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Joaqlin Estus
Indian Country Today

It's the dead of winter in Alaska as the US Census Bureau kicks off the 2020 census in remote village Tuesday. The census is taken every ten years to decide the number of congressional representatives for each state. Census numbers are used to set federal funding levels for everything from housing, bridges and roads to health, and school lunches. They also figure into state legislative district boundaries.

The national head count begins in Toksook Bay, a village of 661 people on the western edge of Alaska. That’s almost three months earlier than in the rest of the country.

Census bureau director Steven Dillingham told the press in Anchorage on Friday the early start is to get Alaskans counted while the frozen ground provides easier access to communities. He said it also helps get people counted before spring draws them away from home for food gathering and warm-weather jobs.

(Related: Alaska census will begin with grandma, dance, food as 'a special moment')

Recruitment for census workers in Alaska is going well according to Tim Olson, the census bureau’s social director of field operations. For Alaska, “We need approximately 9,000 applicants,” said Olson. “As of January 13th we've got 8,316 applicants, which is really good. And we don't really need to have the 9,000 in hand until March 3rd.” Dillingham said the bureau also has specialists on board to continue building partnerships with Native and other organizations.

Two voting rights attorneys for the Native American Rights Fund attnded a US Census Bureau press conference held Friday in Anchorage, Alaska. Natalie Landreth, at left, is a senior attorney. James Tucker is pro bono counsel. (Photo by Joaqlin Estus, Indian Country Today)

Two voting rights attorneys for the Native American Rights Fund attnded a US Census Bureau press conference held Friday in Anchorage, Alaska. Natalie Landreth, at left, is a senior attorney. James Tucker is pro bono counsel. (Photo by Joaqlin Estus, Indian Country Today)

Natalie Landreth, a senior attorney with the Native American Rights Fund, said even though front-line workers are doing their best, the census won’t get an accurate count in Alaska.

“I want to tell every American Indian and Alaska Native to be counted as an act of rebellion because this census is designed not to count you,” said Landreth. “It is designed for you to not have [congressional] districts. It is designed for you to not have federal monies,” said Landreth. “Make yourself heard because I don't think they want to hear from you.”

The bureau “had what our Senate delegation told us was more than sufficient funding for the census,” said Landreth. “I said, ‘if that's the case, how come zero dollars are being spent on language assistance in Alaska with the highest percentage of Native language speakers per capita in the United States?’ And I never got an answer to that ... the only answer is, ‘Well, either do it yourself or they're just not going to be counted.’”

“I think a lot of these are political and budgetary decisions at the highest level," said Landreth. Tribes shared concerns at tribal consultations but Landreth said the few that were held occurred late in the process, after funding decisions had been made.

James Tucker is pro bono voting rights counsel to the Native American Rights Fund, and vice chair of the Census Bureau’s National Advisory Committee on Racial, Ethnic, and Other Populations.

Tucker said Native Americans are the most undercounted racial group in the country. In the 2010 census American Indians on reservations were undercounted by 4.9 percent, more than twice the rate as the next largest undercounted group, African Americans, at 2.1 percent. Estimates show Alaska Natives were undercounted by 8 percent. Those undercounts, said Tucker, among other issues, affect whether candidates who support tribal sovereignty and understand Native issues get elected.

Carol Gore, Alutiiq, is a former member of the national committee. Speaking to Alaska Native tribal leaders in October 2019, she said, “To put that [undercount] into context, Alaska receives approximately $3.2 billion in federal funding every single year.” She said the eight percent undercount in 2010 meant the loss of more tens of millions of dollars to Alaska every year for ten years.

Landreth said there is broad consensus about language support from the national committee on race and ethnicity, the Alaska Federation of Natives, a coalition of non-profit and others. The message is: “‘You're not doing enough to count us. Why isn't there any outreach? Why is everything on the Internet? Why is there no language assistance?’”

Landreth said that foundations have helped pick up the slack "because otherwise the social injustice is enormous and it's intolerable."

Landreth said donations number in the millions of dollars. Some of that money is going to support language translations.

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Veri di Suvero is director of the Alaska Public Interest Research Group, which has translated census materials into four major Native languages and some additional dialects. Di Suvero said language barriers compound issues in communities that already feel the census is not for them.

“But by having materials translated into their languages, it means that there is more connection and understanding of why the census is important and also, what this will do for the community,” said Suvero. She said the research group has also created records on how to get accurate, understandable translations to use for future censuses.

Gabe Layman is chairman of the Alaska Census Working Group, a coalition formed a few years ago by the statewide nonprofit Foraker Group. He said the working group includes dozens of nonprofit, governmental and tribal entities, and private companies.

“Why does Alaska Airlines care? Well, guess what, Alaska Airlines and other private sector businesses use census data to determine whether to make key business investments in certain areas,” said Layman. He said demographics affect planning, for instance, for the creation and routes of flights.

In fact, Layman said, “There is no person, there is no organization that is untouched by the census.” For instance, because federal funding is often allocated at the statewide level, an undercount in rural Alaska affects urban areas too. “And we're not talking about impacts that last for a year or two years. The impacts are felt for a decade,” said Layman.

However, Tucker noted, “With Indian Country, I don't think there's any other population that has so many different, hard-to-count characteristics layered on top of one another.” He listed hurdles such as geographic isolation and disconnection, cultural differences, and language barriers. “We have one of the youngest populations. We have housing instability, high poverty, high unemployment, lack of transportation, and lack of access to Wi-Fi, which is another huge thing we're talking about.”

More than ever, the census bureau is using the Internet to reach people. But nearly half of Native Americans lack access to high-speed Internet.

Rural households often lack street addresses. But because postal boxes may not represent single households, the census bureau doesn’t mail forms to post office boxes. Yet, field tests on the Colville Indian and Standing Rock Sioux reservations to find ways to handle nontraditional mailing addresses were cancelled due to budget issues. Tucker said that research would have yielded remedies to a range of issues.


Distrust is another obstacle. Given that the history of Native Americans is riddled with injustice, the unlawful taking of resources, and broken promises, it comes as no surprise that Natives are suspicious of the federal government and fear census data may be used against them.

But Layman said, “If Census Bureau workers disclose the information that they collect, they face personal criminal liability” including prison time, a felony record, and fines. “So people need to understand… it is safe to give those responses to a census worker, and that information can't be used against you,” said Layman.

Layman said the working group has raised money to send mailers to go to all of Alaska’s 88,000 post office boxes, and to create public service announcements, social media content, and posters.

“We want to make sure that every single Alaskan understands that the census is easy to complete, that it is entirely safe and confidential, and that it is critical for our communities,” said Layman. The group also gives out mini-grants to community organizations so they can tailor outreach to specific hard-to-count groups, such as homeless teens.

Nicole Borromeo, Athabascan, is vice president and general counsel at the Alaska Federation of Natives and a new member of national advisory committee on race and ethnicity. As much as other organizations are partnering with the census bureau, she said, “Had they [the bureau] reached out to Native regional and other organizations earlier, we probably could have done more.”

Joaqlin Estus, Tlingit, is a long-time Alaska journalist and a national correspondent for Indian Country Today.

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