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No Accounting: Lies, Damn Lies and Indian Country's Census Numbers

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Quick questions: What’s the unemployment rate in Indian country? What’s the total number of high-school age American Indians and Alaska Natives —and how many are in school? How many folks have signed up for benefits under the Affordable Care Act at an Indian Health Service, tribal or urban clinic?

Fact is, we don’t know. And we can’t know. There is no single database with accurate information about the citizens of Indian country. In many cases, we don’t even know what we don’t know.

RELATED: How to Make the Census Count for Natives

There are hundreds of databases that could be used to build that kind of information, starting with tribal enrollment records. What if there were a way to keep those records private, yet allow their use for demographic and statutory purposes?

This is a big “what if?” that raises lots of thorny questions. It’s true the U.S. Census is imperfect and becoming less so in its ability to count American Indians and Alaska Natives, as Alexander Ewen and Ivana Maravic point out in their detailed look at how badly--and sometimes maliciously--the U.S. Government has under-counted Natives for almost two centuries. The damage done by this spreads in many directions, and is impossible to quantify. But that miscount continues because the original policy assumed that Native Americans will disappear. We are not.

When budgets are lean, accurate information has an economic value.

The United States might even be the first customer because the Internal Revenue Service is going to have a difficult task evaluating who is a Native American under the Affordable Care Act. The IRS must judge tax liability for tribal members earning income from a treaty-based right, such as fishing. It would be far easier if the IRS could send an electronic request, negotiated and paid for in advance, directly to a tribe or intertribal database, and then get the information back instantly. (The IRS already has information from tax returns that could help tribes build their own demographic profile. That, too, could be part of the conversation about next steps.)

Tribes could also be their own best customers. Citizenship rolls could be used to build a comprehensive economic and social picture of a 21st century tribal society. A demographic snapshot of a tribe’s constituency, based on the tribe’s numbers. This would be essential data for government or foundation grants as well as for councils and other policy-makers who then could use that information to focus on the most pressing problems at home.

An Indian country data initiative would not be an easy thing to pull off. There are many, many hurdles and hard questions to answer. How would citizenship information be protected and controlled? In this era of privacy invasion, especially the invasion of our digital lives by governments, this is a scary enterprise. Imagine how much money companies would pay to tap (legally or illegally) a tribal database just before per capita payments are distributed?

Also, would tribes even be willing to partner with other tribes or nonprofits to collect and maintain a database? The citizenship or enrollment office is an expression of sovereignty. Would that still be true if the information is shared with others?

There is also the concern about how descendants who are not enrolled in any one tribe fit? Or how would Alaska Natives best tell their story through data, a problem complicated by shared memberships in tribes, villages, and corporations?

Or where would the money come from to build such a database? Certainly that would be a tough sell in this sequester era.

All that said, there reasons to at least begin a larger conversation about tribes and better data. There are two ways politicians and policymakers learn about the issues of our day. The first is through the story of the moment, the hottest narrative that might jump from headlines, TV or the Internet. That story may or may not be important, but it gets us talking. Then, public policy follows. But what if the story, as stark as it might seem, is the exception and not the trend? Or what about statistics that never make the news because they change slowly, over time, and go unnoticed? We should be focused on the long-term trends, measuring what’s changing over decades. Only then can we solve the problems that really need fixing.

My favorite demographer is Hans Rosling, a Swedish physician, academic, statistician and speaker, and chairman of the Gapminder Foundation.

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In a 2006 TED Talk, Rosling said he asked global health students to pick out countries with a higher child mortality rate. The results were compared with chimpanzees who chose bananas with the answers written on them. “To Hans’s great surprise, his global health students performed worse than the chimps, i.e. worse than random,” according to Gapminder’s Web site. “Therefore the wrong answers could not be the results of guessing. They must be due to preconceived ideas that in a systematic way created and maintained ignorance. Only preconceived ideas can make us perform worse than random.”

The same preconceived ideas infect the data about Indian country. That’s why we need a new way of collecting and reporting on the data that fairly and accurately represents all the people of Indian country.

Indian country cannot afford information that’s worse than random.


The Bureau of Economic Analysis says the economy is hotter than previous estimates.

A news release said: "Real gross domestic product – the output of goods and services produced by labor and property located in the United States – increased at an annual rate of 4.1 percent in the third quarter of 2013 (that is, from the second quarter to the third quarter), according to the "third" estimate released by the Bureau of Economic Analysis. In the second quarter, real GDP increased 2.5 percent."

So why does this matter?

The headline shows that the economy is getting stronger. That means – or at least should mean – more jobs down the road.

From a politicians perspective, a growing economy is key to Congress funding key programs in Indian country. "Societies like ours, and specifically including ours, are more likely to be successful at preserving and enhancing their basic moral values when the majority of the population has a sense of getting ahead," said Benjamin M. Friedman. His book, The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth, demonstrates the relationship between good economic times and moral politics. Basically when people feel better (and richer) they act so in their dealings with other people.

The numbers from BEA do not back up this point. Yet.

The report says: "Real federal government consumption expenditures and gross investment decreased 1.5 percent in the third quarter, compared with a decrease of 1.6 percent in the second."

That means the federal government is still shrinking. Duh. And only slightly less so in the third quarter as compared to the second.

But local and state governments are again growing. The BEA reports that real state and local government consumption expenditures and gross investment increased 1.7 percent, compared with an increase of 0.4 percent.

This is one of those areas where more data is needed. I would really like to see where tribal governments fit into this picture. My instinct is that the shrinking is significant, more than the federal government's 1.5 percent. But I have no numbers to back that up. We need a GDP number for Indian country, nation by nation.

Mark Trahant is the 20th Atwood Chair at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He is a journalist, speaker and Twitter poet and is a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes.