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Indian country census woes mount

Rock The Native Vote 2020 set up census support stands, including this one at Norman First American United Methodist Church in Oklahoma. PHOTO COURTESY / RTNV

NORMAN, Oklahoma — After an August federal directive to shorten the 2020 Census outreach period jarred the nation, Indian organizations redoubled efforts to make sure constituents are counted in the decennial population survey that has been handicapped by the Covid-19 pandemic crisis, especially in Native communities.

On Aug. 3, U.S. Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham announced the decision to end the census’ national field response operation one month earlier than the Oct. 31 deadline. His agency previously had asked Congress to extend the period until 2021 due to difficulties arising from mobilization during the coronavirus pandemic.

The first-ever Urban Indian Civic Engagement Project, funded by the National Urban Indian Family Coalition and its partners, responded to the latest of several census schedule adjustments, saying, “Let’s be clear of what’s at stake for American Indian and Alaska Natives: An undercount could lead to losing as much as $1 billion per year nationally in resources that our Native communities rely on for healthcare, schools, roads, and other essential programs and services.”

The advocacy groups are sponsoring a petition, urging constituents to contact their federal elected officials with a demand to “oppose this obvious tactic to steal resources our communities need,” Rock The Native Vote 2020 said. The organization set up census support stands in Norman and other places.

“This is a deliberate act to try to draw resources away from American Indians, Alaska Natives, and other hard-hit communities of color, while we’re focused on responding to and recovering from the pandemic,” it said. “We will not be erased. We will be visible, and we will be heard.”

American Indians and Alaska Natives were the most undercounted population group in the 2010 census at 4.9%, more than twice the rate of the next undercounted group. In 1990, the undercount was even more dismal at 12%. In the 2020 edition of the survey, the field operation was launched late on some reservations due to lockdowns and other pandemic related complications.

By the end of August, a sampling of Northern Great Plains reservations’ household response rates, conducted by the Native Sun News Today, revealed the following approximate percentages of completed returns: Ft. Belknap, Pine Ridge, and Rosebud at 20 percent; Ft. Berthold at 22; Blackfeet, Cheyenne River and Crow Creek at 25; Ft. Peck at 33; Standing Rock at 35; Lake Traverse at 40; Yankton at 42; Flandreau and Wind River at 50.

This compared with the national rate of nearly 65 percent of households responding, via internet, telephone or postal service. Given the contrast, petition promoters proclaimed, “The decision to shorten the census timeline is an attack on Indian country. Contact your legislators and make noise on social media to demand that the U.S. Census Bureau give communities enough time to be counted,” they said.

Natalie Landreth, senior staff attorney at the Native American Rights Fund  joined the battle cry, saying that the reduced field operation time for census workers to follow up on this year’s novel self-reporting period, “ensures a historic, devastating undercount for Native Americans. We’re not guessing. We’ve run all the numbers, and we know it,” she said.

Director Dillingham did not explain the reason for the schedule change. Four days later his agency and the Centers for Disease Control, or CDC, released a joint statement to the effect that, “Participation in 2020 Census interviews should present a low risk of transmission of Covid-19.” Census takers are trained to rigorously and universally follow CDC recommendations to mitigate risk of transmission.

In June, Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) called on the CDC to share coronavirus data with the nation’s 12 Tribal Epidemiology Centers, warning that its refusal was hampering Native Americans’ ability to respond to the pandemic.

“By not allowing Native communities access to this data, your agency is playing a role in widening the health disparities that are already running rampant in areas that are ill-equipped to contain the spread and the outcomes of this pandemic,” he wrote in a letter to Director Robert R. Redfield.

On Aug. 19, the CDC released a report that examines how the Covid-19 pandemic is affecting American Indians and Alaska Natives (AI/AN), which it recognizes as “one of the racial and ethnic minority groups at highest risk from the disease.”

CDC found that in 23 selected states, the cumulative incidence of laboratory-confirmed Covid-19 cases among AI/AN was 3.5 times that of non-Hispanic whites.

The data also showed that AI/AN who tested positive for the virus form tended to be younger than white non-Hispanic individuals with the infection. Compared to whites, a higher percentage of cases among AI/AN individuals were in people under 18 years of age (12.9 percent AI/AN; 4.3 percent white), and a smaller percentage of cases were among AI/AN 65 years or older (12.6 percent AI/AN; 28.6 percent white).

The study identified “the need to prioritize improved data collection as a key strategy to understand and improve health outcomes. Persisting racial inequity and historical trauma have contributed to disparities in health and socioeconomic factors between AI/AN and white populations that have adversely affected tribal communities,” the CDC said in releasing the report.

“The elevated incidence within this population might also reflect differences in reliance on shared transportation, limited access to running water, household size, and other factors that might facilitate community transmission,” it added.

The CDC has provided more than $200 million in Covid-19 funding to Indian country to support tribes and tribal organizations in carrying out pandemic preparedness and response activities, including surveillance, epidemiology, laboratory capacity, infection control, and mitigation.

Director Redfield said the “funding approach will broaden access to Covid-19 resources across tribal communities.” The CDC funding to date exceeds the $165 million directed by Congress through the Coronavirus Preparedness and Response Supplemental Appropriation Act, 2020, which supported health institutions and small business, and the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act or CARES Act, which supported tribal and local governments. It provides:

  • $142 million in funding that reaches more than 490 tribes and more than 39 million individuals through a new noncompetitive grant, Supporting Tribal Public Health Capacity in Coronavirus Preparedness and Response external icon.
  • $50.8 million to regional tribal organizations representing more than 500 tribes and more than 2 million AI/AN and 4 tribal nations serving populations of 40,000 or more through supplements to an existing CDC cooperative agreement, Tribal Public Health Capacity Building and Quality Improvement.
  • $12.9 million through supplements to an existing cooperative agreement, Strengthening Public Health Systems and Services Through National Partnerships to Improve and Protect the Nation’s Health external icon to address COVID-19 among urban American Indians and Alaska Natives and to conduct national Covid-19 communication activities for tribes.
  • $750,000 through the Public Health Crisis Response cooperative agreement administered by CDC’s Center for Preparedness and Response to support COVID-19 incident management efforts in the Cherokee Nation (Oklahoma).

“Funding is only one step in addressing the impact of Covid-19 on tribal communities,” said José T. Montero, director of CDC’s Center for State, Tribal, Local, and Territorial Support.  “CDC is continuing to work on coordinated outreach to tribal nations through our Office of Tribal Affairs and Strategic Alliances and new Tribal Support Section to provide remote- and field-based support to our hardest hit tribal communities.”


(Contact Talli Nauman at


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