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Can the Census Be Saved in Indian Country?

Historic undercounts have been catastrophic for tribal nations. The days ahead will be crucial.


On Thursday evening, United States District Judge Lucy Koh issued a preliminary injunction requiring the Census Bureau to continue its fieldwork through October 31. It was a dramatic turn in what has been a dramatic census season: The ruling came in response to a federal lawsuit filed against the Trump administration for shortening the time frame to perform the national headcount, and bought census workers—who were supposed to cease operations on September 30—an additional 31 days. The administration is expected to appeal the ruling, but, at least for now, there’s more time.

Just hours before the injunction was announced, Congresswoman Deb Haaland was phone banking in her district in New Mexico, calling up Native households across the state and urging them to complete their census forms as soon as they could. “The census is crucial to the federal government’s trust responsibility to Native nations,” Haaland, who is a citizen of the Laguna Pueblo, told the other volunteers. “When the tribal community is undercounted, our needs are not prioritized.”

The urgency was well-founded. PBS reported earlier this month that as of the beginning of September, only 24 percent of Montana residents living on tribal lands had been counted; the Navajo Nation clocked in at just 18.1 percent.

The low count was almost a foregone conclusion after the Trump administration’s decision to move up the end of the census. Career Bureau employees warned the administration that shortening the count would result in unacceptable “fatal data quality flaws.” A coalition of House Democrats wrote to Census Bureau director Steven Dillingham in May advising him that the pandemic had created “unprecedented barriers” to the count and that “early analysis of the response rates” showed that the impact would fall disproportionately on communities of color and immigrant communities. They were ignored. Legislative fixes, despite coming from bipartisan groups in the House and Senate, were, unsurprisingly, rebuffed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. For Native communities that have been consistently undercounted and underserved by the decennial count, the 2020 census seemed, to put it both dimly and honestly, doomed.

And may still be. Even under the October plan—in fact, even under the original plan, before the pandemic made the essential door-to-door visits a risk—many in Indian Country feared this census would again result in an undercount and another decade of inexcusable, treaty-breaking underfunding. Native enumerators, Native legislators, and tribal governments and organizations have been working to drive participation in their communities despite efforts from this administration to sabotage the count. The question is: Will any of it be enough?

Ignoring Native people dates back to America’s birth. Article I of the Constitution holds that elected representatives and direct taxes are to be based around the “respective numbers” derived from the decennial census, “excluding Indians not taxed.” As a result, until the passage of the Indian Citizenship Act in 1924, Native people were not counted in the census. And just as it is impossible to separate the chronic underfunding of federal Indian Country programs from America’s broken treaty and trust responsibilities, it is impossible to separate these things from the census.

Even so, like most people, Shandiin Herrera, a Diné citizen and census enumerator who lives in Navajo Nation in southern Utah, didn’t think too much about the census before last year. “When people talk about a census, it’s just like, ‘Oh, they’re just going to count you and get the population size,’” she said. “No one talks about the money.”

After graduating college last spring, Herrera made the decision to move back home to Monument Valley. She secured a job through a nonprofit working as a policy analyst and project consultant for her local Chapter house, the communal spaces where Diné citizens voice their input to their national council delegates. As part of that work, Herrera hosted a census education event in the fall, which made her want to see the process through. Soon afterward, she signed up to work part-time as a census enumerator.

After she applied in February, it took a month for the Census Bureau to respond. Once she was cleared, she was asked to drive three hours to Window Rock, Arizona—with no reimbursement—to complete a background check and have her fingerprints taken. Then it was another nearly two-week wait before she was approved for training, which was thankfully in a nearby town. Then came a 30-hour online training session to be completed at home, which is difficult given large swaths of the Navajo Nation still lack broadband access. Herrera was fortunate, though: Her mother worked at a local high school, so she was able to complete her training in the school library. “But most people don’t have that,” she told me. “And there’s no public library or community center.”

By mid-March, Herrera was finally certified and ready to go door-knocking across her assigned area, spanning 150 miles between Tuba City, Arizona, and Bluff, Utah. For the next two-and-a-half weeks, Herrera spoke with Diné neighbors and strangers alike, knocking on what she estimated to be 100 to 200 doors each week. The work helped her realize how incomplete the previous counts and mapping efforts had been. “I just remember, one day, I had the Census map from 2010, and it had five houses on it,” Herrera said. “I had to go canvass that whole area. By the end of the day, there were 25 homes.”

Just two weeks into her work though, the pandemic hit. “The work just shut down completely,” she said. The pandemic exploded among tribal communities and brought field operations, even beyond tribal lands, to a halt. Going door to door presented a health risk, with many feeling trepidation at opening their doors to government workers and, as Herrera explained, with concern from the elderly census workers routinely tasked with doing the knocking. Operations resumed come July, but by the time Herrera was back in the field, she was one of six enumerators left for her area out of a group that had started at nearly 20.

The barriers were steep, and the stakes were high. As Fawn Sharp, president of the National Congress for American Indians, explained to The New Republic, “If an accurate count is not assured, the already vulnerable Native American population will fall into an even deeper public health and economic crisis.” She pointed to the “lack of equitable internet access,” as well as the remote nature of some tribal nations, as severe obstacles to an accurate count, even without the additional barrier of the pandemic. “There were places that were assigned that were super rural in my own community, and I’d go and be like, ‘Wow, I didn’t know anyone lives back here!’” Herrera told me. “And that’s me, someone from this community.”

To make up for limited staff, she was often asked to drive to homes one or two hours away, despite her part-time schedule and day job. The work piled up. She was strained and overwhelmed by a caseload that felt impossible to clear.

Herrera’s frustrations with the process have been expressed by census workers in marginalized communities across the country. Last week, A. Ramirez, who typically works as a translator in Pasadena, California, told me that she had picked up a job as an enumerator to catch up on her back rent. Although she had an estimated 60 cases of mostly Spanish-speaking households still on her to-visit list, Ramirez’s supervisor told her and her fellow enumerators to turn in their equipment after just three weeks of work. “It just seemed strange,” Ramirez said. “I’m only one person, but I know, having spoken with others, that I’m not the only enumerator that feels this way.”

According to a report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, this year’s census workforce is nearly half what it was in 2010—240,000 compared to 564,000. “To have half the number of enumerators that existed in 2010 is beyond negligent,” Julie Menin, the census director for New York City, recently told NBC News. “It’s taking what is a core democratic principle, the census, that is embedded in our Constitution, and completely eviscerating it.”

This is the reality. From rural communities to big cities, census workers have been sounding the alarm about the slapdash effort to open and close the process as quickly as possible, leaving out those who need the extra time and resources to be counted. And given the dire consequences of an undercount, they’re concerned for good reason.

In the 230-year history of the census, there has yet to be a close-to-accurate count of Native populations. The count functions as a tool used by federal legislators and department officials to measure how much proportional aid and funding should be allocated to tribes for programs such as Indian Health Service hospitals and medical centers, housing block grants, and school facilities and resources overseen by the Bureau of Indian Education.

This stands in addition to the count’s use for more broadly applied food-focused programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children. “If we wanted to get an ambulance or hospital in our community and we don’t have a good representation in numbers, funding sources may say, ‘Your community is so small, why do you need another one?’” Charlie Moran Sr., who hails from the Hidatsa, Mandan, and Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa tribes and worked as a volunteer for the MHA Nation’s census outreach program, told Native News Online.

The census is also used to determine the boundaries of voting districts. An undercount means underfunding crucial programs and underrepresentation among local elected officials. This leads to the continuation of the conditions that tribal leaders, legislators, and grassroots organizations in Indian Country have been decrying for years.

And there is proof from past counts that tribes are beginning to legally leverage their citizens’ increasing participation: Following the growth of the Diné population in the three census counts between 1990 and 2010, the Navajo Nation filed a lawsuit in federal court in 2012, reasoning that San Juan County, Utah, needed to redraw and update its county commission and school board districts to accurately reflect the county’s population. Based on the information provided by the census, the courts ruled in favor of the Navajo Nation, and the county commissioners are now represented by a 2–1 majority of elected Diné officials.

While the fate of the injunction remains unclear, tribes, in coordination with community and national organizations, will continue to use the time left to mobilize and sustain an outreach effort to shore up the Bureau’s lagging numbers. But it’s an open question if it will be enough. Until the systemic issues in the Bureau are addressed, and until basic necessities like broadband are made accessible for all tribal citizens, undercounts will continue to define the census in Indian Country. They will again be reflected in congressional funding and voting districts over the coming 10 years, and Native nations and communities will be forced to fight and scrape for what they deserve.

For now, Herrera is waiting to see what the next days and, possibly, month bring. “I’m just hoping that everyone who’s involved saw what actually went down,” Herrera said. “We have to start working on that now—because if we don’t, then it’s going to be the same thing in 2030.”