Matthew Brown, Iris Samuels And Lindsay Whitehurst
LODGE GRASS, Mont. — When Lauri Dawn Kindness was growing up, her hometown on the Crow Indian Reservation had an arcade, movie theater, gas stations and family cafe along streets shaded by towering cottonwood trees near a bend in the Little Bighorn River. Today, there's only a small grocer and a propane dealer among the deserted lots scattered through downtown Lodge Grass.
Kindness is back here after more than a dozen years in the U.S. Army, including four combat tours, and she wants to help her people. One essential step, she said, is an accurate count on the once-a-decade U.S. census, which will determine how much federal money flows in for housing, schools, health care and other dire needs.
Reaching a full count on most reservations now looks nearly impossible. Less than a month before the Sept. 30 deadline, just a fraction of people have been counted on Crow land, where the coronavirus pandemic has taken a toll.
The Trump administration has pushed the Census Bureau to speed up the timeline for the count, and the Republican-controlled Senate failed to pass an extension allowing it to continue into next year. That has exacerbated concerns by civil rights groups and others of hard-to-count communities getting missed, especially people of color like Native Americans.
So Kindness, an activist for a Native American nonprofit, spends her days sweating in a mask and face shield under the merciless summer sun, urging drivers to fill out the forms at drive-thru census sign-up stations, including in Lodge Grass, known among the Crow as Aashbacheeitche, or Valley of the Chiefs.
"Our ancestors fought for a reason — for us to be here," she said. "At the end of the day, if I'm tired and exhausted because I've made just a little bit of an impact on somebody ... then I feel good. The fight was worth it."
With millions of federal dollars for impoverished Native American communities on the line, tribes are racing to avoid being undercounted — again — in the 2020 census. Only 24 percent of residents of Montana tribal areas had been counted as of Sept. 1, woefully lagging the national rate of 85 percent. There are more than 300 reservations nationwide, and almost all trail significantly behind the rest of the country in the count.
There have long been geographic and cultural challenges counting people on Native lands. But the pandemic has dealt a devastating new setback, with lockdowns keeping census takers away as Indian Country has struggled with disproportionate numbers of infections and a lack of internet access that prevents people from filling out the questionnaire online.
"We're probably looking at a historic undercount," said James Tucker, vice chairman of the U.S. Census National Advisory Committee. "It's not going to be enough time."
Missing a single family of four in Indian Country translates to $14,000 a year in lost federal funding, he said.
Census data also is used to determine representation in Congress and could give two Western states, Arizona and Montana, another seat in the U.S. House. In Montana, an undercount of a few thousand people could mean the state misses the threshold, leaving it with a single voice in the House.
Native Americans are far from the only U.S. community of color facing a potential undercount, and a group of cities, counties, civil rights groups and the Navajo Nation are suing to extend the deadline. A judge in California over the weekend issued a restraining order that stops the Census Bureau from winding down its operations until a federal court hearing next week.
Advocates like Lycia Maddocks with the National Congress of American Indians are pushing for Congress to step in and allow more time. She's been home in Arizona, helping boost the count among friends and relatives in the Fort Yuma Quechan Indian Tribe in the desert along the Mexican border.
"It's going to have a devastating impact to Indian Country," she said. "It will have lasting effects over the next 10 years. That's a fact."
Like many reservations, Crow in Montana has wide-open spaces — it's almost twice as large as Delaware with a population of about 8,000 tribal members. Many older people speak the Crow language. Its poverty rate is 25 percent, double the rest of the country.
The distances, language barriers and wariness of giving up details about sometimes-crowded living conditions have long made it difficult to get an accurate census count, especially given a distrust of the federal government rooted in a history of broken treaties.
"There's always that old stereotype of the census man being somebody that you can't trust," said Lance Four Star, a resident of Montana's Fort Peck Indian Reservation who works with Kindness at Montana-based Western Native Voice.
Similar factors play out on reservations nationwide. In the 2010 census, 5.2 million people identified as Native American. But the Census Bureau estimated those living on reservations were undercounted by 4.9 percent, twice as much as any other group.
Most people filled out this year's census online, another challenge in tribal areas where many homes don't have internet access.
Then came the pandemic, which hit tribes hard. In Montana, more than 20 percent of confirmed COVID-19 cases are among Native Americans, who make up only 7 percent of the population. The country's largest reservation, the Navajo Nation, at one point had the highest infection rate in the U.S.
The devastating spread of the virus on reservations has led to extended lockdowns, curfews and strict rules against outsiders. The Census Bureau had planned to send workers to reservations and other rural areas to drop off paper questionnaires during the critical spring months, but the pandemic delayed that plan until summer, when many tribes were still grappling with the virus.
Bureau officials also hoped to hire local tribal members to increase trust in the process. The pandemic made that harder, too, said Fred Stevenson, a tribal expert with the Census Bureau.
Lockdowns delayed in-person counting efforts, and census activists canceled door-to-door events on tribal lands, turning to social media instead. Kindness still keeps up her efforts online and in person, leveraging her extensive social network.
"Come down and sign up. Tell all your BFFs," she said on the phone during a lull in the drive-thru effort. "Tell them: 'Hustle your bustle. Move your moccasins.'"
Response rates are now climbing, but not fast enough. Kindness said she'll keep working until the deadline.
"This is near and dear to my heart," she said. "We have to stand up and try to be seen and have our voices heard."
Whitehurst reported from Salt Lake City. Samuels is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative.