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Census faces uphill battle in tribal communities

Daily Inter Lake | June 16, 2020 1:00 AM

Montana’s tribal communities have some of the lowest Census 2020 self-response rates in the country, threatening federal funding and political representation that is based off census data.

An accurate count is critical for funding tribal health departments, tribal law enforcement offices, public housing and other vital community programs. “Everything that builds a community and builds a tribal nation,” said Marci McLean of Western Native Voice, a Native American advocacy organization.

Census data is also tied to how many “majority-minority” House and Senate districts in predominantly Native American areas are allocated in the Montana Legislature.

So far, “self-response” numbers – household responds to the census by mail, phone or online – are bleak.

As of June 11, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, Montana had a self-response rate of 51.9%, compared to a national rate of 60.9%. But on the Blackfeet Reservation, the rate was just 7.5%.

The Northern Cheyenne Reservation had the lowest response rate in the state at 3.8%, with the Crow at 4.3%. The Flathead Reservation had a 38.6% response rate, the only tribal area in the state over 20%.

During a meeting last week with the Montana Districting and Apportionment Commission, Mary Craigle, bureau chief for Montana’s Census and Economic Information Center, said she was “incredibly concerned” about the current numbers.

“We are really having difficulty getting any notice or information out to folks who have not completed the census,” she said, citing a lack of resources and concerns over the coronavirus.

She said her staff and partners had put resources into promotions and events to be held around April 1, but all events had to be canceled. “Unfortunately we had put a lot of resources around that date,” Craigle said.

McLean said Western Native Voice had begun a census-education campaign as early as July 2019. She said the campaign had “built some momentum up” by March and the organization was ready for its “Count Me In!” events on April 1.

But the COVID-19 pandemic put a halt to those events.

“COVID-19 made it five times more challenging,” McLean said. “We’re going to have to work super hard to build up some momentum.”

Tribal nations have also implemented stricter lockdown measures than other parts of Montana, adding to the traditional difficulties with getting an accurate count on reservations.

McLean said many traditional counting issues are due to the rural nature of Native American communities. Across the state, reservations consistently have the lowest self-response rates, often dramatically different from nearby urban communities.

Much of this is because the U.S. Census does not mail to households using post-office boxes or rural route addresses, and few residents on reservations have home addresses. Internet access is also not very reliable, she said, and there is distrust in the federal government. Some recent narratives surrounding the U.S. Census have not helped, either.

Kendra Miller, a member of Montana’s 2020 Districting and Apportionment Commission, said the pandemic and stay-at-home orders “have impacted the census like nothing we’ve ever seen before.”

As a member of the independent commission redrawing Montana’s congressional maps after the census, she said she felt “compelled” to try and maintain the six minority-majority House districts and three Senate districts for American Indians in Montana. But “if we had an undercount it’s certainly very possible we wouldn’t have the numbers to draw the districts,” Miller said.

“In some ways our hands are tied,” she added.

She said a lack of staffing is hurting the tribes. In early May, Montana’s census staff was allowed to begin conducting “update/leave” operations – where the census worker leaves census materials on a household’s doorstep – while tribal nations remained understaffed or not staffed at all.

Montana’s tribal nations look first to hire staff within their tribe. But according to McLean, the Rocky Boy’s, Crow and Northern Cheyenne Reservations, even though they have agreed to restart update/leave operations, do not have anyone trained.

“They still do not have sufficient numbers of workers to do what needs to be done, both in the update/leave phase and in the next phase, which is the non-response follow-up when census bureau workers will knock on doors,” Craigle said.

The U.S. Census Bureau asked the Blackfeet Tribal Council if they would be willing to hire people from off the reservation, Miller said. However, the pandemic-related travel restrictions still in place will be a challenge for the Bureau.

Miller said the current growth patterns in Montana are already disadvantageous to Native American populations. She said Montana is estimated to have grown by 8% between 2010 and 2019, with counties like Gallatin growing by approximately 25%.

“If you haven’t grown, those districts have to get bigger geographically,” she said. “And American Indians living on reservations were already most likely to be undercounted.”

The Fair and Accurate Census Act could offer a lifeline to census workers. The bill would extend the deadline for the completion of the census from the current date of Dec. 31, 2020, to April 30, 2021.

“It’s really critical that that bill pass,” Craigle said, adding she is checking its progress every morning. The bill is currently still sitting in the U.S. House.

With more time and an easing of restrictions, tribal nations will have a better opportunity to obtain a more accurate count.

“We’re going to do everything we can to get people counted,” McLean said.

“I’m not giving up at all,” Craigle said. “I do believe there’s a chance we can still work through this, but it’s [going to be] a lot harder.”

Reporter Colin Gaiser may be reached at 758-4439 or