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Tribal census participation up in Oklahoma

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Census counters in Oklahoma are reporting more tribal participation among the state’s 37 federally recognized tribes for the 2010 Census, federal officials said.

They are specifically encouraged by the number of Complete Count Committees – early indicators of participating tribes. In 2000, two tribes participated; for the 2010 Census, 35 tribes have taken part.

Counting Indians in Oklahoma will be challenging since the state’s 37 federally recognized tribes live outside an official reservation area. Recent U.S. Community Survey figures put eight percent in the state of Oklahoma’s 3.6 million as American Indian, figures show. Official census forms are just weeks away from hitting the mailboxes of Indian families.

From the dashboard of her car, U.S. Census senior partnership specialist, Susan Arkeketa, travels from tribal council meeting to community meetings giving pitches on getting maximum tribal response. Getting tribal members to fill out the upcoming census forms is the main strategy for Arkeketa, who is one of three census specialists that are part of the government’s campaign on Oklahoma’s Indian country.

Arkeketa said meeting with tribes in person has a positive effect that she can visibly detect since the last census count.

“This works really well, the tribes know best how to reach their own communities and their own people. We tell them why the census is important for the whole tribe.”

Prepratory work to the count has been underway for about two years with officials hopeful that they can enumerate the melting pot tribal population. The outreach work has resulted in tribes coming up with their own strategies including free Census goods like pens, backpacks, first-aid kits and piggy banks.

Sydnee Chattin-Reynolds, U.S. Census Kansas City deputy regional director, said the uniqueness of Oklahoma’s Indian population led the federal agency to examine specific strategies. As a member of the Blackfeet Tribe, tribal sensitivity is key, she said.

“We learned we had to develop relationships. It’s like the bridge from the United States to the Indian tribes. We know that tribal members will open the door to someone they know.

“Oklahoma has 37 different and distinct tribal jurisdictions with tribal members still living in their borders. But for zones that were not designated reservations, like the state’s capital, Oklahoma City, American Indians still live and must be counted.”

The checkerboard regarding Indian population derived from a federal effort in 1900 to instill the Anglo concept of land ownership. One tribe, the Osage Nation in northeastern Oklahoma, said it has only reservation within the state after ancestors purchased their land upon moving to present-day Osage County in the late 1800s, said chief Jim Gray.

For Gray’s 9,600-member tribe, about 4,400 live within the state, according to the tribe’s self-reported figures. The Osage chief insists Indians who get their census forms do more than toss them in the trash or set them aside unread.

Nonetheless, undercounting the state’s Native population could be costly in Indian country, officials said. Figures from the federal head count are used regularly in formularies for government funding that includes a tribe’s social services and self-governance programs.

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“Here the issue of filling out the census forms is two-fold and the census is critical to a lot of federal programs, the first is to keep the data for their own records. The other is that Indians have a responsibility to participate,” Gray said.

Tribes without casinos, (in Oklahoma, the number is fewer than 10 tribes) have a keener interest in making sure their citizens fill out the information forms, Gray said.

“Non-gaming tribes rely on federal grants so that they can provide services to their members. Every tribe has an interest in this.”

A June 2009 report tied Census data to federal allocations that for Indians included broad programs like commodity food programs and elder nutrition to the lesser known, Reading First and wastewater project grants.

Federal census officials said particular effort has been paid to Oklahoma from the U.S. Census Bureau’s regional office in Kansas City. Tribes in Oklahoma can be small, like the Alabama-Quasarte with just over 300 citizens to the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma with better than 210,000 registered members. Regardless of size, the idea has been to give a local face to the federal initiative, officials said.

“It doesn’t matter the size of the tribe,” Chattin-Reynolds said. “We made an effort to contact all of the tribes. ... to give them the same opportunities.”

Additionally, the overall count is expected to draw a lower response than in previous efforts because of turbulent political and economic environments, officials said. Census analysis shows that about 54 percent will turn in their forms. It is unclear if that percentage applies to Indian tribes.

With a population that is apt to distrust government officials, forging a familiar stance helps ensure the Native count, said Vicki Frough, tribal census advocate for Choctaw Nation in Oklahoma.

“You’re more apt to open the door to someone you know.”

Frough said one of the most important tidbits is that the information offered remains private. So if private information is put on the form, state and tribal officials will be able to tell who listed what information. That assurance is key for many, Frough said.

Despite potential physical and emotional obstacles to an accurate name count, another barrier could loom in the actual form.

“I was told there was not exactly a long enough space to write your tribe, but to keep writing,” Frough said. “You have to keep writing your tribe’s full name for it to be counted. People would just put ‘Choctaw’ or ‘OK Choctaw’ but it has to be ‘Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma.’”

Actual Census form mail-outs are scheduled for April.