PLUMMER, Idaho – The crowd chuckled appreciatively when Ernie Stensgar began singing “One little, two little, three little Indians” during a U.S. census rally Wednesday on the Coeur d’Alene Indian Reservation.
That’s how some tribal members might feel when Census Bureau workers come knocking at their doors, acknowledged Stensgar, the Coeur d’Alene Tribe’s vice chairman. The suspicion is natural. Broken treaties and a history of past conflicts color how American Indians view the federal government.
Yet, accurate census counts are critical to tribes. Their governments – like states, cities and counties – get federal grants for housing, roads, health care and job training based on census data.
“Standing up and being counted is important,” Stensgar said.
American Indians and Alaska Natives have the lowest census participation rates among all racial and ethnic groups, said Duane Wakan, a tribal participation specialist for the Census Bureau.
In 1990, an estimated 24 percent went uncounted. National campaigns helped improve counts during the 2000 census. But the nation’s Native populations were still underrepresented by about 12 percent, Wakan said.
Inland Northwest tribes are working with the Census Bureau to boost participation rates. Wednesday’s rally on the Coeur d’Alene Reservation included a dinner, powwow and a question-and-answer session with census officials from Seattle.
On the Colville Reservation, households that turn in census forms are entered in a drawing for one of four 52-inch flat-screen TVs. The incentive appears to be working, said Michael Finley, chairman of the Colville Tribe, in a phone interview.
“I get calls from people who say, ‘Hey, the census person hasn’t come to my house yet,’ or ‘I haven’t gotten my form in the mail,’ ” he said.
On the Coeur d’Alene Reservation, census workers will go door to door to collect information through May 29. The personal visits were triggered by the tribe’s low census participation in the past, as well as the reservation’s rural character, said Roberta Armstrong, a tribal regional technician from the Census Bureau.
Many people get their mail through a post office box. But the U.S. Census Bureau wants to count them at their home, Armstrong said.
Molly Zachary, who lives in Worley, Idaho, had already received a visit from a Census worker. But she learned Wednesday that she needs to amend her form. Zachary didn’t realize that she needed to list two grown children and a son-in-law who live with her but weren’t at home during the census worker’s visit. Her daughter and son-in-law are in Oregon for an extended stay to care for an elderly relative.
Members of the tribe who live in urban areas also need to participate in the census, said Paulette Jordan, the Coeur d’Alene Tribe’s census liaison. About 60 percent of American Indians and Alaska Natives live in large cities.
To date, about 65 percent of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe’s households have participated in the census. On the Spokane Reservation, where census workers are also going door to door, participation rates have been high as well.
Denise Abrahamson, a member of the Spokane Tribe and a census crew leader, credited the hiring of local people for high participation rates. Many of the census workers are tribal members.
“You’re not opening your door to a stranger,” she said.