Large census undercount of Indigenous people on tribal lands means fewer resources, political power

People living in tribal communities are the most undercounted in the nation

By: - April 12, 2022 4:50 am

The 2020 Census may have undercounted Arizona’s population by about 48,000 people, according to one estimate, part of a national undercount of 0.5%. But even if that estimate turns out to be true, it’s better than some feared given the historic challenges the bureau faced last year with a pandemic and last-minute legal fights. Photo by Scott Dalton | U.S. Census Bureau.

Indigenous people living on tribal land were the group most likely to be undercounted in the 2020 Census, according to an analysis released by the U.S. Census Bureau, which means tribal governments will have fewer federal resources and less political power.

According to the Post-Enumeration Survey (PES) released by the U.S. Census Bureau in March, Indigenous people living on tribal lands were undercounted by 5.6%, the largest undercount in the nation. That is an increase from 2010, when a similar post-census survey found Indigenous people were undercounted by 4.9% and again had the highest undercount of all groups.

While the difference in undercounts between 2010 and 2020 is small, the undercount of Indigenous people living on tribal lands may have a significant impact because census data is used in determining federal, state, and local resource allocation, funding distributions, and policy decisions.

“These results confirm our worst fears that the 2020 Census results would significantly undercount (American Indians and Alaska Natives) on reservation lands as it did in 2010,” National Congress of American Indians President Fawn Sharp said in a statement. “Every undercounted household and individual in our communities means lost funding and resources that are desperately needed to address the significant disparities we face.”

The survey also found that the 2020 Census also undercounted African Americans, Latinos and people who reported being of other unspecified races.

“While the Post-Enumeration Survey can measure estimated undercounts and overcounts in the census, it cannot answer why a particular group experienced one,” U.S. Census Bureau Public Affairs Specialist Leslie R. Malone said in an email to the Arizona MIrror. “Our goal for the census is always to get a complete and accurate count.”

The results come from the PES and Demographic Analysis Estimates, which study how well the 2020 Census counted everyone in the United States and within certain demographic groups.

Arizona is home to 22 tribal nations and two of the largest tribal landmasses in the country. The Navajo Nation and Tohono O’odham Nation have the largest tribal lands in the state, and the Navajo is the largest in the U.S.

For the Tohono O’odham Nation, the Arizona Commerce Authority reported that more than 9,500 people live on tribal land, a 6.3% decrease from the 2010 report, which found more than 10,000 residents.

The total population of people living on the Navajo Nation came in at over 94,000 for the 2020 Census, according to data analyzed by the Arizona Commerce Authority. In 2010, the population was reported to be over 101,000, a decrease of 7.2%.

“We have seen an undercount every 10 years in Indian country and on the Navajo Nation,” Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez said in a phone interview with the Mirror.

Nez said the undercount in 2020 was particularly bad because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“180,000 people live on the Navajo Nation,” Nez said, citing post-COVID-19 reports from the Indian Health Service. “We have 404,000 enrolled members, but 180,000 of them live on the Navajo Nation.”

Nez believes that the number of tribal residents may have actually increased during the pandemic, as many Navajo people returned home either because they felt safer on the Navajo Nation or they were helping out their families.

During the census count, Nez said that many tribal communities fought hard to make sure their people got counted. They even went as far as asking for an extension on the deadline, but those largely were not approved.

Nez said that his administration invited census takers to accompany them while they visited the 110 Chapters across the Navajo Nation handing out food boxes and other supplies during the pandemic.

“We did our very best as an office,” Nez said.

Since the census is used to bring in federal funding for the state as well as tribal communities, Nez said the undercount means Navajo people will see less federal and state funding for things like housing and transportation.

“It’s very important, not just for the Navajo Nation but to the states also, to get an accurate count because it affects how much funding we get to the state and to the tribes,” Nez said.

Then there’s the political cost of the undercount: Arizona was long projected to increase in population and gain a new congressional seat. But the undercount meant the state didn’t gain enough residents in the census, and the 10th seat in Congress never materialized.

That meant the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission had to make the nine districts more populous — and in doing so, diluting the voting power of Indigenous voters in the new Congressional District 2 when compared to its predecessor. That primarily happened by adding heavily white and conservative parts of Yavapai County to the district and removing portions in central and southern Arizona that included other tribal nations.

“That means our voices won’t be heard in Congress like it is right now,” Nez said. If an accurate count of the Navajo Nation had happened, he said that could have resulted in Arizona getting the elusive new congressional seat.

Tribal communities and advocates did voice their concerns about an undercount during the 2020 Census due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

The National Congress of American Indians wrote several letters and provided numerous comments to the U.S. Census Bureau about the concerns of an undercount among Indigenous people and communities since 2019.

Some of the concerns they discussed included the COVID-19 pandemic shutdowns, delays in census operations, the lack of broadband on tribal lands for the new internet response option, and the adverse impact of new privacy measures.

The NCAI said that the comments and letters were their attempts at motivating the U.S. Census Bureau to meet its federal responsibility for tribal nations and work to reduce these undercounts.

“Federal agencies must consult on a government-to-government basis with (American Indians and Alaska Natives) Tribal Nations to find solutions to ensure that these 2020 Census undercounts do not lead to continued underfunding of our communities,” Sharp said in a statement. “Despite the challenges of the 2020 Census, (American Indians and Alaska Natives) living on reservation lands deserve to be counted and to receive their fair share of federal resources as a part of the federal trust responsibility.”

Malone said during the 2020 Census the bureau partnered with Tribal Nations across the country to educate and gain permission to conduct the Census on tribal lands.

“We count on this partnership to help recruit people living within their tribal lands to become Census employees in order to collect the data from members of their community who do not self-respond to the Census,” she said.

During the 2020 Census, Malone said that each tribal nation and the urban Native population in Arizona had a Tribal Partnership Specialist assigned for outreach and partnership. There were four in Arizona, and tribal nations are not personally responsible for conducting the census.

“Each decade there is room for improvement, and this one — especially with the unprecedented challenges we faced — is no exception,” Malone said. “We are grateful to the tribes, the many tribal citizens who worked as census takers, and our partners who helped us get a count of people living on reservations.”

“As we plan for the next census, we will continue consulting with the tribes on how to overcome challenges to get a complete and accurate count in 2030,” she added.

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Shondiin Silversmith, AZ Mirror
Shondiin Silversmith, AZ Mirror

Shondiin Silversmith is an award-winning Native journalist based on the Navajo Nation. Silversmith has covered Indigenous communities for more than 10 years, and covers Arizona's 22 federally recognized sovereign tribal nations, as well as national and international Indigenous issues. Her digital, print and audio stories have been published by USA TODAY, The Arizona Republic, Navajo Times, The GroundTruth Project and PRX's "The World." Silversmith earned her master's degree in journalism and mass communication in Boston before moving back to Arizona to continue reporting stories on Indigenous communities. She is a member of the Native American Journalist Association and has made it a priority in her career to advocate, pitch and develop stories surrounding Indigenous communities in the newsrooms she works in.