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Joaqlin Estus
Indian Country Today

The results of the 2020 U.S. Census have been released and there are some losers, winners and a few near misses.

The count is used to determine each state’s representation in the U.S. House and the Electoral College. In two instances, the Native vote is credited with helping a state either gain or keep a Congressional seat in close calls.

Counting U.S. residents in 2020 was challenging for the U.S. Census Bureau. The pandemic, and record-setting wildfire and hurricane seasons disrupted the count. A last-minute attempt by the former president to add a citizenship question to the census form confused people. That idea was shot down by the U.S. Supreme Court as unconstitutional.

Tribal nations “are areas that can often be a little suspicious of outsiders,” said Taj’in Perez, Totonac Indigenous, of the non-partisan, nonprofit Western Native Voice in Montana. “So if there's an outsider coming in, knocking on a door and asking questions about ‘who lives in this house,’ in our experience that doesn’t yield very many results. And so our efforts to ensure the legitimacy of these individuals was helpful.”

“Our tribes did everything that they could, tribal people did everything they could to get counted,” while keeping public health and safety paramount, Perez said. That paid off with an added seat in the U.S. House of Representatives and an additional electoral college vote for the state. Montana’s population is 6.7 percent Native American.

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

He said groups and tribes offered small incentives, such as $25 gift cards, or the chance to have their name entered in a drawing for a gift or gift card.

“From what we can tell,” Perez said, “there was an increase of participation and in places such as the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes, where participation went up at least 10 percent. And some of the other areas, we can only imagine that there was an increase from 2010, however, that information just wasn't available to compare appropriately.” Still, due to anecdotal observations, he said, “we feel confident that there was an outpouring of support and participation from Indian Country here…”

He said incentives helped a bit but “in the end, tribes got on board and knew the importance of ensuring as complete a count as possible of their communities.”

“I think whenever you have greater representation and a greater voice, particularly in the national Congress, it is an incredibly important achievement and hallmark and milestone, particularly because as you well know, and, as your viewers and your readers know, that federal, particularly federal Indian policy has a direct impact on many of the communities in which we serve,” Perez said.

Census numbers are used by federal agencies in determining funding for programs, services, and grants. “That's a big deal,” Perez said. It’s also important to hold the federal government accountable for its trust responsibilities toward tribes, he said.

Perez said while it’s hard to measure the direct impact of having two instead of one representative to Congress, some of the legislation Indian Country is watching includes amendments to the Voting Rights Act, and the issue of public safety and missing and murdered Indigenous women and people.

“...I think that economic development is also an incredibly important piece of contemporary politics here in Montana within tribes,” Perez said.

“Ensuring that there's the protection of Medicaid expansion is incredibly important and has led to drastic improvements in health outcomes here in Montana. We've seen cases of [loss of] life and limb drop since the implementation here in Montana in 2015 of Medicaid expansion.”

Minnesota Public Radio reports Minnesota hung on to its representatives “by the skin of its teeth.” The state’s 58,000 Native Americans make up .9 percent of its population.

The New York Daily News reported, “If New York had had 89 more people, they would have received one more seat,” said Kristin Koslap, a senior technical expert at the Census Bureau. “The last seat went to Minnesota, and New York was next in line.”

Arizona is a fast-growing state and was expected to but failed to gain another seat. The Arizona Mirror reported this is the first time in 70 years that Arizona didn’t get an additional congressional seat.

“The news stunned Arizona’s political community, where it had been widely assumed that the state would have 10 congressional seats for the next decade,” stated the Mirror. “An analysis in December from the Virginia-based consulting firm Election Data Services projected that Arizona was one of seven states that would gain at least one seat.

Texas, gained two seats. Colorado, Montana, Oregon, Florida, and North Carolina gained one seat each. States that lost seats are Illinois, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia.

The bureau released the 2020 census numbers Monday. The U.S. resident population was 331,449,281 on April 1, 2020. That’s a 7.4 percent increase from the 2010 census, the least population growth since the Depression.

“We are proud to release these first results from the 2020 Census today. These results reflect the tireless commitment from the entire Census Bureau team to produce the highest-quality statistics that will continue to shape the future of our country,” acting Census Bureau Director Ron Jarmin said.

Native Americans did not gain the right to vote until the Indian Citizenship Act, and some states didn’t comply with the 1924 law. Natives in Arizona didn’t get voting rights until 1964.

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The Associated Press contributed to this story.