

The 2020 Census has a few surprises.

The United States overall is more diverse than earlier censuses had shown, with Whites at 57.8 percent, and other races and ethnicities at 42.2 percent.

And there are significantly more American Indians and Alaska Natives than were counted in the 2010 census, although advocates and early estimates say they probably were still undercounted.

The changed numbers are due to population changes and to new questions and processing of answers by the Census Bureau.

“As the country has grown, we have continued to evolve in how we measure the race and ethnicity of the people who live here,” said bureau Director and Senior Advisor for Race and Ethnicity Research and Outreach Nicholas Jones in August.

The 2020 Census “provides a new snapshot of the racial and ethnic composition and diversity of the country…revealing that the U.S. population is much more multiracial and more diverse than what we measured in the past,” Jones said.

Originally, the questionnaire included White, Black, American Indian/Alaska Native, and Asian/Pacific Islander, plus “some other race.” It also tracked Hispanic/Non-Hispanic origins.

In 2020, the bureau was more specific.

People who checked “American Indian or Alaska Native,” were asked to print the “name of enrolled or principal tribe(s)," and gave examples.

Then you had space for 200 characters to write down the name of your tribe. Given the opportunity to provide specifics on race and ethnicity, people did.

The 2020 census had “350 million detailed write-ins that we collected and coded and are working to tabulate,” Jones said. “So that gives you a sense of the volume of what people are reporting.”

Before the census, Alaska tribes were concerned their tribal citizens wouldn’t get counted if they used abbreviations or acronyms for their tribe’s name.

“It's really been the partnership with American Indian, Alaska Native tribal leaders and researchers over the past decade to help us understand the types of responses that tribal responses may provide, whether it's using their Native language to report a response, or using an acronym, or using a various spelling of their particular tribe,” Jones said.

“All of that, that volume of information that helped us over the past decade to enhance our coding system is what led to us to be able to code 99 percent of those 350 million responses automatically using our automated system,” he said. The 1 percent of written responses that coding couldn’t decipher were reviewed by a coder working with subject matter experts.

However, it’s not clear how many American Indians and Alaska Native people may have been uncounted for other reasons. Bureau Public Information Office Sr. Chief Michael C. Cook said the agency can’t pinpoint the accuracy of its count until it pores through and completes analyses of survey results and other data.

Still, Jones said, Congress’ extension of the census helped. The initial timeline of July 31 was moved several times, and finally to October.

“We feel like we were pretty successful. In particular, in the remote Alaska areas, we were able to extend our data collection period for months and months beyond what we ever do in a normal census, which while exhausting for us and for our partners, really did enable us to have those extra opportunities to make contact with some of these more remote areas and to really facilitate all the partnerships we had in those areas.”

“I just wanted to emphasize the fact that it's an enormous effort. It's one that we take great pride in being able to do well and to do correctly to help provide these accurate tabulations for the American public, particularly American Indian and Alaska Native tribes and villages,” Jones said.

“I thought they were congratulating themselves for a lot of work that Native orgs (organizations) had been doing, “ Native American Voter Alliance (NAVA) Education Project director Ahtza Dawn Chavez, said. “And you know, we still have an undercount in the country, especially in New Mexico.”

Credit rightfully goes to national, statewide and local organizations that came to the table to make sure people got counted, Chavez said.

The Native American Voters Alliance Education Project created the New Mexico Native Census Coalition.

“Without those efforts, we would have been a lot, lot worse,” she said.

The NAVA Education Project led a New Mexico Native Census Coalition that included all 22 tribal nations in the state plus Ysleta del Sur Pueblo in Texas.

“We worked with all of these state agencies, as well as the cities, as well as the New Mexico Indian Affairs Department, and a number of philanthropic organizations who helped fund the efforts to get everyone counted. We also had a Pueblo coordinator as well as an urban coordinator, as well as a Navajo coordinator. And we hired a number of media experts to be able to get the messaging that we needed to resonate with our community. And so there was a lot of on-the-ground efforts,” Chavez said.

The coalition also worked with the National Congress of American Indians, the Native American Rights Fund and other Native organizations.

“But due to tribes closing their borders, what should have been delivered in March and April ended up not being delivered until late June, July, sometimes August. One of our communities, they had one day to be counted,” Chavez said.

“We know that the 2020 census was grossly underfunded due to the administration that was leading the census,” Chavez said.

The census is the basis for distribution of funding for American Indian and Alaska Native schools, education, health and housing, among other needs. Since the 2020 Census figures will be used until the 2030 census, such losses are compounded.

Before the 2020 census, advocates were concerned the bureau was not prepared for the many barriers to an accurate count in Indian Country.Hurdles include geographic isolation and disconnection and language barriers.

James Tucker is pro bono voting rights counsel to the Native American Rights Fund, and vice chair of the Census Bureau’s National Advisory Committee on Racial, Ethnic, and Other Populations.

In January 2020, Tucker said “We have one of the youngest populations. We have housing instability, high poverty, high unemployment, lack of transportation, and lack of access to Wi-Fi, which is another huge thing we're talking about.”

And after the census was done, the National Congress of American Indians, on its website, listed hurdles “that ranged from challenges associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, border closures, wildfires, hurricanes, misinformation, incomplete or missing addresses, and delayed and changing timelines.”

“American Indians and Alaska Natives, especially those living on tribal lands with limited or no broadband (Wi-Fi) access, may have been unable to respond to the 2020 Census through the online questionnaire, which was the primary response method for the 2020 enumeration. In person assistance with enumeration was limited and delayed due to closures related to the COVID-19 pandemic,” the website stated.

An analysis by the Urban Institute estimates there was a 0.5 percent undercount of the nation’s overall population during the 2020 census, more than in the 2010 census (at 0.01 percent) but in the same range as the 2000 census (at 0.49 percent) undercount.

American Indians and Alaska Natives living on reservations were undercounted by 4.9 percent in the 2010 census and by 0.7 percent in 2000. The 1990 Census left an estimated 12.2 percent of American Indians and Alaska Natives uncounted.

The numbers

The Census Bureau states, “In 2020, the American Indian and Alaska Native alone population (3.7 million) accounted for 1.1 percent of all people living in the United States, compared with 0.9 percent (2.9 million) in 2010. An additional 5.9 million people identified as American Indian and Alaska Native and another race group in 2020, such as White or Black or African American.”

“Together, the American Indian and Alaska Native alone or in combination population comprised 9.7 million people (2.9 percent of the total population) in 2020, up from 5.2 million (1.7 percent) in 2010.”

“The American Indian and Alaska Native alone population grew by 27.1 percent, and the American Indian and Alaska Native in combination population grew by 160 percent since 2010.”

“About 4 million people identified as American Indian and Alaska Native and White, making it the largest multiracial American Indian and Alaska Native group.”

The states with the largest percentages, relative to the state’s total population, of American Indian and Alaska Native alone or in combination are listed as: Alaska (21.9 percent), Oklahoma (16 percent), New Mexico (12.4 percent), South Dakota (11.1 percent), Montana (9.3 percent), North Dakota (7.2 percent), Arizona (6.3 percent), and Wyoming (4.8 percent) and Oregon (4.4 percent) and Washington (4.1 percent).

The states with the highest American Indian and Alaska Native alone are: Alaska (15.2 percent), New Mexico (10 percent), South Dakota (8.8 percent), Oklahoma (8.4 percent), and Montana (6.2 percent).

Population information is now available for American Indian and Alaska Native reservation areas. It's available for rural areas, cities and towns, even neighborhoods.

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