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Accuracy Is Victory: NAIHC and Census Bureau to Improve Tribal Data

The National American Indian Housing Council and the Census Bureau signed a memorandum of understanding to improve tribal data information.

A memorandum of understanding was signed February 26 by National American Indian Housing Council (NAIHC) Chairwoman Cheryl Causley and Census Bureau Deputy Director Nancy Potok that is aimed at increasing response rates to the Tribal Boundary and Annexation Survey (BAS), an annual Census Bureau survey that collects and maintains information about legal boundaries as well as the names and official status of federally recognized American Indian reservations.

Accurate boundaries help the federal government know the size and scope of reservations, as well as how many Indians are residing on reservations. The federal executive and legislative branches often use such data to make funding decisions related to tribes. Tribes also sometimes use the data when legal issues arise surrounding their borders.

“The crux of [the agreement] is to ensure that tribes have accurate boundaries,” says Shawn Pensoneau, a governmental affairs specialist with NAIHC. “That has been a problem over the years—some communities have been left out, so the Census does not have an accurate picture of those reservations.”

Pensoneau says that when tribal boundaries are not surveyed correctly, the number of tribal citizens can be undercounted, thus resulting in reduced funding for tribes. He also says it is important for there to be “consistency” between what tribes and the federal government consider to be Indian country in order to reduce legal issues and other tensions between tribes and the federal government.

As part of the agreement, NAIHC plans to assist the Census Bureau in developing and disseminating educational and outreach products to tribes concerning the survey. The Census Bureau will in turn provide training to tribal housing directors on how to respond to survey questions and how to use mapping technology involved with the survey’s data collection process. The agreement is open-ended and does not have an end date.

For many years the Census Bureau has had problems establishing consistent contacts with tribes to gather information for the Tribal BAS, Causley said in an interview after the agreement was signed, noting a wariness of many tribes to work with the federal government due to historical strains.

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“The Census is actually critical to the proper counting of our people,” Causley says. “But they aren’t too wanted on the reservations.”

Causley sees the Census Bureau-NAIHC agreement as giving the Census Bureau a sense of credibility for tribal leaders and citizens who may be cautious of taking part in such a survey. She also says the Census Bureau is committed to hiring Native Americans to be counters within the agency, and Census officials have already been attending more tribal meetings, locally and nationally, to attempt to improve relations. The NAIHC was also a national partner for the Census in 2010.

“The Census numbers are used to divvy up money for almost all federal tribal programs right now,” Causley says. “If they don’t have an accurate count, the tribes are undercounted and therefore are underserved.”

In 2013, the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) passed a resolution supporting the Census Bureau’s work to ensure the maximum tribal participation in the survey through agreeing that tribal housing authorities act as a secondary contact for the Tribal BAS mailings at the discretion of each tribe. NCAI also encouraged tribes to participate in the survey as part of that resolution.

“The Census still goes to the elected tribal chair first to gather the information they are looking for,” says David Sanborn, executive director of NAIHC. “We are just another avenue for them. Many of the executive directors of housing authorities know how to get the information the Census needs.”

Sanborn says the agreement will be measured as a success if tribal response rates increase. “But the other thing, on a higher level, we will be able to paint a better tribal picture of our stories, what is really going on in Indian country—not only in housing, but in community development, education, homelessness, income,” Sanborn says. “It will help us be able to tell our stories to our legislators, to our federal partners, and to the public.”

“Any time that we can get a more accurate count of our lands and our people, it’s a victory,” says Causley.