September 4, 2020

Census in the Age of Pandemic

The Census has long failed to accurately tally populations in Indian Country. COVID-19 is hampering attempts to fix that.


Every decade, American Indians and Alaska Natives are routinely undercounted by the U.S. Census Bureau’s massive, nationwide effort to tally everyone within the country’s borders. At stake are millions of federal dollars for community programs.

To prevent future undercounts, states and cities are pumping millions of their own dollars into promoting participation in the 2020 Census. For Oregon, a major point of focus is the historically undercounted Native American population. But the COVID-19 outbreak is only making it more difficult to accurately survey Indian Country, where the Census Bureau has struggled in the past.

The curtain rose – then quickly fell – on a kickoff gala on the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs Reservation on March 12. Trumpeted for weeks in advance by Census officials and the media, the gala was to be the centerpiece of efforts to engage reservation residents and push them toward greater participation than was seen in the 2010 Census, which, like previous population counts, suffered an undercount of American Indian and Alaska Natives.

A taco lunch was provided, as well as a children’s mini powwow. An esteemed tribal elder and veteran was Oregon’s first 2020 Census participant. Speeches by tribal officials urged the importance of the Census to Native people.

Yet the night before, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown announced limits on crowd sizes at organized events as the state addressed steadily increasing cases of COVID-19. 

Jaylyn Suppah, a community planner for the tribe’s health and human services branch, was charged with making sure the Census kickoff had plenty of food for attendees. At the onset, she figures nearly 100 people showed at the Agency Longhouse in Warm Springs.

“We just finished out the day and we kind of just started looking at the protocol she (Brown) put out,” Suppah said. “It was an all-day event, so people came and went. It wasn’t crowded or anything.”

But afterward, the pandemic slammed the brakes on what was to be an aggressive, far-reaching effort to prevent a repeat of past undercounts. As of Aug. 31, the Warm Springs reservation had a self-response rate of 40.2%. While that’s better than its final 2010 rate of 35.8%, it’s well below that of Oregon (67.9%) and still not as high as Census officials want.

In 1990, the undercount for American Indians and Alaska Natives nationwide was more than 12%, while in 2010, that figure was 4.9%. At a 2018 hearing, U.S. Senator Tom Udall of New Mexico told the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs that the federal government spends $3,000 per person in his state, meaning significant losses for tribes when reservation residents go uncounted. In Oregon, the state has pumped $7.7 million into education and outreach for the 2020 Census in hopes of securing those federal dollars.

Suppah has found her role shifted from event catering to Census activities coordinator (from tacos to tallies, essentially). With the slate of originally scheduled Census activities canceled, she’s shifted to more pandemic-friendly events. Those included drive-through Census events across the reservation. By her estimate, at least 180 people took part in those activities, out of the 3,330 residents who live on the reservation. This year Census questionnaires can be completed online, but that won’t be a great help in Indian Country, Suppah said.

With their slate of Census-related activities curtailed by the COVID-19 outbreak, tribal government officials on the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs Reservation had to shift gears. A drive-through Census event in June in Warm Springs encouraged members to participate in the tally while maintaining social distancing. Brutis Baez/KWSO-FM

“When we’re expecting folks to be counted online, it’s really hard,” she said. “You have a lot of folks that don’t use the internet or have access to the internet. It’s not our strong suit.”

Services many Americans take for granted – like Wi-Fi access, cell phone coverage, and computers – are lacking heavily in Indian Country. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that just over half of reservation homes have computers connected to high-speed internet service.  

Coordinators were handed some jarring news last month when bureau officials announced that an extended data collection and self-response deadline of Oct. 31 was being shifted to the end of September. 

Jeanette Durán Pacheco, media specialist for the Census Bureau’s Los Angeles Regional Office, says the bureau is adding employees, training sessions, and awards to motivate enumerators “who maximize hours worked.”   

“We will improve the speed of our count without sacrificing completeness,” Durán Pacheco said.

Some aren’t as upbeat.  

“Moving the deadline sooner only continues to disenfranchise our communities from being counted,” said William Miller, a Blackfoot and Cherokee Indian who works with the Oregon Complete Count Committee's Subcommittee on Indian Affairs. “These efforts will only continue to increase the risk of an undercount, which will require our communities having to wait until 2030 to be accurately accounted for.”

Promotional material from We Count Oregon, a statewide effort to encourage participation by communities that have historically been underrepresented, highlights how people living in Indian Country are often left out of the Census. The Census determines allocation of federal dollars for community programs badly needed on many reservations.

Enumerators trained in social distancing and equipped with personal protective equipment have been sent out to visit the homes of residents who haven’t self-reported.

“We must do everything within our power to successfully, meaningfully, and fruitfully engage our community to ensure a full count,” Miller said.

While Census workers race to beat the clock, several civil rights groups have filed a federal lawsuit against the Trump Administration, arguing that the truncated timeline violates the Constitution’s Enumeration Clause, which requires an actual count of all persons living in the United States. 

Additionally, 20 U.S. Senators have signed a letter to the U.S. Census Bureau and the U.S. Department of Commerce, urging them to honor their original field data collection deadline of Oct. 31, to ensure an accurate count for Indian Country and the Native Hawaiian community.

“Failure to get a complete and accurate count of these community populations will have long term and devastating impacts,” warns the letter. Besides Oregon Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris of California are also signed on.

In Oregon, six out of nine federally-recognized tribes have exceeded their response rates from the 2010 Census.

“Even in the midst of a pandemic, in states like the upper northwest, the far majority of our tribes have already reached and/or surpassed their 2010 response rates,” said Jessica Imotichey, Tribal Partnership Coordinator for the Los Angeles Region. “So I feel that’s very promising.”

But with less than a month to go, there’s still a push to get as full of a count as possible, in spite of the hurdles — of which COVID-19 is just a recent addition. 

“We’re one of the hardest to count communities in the United States, and a lot of that has been by design,” said Se-ah-dom Edmo. Edmo is Shoshone-Bannock, Nez Perce, and Yakama, and serves as tribal community coordinator for We Count Oregon. The statewide organization works to get improved representation of communities — including Native Americans — in the Census.

Besides technical challenges, Native Americans are hard-pressed to trust the same federal government responsible for driving them off their ancestral lands, breaking hundreds of treaties, and eliminating their tribes’ status as sovereign entities through Congressional actions.

Edmo points to the pandemic and Census work colliding as the most recent example of the U.S. government falling short of upholding treaty and trust responsibility. 

“Indian Health Services has never been fully funded across Indian Country. I think the fact that the Census is happening right in the middle of a pandemic only points to the enormous health disparities.” - Se-ah-dom Edmo

Nonetheless, Edmo and her colleagues acknowledge getting tribal members to fill out the Census will be important.

“My dad is one of those guys, an old AIM (American Indian Movement) guy who hasn’t trusted the government his whole life,” she said. “But for me, this is entering a conversation in the public sphere about representation, about public dollars, and about money and power.”

Of $675 billion in data-driven funding, the Census allocates $1 billion annually toward federally recognized tribes. These funds help develop housing, employment training, and infrastructure in communities that are largely rural. 

This year, the Census questionnaire is available online. In Indian Country, however, officials encouraging participation in the decennial count don’t know if that will help. Reservations lag the rest of the country in internet availability. Courtesy image/National Congress of American Indians

Debra Whitefoot, a member of the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation, agrees about the trust issue. She’s supporting Census-taking efforts with tribal residents living in “in lieu” sites along the Columbia River. The federal government agreed to build 31 such sites after dams flooded traditional fishing areas. Many of the in-lieu sites, however, lack safe and sanitary conditions.

“Historically, the trust issue is that those aren’t designated tribal reservation areas,” Whitefoot said. “That’s why they’re hard to count, and that’s why they fall through the cracks. Because it’s not a tribally designated area. It’s a ceded land.”

While there have been efforts by Congress to improve living conditions at the in-lieu sites, Whitefoot says mistrust and apprehension are harder to fix. 

“I’ve already heard: ‘Why should I be counted, because my government and tribe doesn’t help me.’ And I say, that’s exactly what we’re trying to change. We have to let them know that we’re here, because it’s a silent population, it’s a population that’s not seen. We all have kids. We all have grandchildren. We all have to look out for their future, and this is one way to do it.” - Debra Whitefoot

In the past two months, people like Miller, Whitefoot, and Suppah have helped circulate paper Census forms and information in the urban and reservation areas they’ve targeted. Whitefoot said that during a food-box drop to some Native American communities along the Columbia River on May 20, she included packets of Census materials, frequently asked questions, and COVID-19 materials, including face masks.

Durán Pacheco, the Census Bureau official, acknowledged there are barriers to conducting the count in Indian Country. But she said the bureau has taken steps to improve response rates this year.

“With its unique public health history and challenges, such as lack of running water, and remote villages, it has been a bit difficult,” Durán Pacheco said. “But we have our partners, and our tribal liaisons on the ground.”

Back at the Warm Springs reservation, Suppah tries to coordinate safe and efficient ways to complete the 2020 Census count. She said she has three census takers helping her, but there’s still uncertainty as her people deal with the pandemic.

“Everything changes from day to day. I’m always wondering what’s going to happen,” she said. The Warm Springs tribal government has had several shutdowns this year, and operations are currently at half capacity as of this writing. 

The tribe says more than 260 cases of COVID-19 have been reported, with seven fatalities. And on top of everything else, the tribe is dealing with several wildfires, and clean water issues. Until late August, most of the reservation was on a boil-water notice, and Suppah’s family regularly went to the Bear Springs Campground to fill up six 5-gallon water jugs.

“So every day we’re strategizing on how can we do the Census? How can we help our community while we’re dealing with the pandemic and water?” she said.

Census data informs fund allocations to programs under the Fair Housing Act, the Public Health Act, and the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, among others, that would help address some of those problems. Tribal leaders are banking on getting members counted as thoroughly as possible during the 2020 Census to ensure access to those coveted federal dollars. 


Lead photo: Census workers at a September drive-through tally in the community of Warm Springs. Brutis Baez/KWSO-FM

About the author

Brian Bull

Brian Bull has been involved in journalism for 25 years and has filed for National Public Radio, the BBC, and other broadcast outlets. A proud citizen of the Nez Perce Tribe, Bull mentors up and coming journalists of color through NPR’s Next Generation Radio Project. When not covering news in the Pacific Northwest, he’s either spending time with his family or looking for hidden patches of huckleberries.