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Jourdan Bennett-Begaye
Indian Country Today

The 2020 Census is the chance for each American Indian and Alaska Native to be visible despite America’s reputation at counting each American Indian and Alaska Native person.

The U.S. Census Bureau planned its first headcount of residents in Toksook Bay, Alaska, a Yup’ik village where the Bering Sea’s waves splash against the coast. Or rather while the ground was still frozen (and during a storm).

Every 10 years, the Census Bureau counts every person in the United States. It’s required by the Constitution.

Now beginning Thursday March 12 everyone can answer the 10-question form online and by phone. Households will start to receive an invite in the mail to respond to the 2020 Census. Some households will also receive paper questionnaires.

The count is important for many reasons as panelists from Indian Country Today’s roundtable discussion, “Native Census: A California conversation before the count,” yesterday from the Pala Indian Reservation. The data from the census is used to allocate funds to federal programs (this includes Indian Health Service, housing, head start) and redrawing boundaries for the state legislature and congressional districts.

“There’s resources at stake. It’s part of the treaty and trust responsibility to make sure our tribal nations and tribal communities are resourced appropriately,” said Lycia Maddocks, Quechen and vice president of external affairs at the National Congress of American Indians. The national organization has a printed toolkit for tribal leaders and tribal citizens detailing the history and significance of the census as well as what questions will be asked.

Jessica Imotichey, Chickasaw, partnership coordinator of the U.S. Census Bureau said the data that comes from the census allows tribes to “grow economically.”

“I also like to remind tribes it’s a way to exercise that sovereignty muscle because you are leading the way for your own people,” Imotichey said.

And Native youth are getting involved in the process in creative ways, says Kayla Hilario, Ione Band of Miwoks and tribal affairs specialist for the California Census office.

“I think the youth are very open to the idea of the census, to civic engagement, to really getting involved and understanding the impact of the communities,” Hilario said.

This is the 24th census since it started in 1790 because lawmakers wanted people to have power of their government. They wanted American’s population to directly affect their representation in Congress.

However, for Indian Country, or American Indians and Alaska Natives, that story is much different. It was a way for the federal government to expand and take over tribal lands. 

When did the decennial census first count Native Americans as part of the US population and how did the census identify us?

Thousands of years ago, before the United States was even an idea, the first census took place. Indigenous peoples took count on rocks, buffalo hides, petroglyphs and more.

The first census happened in 1790, or at least the first person on record. Eighty years later, at least according to the National Archives, the first Native American was counted with the general population. General population is important because a number of censuses occurred outside of the decennial census.

Congress passed an act on July 4, 1884 requiring the Bureau of Indian Affairs to start the Indian census rolls. Indian agents or superintendents in charge of reservations or an agency had to submit an annual count to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs.

The act stated: “That hereafter each Indian agent be required, in his annual report, to submit a census of the Indians at his agency or upon the reservation under his charge.” The act didn’t say what information to collect but a count. So the commissioner created the first form to include the name, family relationship, sex, and age. There wasn’t any confidentiality. The form evolved over time. The annual Indian census rolls stopped in 1940.

On occasion there were special censuses for Natives. One was called the 1857 Shawnee Census that happened in the then Kansas Territory, according to the National Archives. The count was part of the Treaty with the Shawnee on May 10, 1854. In Article 2 of the treaty, there was a count of Shawnee tribal citizens, Native or adopted, in specific counties. There are no names in this index.

This 1857 census count only happened because the U.S. wanted to give each Shawnee a certain amount of land, according to the treaty.

The 1907 Census of Seminole County in Oklahoma happened as a directive from the president. President Theodore Roosevelt ordered the enumeration of Oklahoma and Indian territories before accepting the state into the Union.

When Natives were first counted in 1860 as part of the general population, Native people who were “only tax-paying” and who gave up their tribal citizenship and assimilated, become Americans, were counted.

In 1860, enumerators counted more than 40,00 Native people. Native people back then were counted as “Indian” under the “Color” column. Not by their tribal affiliation. Even back then Pueblos, who are located in the Southwest, were not included. If they were included, they were classified as “non-White.” Census takers back then counted Taos Pueblos as “copper” or “Indian.”

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In some cases, if a Native person was living with the “white population” in a settlement, they were counted. But not identified as Indian because they were not living on a reservation. The National Archives said those were half-breeds and indicated as a half breed with “HB” or “½ I.” (Blood quantum is a colonial-imposed tool, which can be described in another column.)

Back then, those census takers, who were non-Native, were the ones to determine us.

2020 Census advertising and outreach campaign launch in Washington, D.C., on January, 14, 2020. (Photo by Jourdan Bennett-Begaye)

Why did it take so long before the census officially included Native Americans in their population count?

Technically, Native people were not supposed to be included in the census count according to the Constitution when it states “Indians not taxed.” This meant Indians living on reservations or in unsettled areas of the country.

It made sense because settlers wanted to eradicate Native Americans and Alaska Natives in the first place.

If you look at the historical events of the Gold Rush between 1848 and 1855, settlers moving west, the Homestead Act of 1862, increase of statehood and battles of land between Natives and settlers, those dates correlate with the how and when America counted Native Americans.

Before the first U.S. Census count in 1790, Americans had no reason at that time to move west. So they had no reason to count Native Americans and Alaska Natives. Not until statehood that is and the rising population on the East Coast.

After being counted for the first time in the late 1850s and in 1860, the U.S. started counting Native people even if it was counted as taxed or not taxed.

In 1870, only 8 percent of American Indians were classified as “taxed” and eligible to be American citizens. And the other 92 percent, or 287,981, were ineligible to be American citizens. The total population overall (313,712) in the 1870 Census is estimated to be a population larger than 5 states and 10 territories.

The 1880 Census was different.

The National Archives found that Natives counted in 1880 because the Census Bureau said: “Indians not in tribal relations, whether full-bloods or half-breeds, who are found mingled with the white population, residing in white families, engaged as servants or laborers, or living in huts or wigwams on the outskirts of towns or settlements are to be regarded as a part of the ordinary population of the country for the constitutional purpose of the apportionment of Representatives among the States, and are to be embraced in the enumeration.”

So the 1880 Special Census of Indians was conducted which counted Indians not taxed. Numbers were taken in the Washington Territory at Tulalip, Port Madison, Swinomish, Muckleshoot, Lummi, and Yakama. In the Dakota Territory, Standing Rock was counted. And in California, the Census Bureau went to Round Valley.

In the Washington Territory for three censuses, from 1860 to 1880, they counted the “Reservations in existence” and “Reservations in the census.” Those numbers fluctuate over the years. In 1880, 14 reservations existed but only one was counted in the Census.

Over time, the counts increased and in more territories.

2020 Census advertising and outreach campaign launch in Washington, D.C., on January, 14, 2020. (Photo by Jourdan Bennett-Begaye)

How accurate was the official census count of Native Americans -- and when did the numbers begin to reflect a more accurate count?

The National Archives says the 1890 census was the first “enumeration of all Indians.” However, those records were destroyed by a fire in the U.S. Commerce building in Washington, D.C. So that’s difficult to determine.

Technically, there hasn’t been a census count that has come close to being accurate. In fact, Native Americans and Alaska Natives are significantly undercounted compared to the rest of the country.

After the 2010 Census, the Census bureau said that American Indians and Alaska Natives on reservations or in Native villages were undercounted by 4.9 percent. That is more than double the undercount for the next closest group.

In 1990, the bureau reported an official 12.2 percent undercount of American Indians living on reservations, an undercount of 0.7 percent in 2000 and a 4.9 percent undercount in 2010.

Tribal leaders and the Census Bureau hope that focusing on hard-to-count communities, and the improve technology, will help receive a more accurate count this year. 

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Jourdan Bennett-Begaye, Diné, is the Washington editor for Indian Country Today based in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter: @jourdanbb. Email:

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