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Census bureau aims to count every AI/AN

WASHINGTON – Here’s a first for Indian country: The first person who will be officially counted in the 2010 Census will be an Alaska Native from the village of Noorvik.

And Dr. Robert Groves, the director of the U.S. Census Bureau, Curtis Zunigha, the program manager for the bureau’s American Indian/Alaska Native Program, and other staffers will be there to participate in the Jan. 25 event.

Their journey is part of the extraordinary efforts the Census Bureau is undertaking to reach out to Native nations, communities and individuals to get an accurate count of the American Indian and Alaska Native populations within the United States.

Census Day is April 1, but because counting Native populations in remote areas like Noorvik is one of the biggest census challenges, the bureau has to start early, Zunigha said.

“We’re actually beginning our remote Alaska operation in January. Many of the Alaska Natives engage in subsistence hunting and fishing in the spring in camps that our enumerators wouldn’t be able to find and they’re not going to get anything in the mail, so we’re going in early to the Native village of Noorvik. They’re a partner and the tribal leadership has agreed to host the very first enumeration.”

Partnership is the key to a successful census, Zunigha said.

“After the first enumeration in Noorvik, we’ll be going village to village all across those remote areas all through the State of Alaska and getting these people counted early. And all the work that’s gone into building relationships and partnerships with the Native tribes and villages, all the outreach that’s gone into it to make people aware of the census, hiring people from the villages to be enumerators – all of that is a model of what we’re doing all across Indian country. If it happens the way we’ve planned in Noorvik, I expect a very positive response from Indian country over all.”

Groves gave an update of the Census Bureau’s work at a BIA Tribal Budget Council meeting recently, detailing the progress and challenges of the task.

The director was invited to the meeting by the National Congress of American Indians, which has partnered with the Census Bureau to raise awareness and promote participation in the census. Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Larry EchoHawk and NCAI President Jefferson Keel co-chaired the meeting.

The Census Bureau and NCAI reaffirmed its partnership at NCAI’s 66th Annual Trade Show and Convention in October when NCAI launched Indian Country Counts, a comprehensive Web site loaded with national and regional contact information, job opportunities, news, events and resources.

Data from the census is one of the key elements in determining the distribution of more than $400 billion nationwide, Zunigha said. For Indian communities, that means funding for Indian Child Welfare, Children and Family Education, employment assistance, food distribution, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, housing, community development block grants and numerous other programs. The data will affect policy and human service programs for Native communities for years.

Zunigha’s American Indian/Alaska Native program has contacted every one of the 564 federally recognized tribes and entered into partnerships with many tribal leaders to get the word out to their members to participate in the census.

The bureau has hired community members as enumerators and has reduced the census form to 10 questions. People can self-identify and can include more than one category, Zunigha said.

“We want people to describe their race and if they’re more than one race – like myself, I’m half Indian, half white – they can include that. And if they have more than one principle or enrolled tribal membership they can include that, too.” The data allows the census bureau to break down the information into specialized reports for each of the 564 federally recognized tribes.

But the census is not limited to the acknowledged tribes. Zunigha said the bureau plans to count members of state recognized tribes, non-recognized tribes, Indian communities and individuals.

Non-reservation Indians – a population that made up 64 percent of the total Native population in the 2000 census – live mostly in large urban centers. The bureau reaches out to Indian centers, health clinics and nonprofit organizations for help in locating them.

The issues of privacy and trust are two of the biggest challenges census-takers face, Zunigha said. Privacy of personal information is assured by law with big penalties for any violation. The general information that is made public cannot be linked to individuals or addresses.

According to Zunigha, Trust may be more challenging to overcome.

“The whole idea of mistrust of the federal government – that’s no secret in Indian country – but I think the best thing to overcome that is to emphasis the partnership aspect of the way we’re doing the census in Indian country.”

Zunigha, a member of the Delaware Tribe of Indians in Oklahoma and a former chief, sees the masses of information census data yields about economics, population trends, planning and development as a tool for tribal governments.

“Tribal leaders know true tribal sovereignty and self-determination means you don’t let somebody else come in and figure out this data for us. We do it ourselves and we can do our own planning and development for business and communities. I fully expect tribal demographers and data analysts to be using the reports that will be generated. You can bet the people like Harrahs and Bali and other casino companies are using census data to do long range planning for site locations and businesses. So a good and successful census for Indian country only helps support tribal sovereignty and self-determination.”