Tribal communities in the Inland Northwest face the prospect of a severe undercount in the 2020 census after the Census Bureau announced Aug. 3 that it would cut door-to-door counting short by a month.
Census workers originally were scheduled to visit households that had not responded between May 13 and July 31, but in April the bureau’s director announced a new schedule due to disruptions caused by COVID-19, pushing back the in-person enumeration to start Aug. 11 and end Oct. 31 and calling on Congress to extend the due date for final results.
But lawmakers, who failed to pass another pandemic relief bill before their summer recess began, have declined to grant the agency’s request, forcing the bureau to adjust its schedule again to deliver population numbers by Dec. 31. Door-to-door counting will now end Sept. 30.
“We are taking steps and adapting our operations to make sure everyone is counted, while keeping everyone safe,” Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham said in an Aug. 14 statement announcing the agency would follow up with nonresponding households by phone, email and with another round of paper mailings. “Our commitment to a complete and accurate 2020 Census is absolute.”
But tribal leaders and lawmakers are warning that if Congress does not act quickly to extend that deadline, the critical tally of U.S. residents – which determines representation in Congress, government spending and more – could be dangerously inaccurate.
Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., led a group of 20 Senate Democrats in an Aug. 14 letter calling on Dillingham and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who oversees the bureau, to revert to the Oct. 31 deadline for door-to-door counting.
“American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian leaders have spent months coordinating with the Census Bureau to prepare their communities for the 2020 count and to meet the Bureau’s October 31st deadline,” the senators wrote.
“Failure to get a complete and accurate count of these community populations will have long term and devastating impacts – from redistricting data, to federal funding, to congressional representation. A fair and accurate census is critical to Native communities’ continued and future prosperity.”
Indigenous people living on reservations were undercounted by 4.9% in the 2010 census, more than twice the rate of any other group.
Tribal leaders fear that the shortened timeline could lead to an even more drastic undercount this year, resulting in less federal funding and other resources for tribes over the next 10 years.
“The deadline being cut back by about a month’s time really took us off guard,” said Rodney Cawston, chairman of the Colville Business Council. “We’re going to have to look at doing things almost in an emergency situation to try and do the best that we can to get people out there.”
As of Wednesday, just 35% of members of the Colville Confederated Tribes had responded to the census, half the statewide total of 70%. Cawston said COVID-19, coupled with limited internet access and phone reception on the Colville Reservation, have made reaching tribal members especially tough. Nationwide, most census responses have been done online.
Self-response rates for most other tribes in the Inland Northwest are similarly low. The Spokane Tribe stood at 34.3%, the Kalispel Tribe at 41.3% and the Coeur d’Alene Tribe at 40.1%.
“The pandemic has definitely stalled self-response rates,” said Randall Akee, an associate professor at UCLA who served from 2013-19 on the Census Bureau’s National Advisory Committee, a panel of experts that helps the agency count Indigenous people and other “hard-to-reach populations.”
Research by Akee and his UCLA colleagues in May found that the rates for 118 of 168 tribal reservations were below their 2010 rates, a finding the researchers concluded “means many more labor-intensive contacts will be needed, which is particularly difficult during the pandemic.”
Lack of trust in the federal government is another challenge, said Carol Evans, chairwoman of the Spokane Tribal Business Council.
“A lot of Native Americans have been impacted by things that happened to them in the past, and so they don’t have a strong trust of the federal government,” Evans said. “That’s why it’s important that we’re able to hire people to go out and talk to our tribal members and explain why it’s so important to complete the census. If we’re able to hire our own people, these are people that the tribal members will trust.”
Census enumerators began what the bureau calls “nonresponse followup” around the country Aug. 11, but tribes are making up for lost time with socially distanced raffles and barbecues to get the word out. Jennifer Fletcher, the Coeur d’Alene Tribe’s public relations director, is in charge of census efforts for the tribe and said she bought tablets to help break the technology barrier that has made it harder for tribal elders to complete the census.
“It has really just lit a fire under me,” Fletcher said of the bureau moving the deadline up. “I’ve had to really just rally and gather up my resources , and make sure that we get enough events out there happening and enough respondents.”
Despite the challenges facing them, a handful of tribes have self-response rates higher than the national average of 64%. One of them is the Kootenai Tribe in North Idaho, whose 84.8% rate far outpaces Boundary County’s rate of 57.1%. Angela Cooper, vice-chair of the Kootenai Tribal Council, said that success is largely owed to Clara Dunnington, a tribal member who took it upon herself to get to the elusive 100% response rate.
While the Kootenai Tribe is relatively small, with roughly 170 enrolled members and about 75 living on the reservation, Cooper said it faces similar challenges from the virus and mistrust of the government. Dunnington is training to become a Census Bureau enumerator, Cooper said, which will allow her to see which households have not responded, information that is not publicly available.
“A big part of it was that people don’t like having a stranger come to their door and ask them for personal information,” Cooper said. “That’s why it’s so great that we have an actual tribal member who’s able to go door-to-door this time, someone they know and trust.”
Larger tribes are taking similar approaches, but with time running out, many are calling on Congress to extend the Dec. 31 deadline and give the Census Bureau time to revert to the schedule it announced in April.
In an Aug. 5 letter, the Association of Washington Tribes called on congressional leaders to act to avoid a flawed census.
“The outcome will be significant,” the group wrote, “as an undercount further perpetuates the broken promises of the government’s federal trust and treaty responsibilities that deeply affect how the Native people are represented, politically, at the local, state and national levels.”
Lycia Maddocks, vice president of external affairs at the National Congress of American Indians, said her organization is pushing lawmakers to avoid repeating past mistakes.
“Indian Country deserves to be visible and we deserve to be counted,” Maddocks said. “There is time, and we urge Congress to put their full focus on this.”
Cantwell and Sen. Patty Murray, her fellow Washington Democrat, both signed an Aug. 12 letter calling on House and Senate leaders to extend the census deadline as part of a new pandemic relief package, which stalled as leaders failed to reach a deal before Congress began its summer recess.
Inland Northwest Republicans were noncommittal about changing the deadline in statements to The Spokesman-Review.
“I have been working alongside local elected officials, community groups, and local media to encourage the people of Central Washington to complete the 2020 Census in a timely fashion,” said Rep. Dan Newhouse, whose district includes the Colville Reservation. “The Bureau is currently required to compile this important data to meet the statutory deadline of December 31, and I will continue working in Congress to do what is necessary to increase response rates and make Central Washington count.”
“I appreciate the efforts of the Census Bureau to get an accurate and timely count,” Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, said. “If there is indication that some communities in Idaho will not be able to be counted by the deadline, I would support extending it. But at this point, we do not know what the situation will be on September 30th.”
A spokeswoman for Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, said he “supports full and accurate accounting of those living in the United States in order to align resources and congressional representation accordingly.”
“Given the time and cost associated with administering the nationwide census,” the spokeswoman said in a statement, “Senator Crapo trusts the Census Bureau to properly balance accuracy and responsiveness to inform federal, state and local officials on how they can best allocate resources to serve those under its care.”
Attempts made to reach Spokane Republican Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers were unsuccessful.
Akee said the pandemic has made 2020 an especially difficult year to complete an accurate census.
“There are so many competing messages about other things,” he said, “and it’s hard for this to take hold in communities where people are worried about their economic stability and their actual health. Those two things are first and foremost in many people’s minds, rightfully so. So filling out a census form is further down in people’s priorities.”
But Afton Servas, spokeswoman for the Kalispel Tribe, said she wants “to encourage all Natives that are out there, if they haven’t participated, to do it.”
“It’s really easy to go online,” Servas said, “it takes less than five minutes, and it helps you and it helps your tribe for the next 10 years.”
Orion Donovan-Smith's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.
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