Kalle Benallie
Indian Country Today

The title of the largest tribe in the United States can now be given to the Navajo Nation thanks to the pandemic-related financial assistance that garnered thousands of documents to be sent in, verified and updated.

The Navajo Nation Office of Controller said they received more than 293,000 applications that partially updated the total number of Navajo Nation members to 399,494 — a 30.4 percent increase. The tribe also has the largest tribal lands in the country. 

“This increase in enrollment is very significant; it is a direct product to the Navajo people’s vested interest in participation in the Hardship Assistance Program which contained a mandatory enrollment requirement for eligibility, prompting many people to update their enrollment records to be considered eligible,” controller of the Navajo Nation Pearline Kirk said.

There are different data collections to report the number of American Indians and Alaska Natives. Tribal enrollment, or citizenship, numbers are determined by tribes. A second data set comes from the U.S. Census Bureau where there is a history of undercounting tribal citizens. The Census Bureau gets its totals from two surveys: Every decade there is a formal census and every year the American Community Survey which is a smaller sample size and asks many other questions than race or ethnicity.

The largest tribe was previously the Cherokee Nation that now sits at a total of 392,239 enrolled citizens. Despite the Navajo Nation overtaking their numbers, Cherokee Nation is happy to see the increase in enrollment.

“It shows Natives are still here, strong and thriving and an important force for our economies, our education and our environment. It's truly a positive anytime our citizenship counts grow and thrive,” Chuck Hoskin Jr., principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, said.

Julie Hubbard, executive director of Cherokee Nation Communications, added they have also seen a growth from their COVID-19 respond, recover and rebuild assistance program. Since the beginning of June last year, they have about 1,400 applications a month.

Kirk said the Office of the Controller received thousands of verifiable enrollment documents like copies of certificates of Indian blood that were not previously in the electronic database. The program helped to validate more than 300,000 records and additionally digitize and collect records from “decentralized repositories at satellite agency enrollment offices across the Navajo Nation.”

The office is still receiving and registering valid CIB documents in the current database from applicants and individuals that missed the Hardship Assistance Program deadline.

“Today, the Navajo Nation’s vital records database has never been more accurate,” Kirk said. “The efforts of the Office of the Controller resulted in the construction of a database that can now verify enrollment with accuracy and more reliability.”

A plethora of reasons could have attributed to the huge increase, such as the financial assistance incentive. Yet, it highlighted other obstacles and reasonings to enroll with the Navajo Nation. 

Simple mistakes

Latisha Goodman has been unable to successfully enroll her son because of a hospital mistake on her son’s birth certificate where they misspelled one letter of her middle name. She said her mother-in-law has also experienced a similar problem with the Navajo Nation Office of Vital Records for a minor mistake.

The office told Goodman there can be no mistakes on the original records, and the Salt Lake Vital Records want her to pay to change her name. Even though her birth certificate has the correct spelling.

“I’m a single mom. I don’t have extra money to pay for things like that,” she said.

It was always her to plan to get him enrolled, but the situation has made her experience difficult and especially because her son’s enrollment could give him free healthcare.

She added that if there were enrollment offices in the city, it would make it easier for a lot of families to participate in the process.

Financial strain

Mona Seamon said she knows a lot of people and those within her own family who have not enrolled because of family situations, like being a single parent, where they can’t take the time and resources to travel to the reservation to enroll their children.

“I honestly think the population would boost tremendously if it was some type of online capabilities that are added,” she said. All vital records offices on the Navajo Nation are closed to the public now. The information cannot be faxed or emailed, but there can be mail requests with a notarized letter.

Her family was able to make the 285-mile family trip from Phoenix, Arizona to Window Rock, Arizona after her son’s daughter was enrolled.

She said she hopes that the increase in enrollment will benefit the people through services, programs and funding. Particularly for issues like Seamon's family who was relocated from the 1974 Navajo-Hopi Land Settlement Act and is still dealing with its repercussions.

“Hopefully with this population increase that maybe more programs and maybe things will be considered, maybe truly these politicians and leaders will help us,” she said.

Kirk said the new enrollment numbers are presumed to help with distribution of funding from the American Rescue Plan Act.

“This will make a huge difference in funding. Additionally, several other federal programs are also funded using certified enrollment,” she said.

A choice

Sharon Cini-Pinto didn’t enroll her daughter initially because they live off of the reservation and are both part of multiple tribes. Cini-Pinto is also Hopi and had to unenroll from the Hopi Tribe and enroll in the Navajo Nation for her daughter to be enrolled.

She said she was thinking about enrolling her daughter for some time, which her nephew was also thinking about enrolling.

Cini-Pinto wanted to enroll her daughter because of financial support and services that are directly tied to the Navajo Nation member numbers, as well as the matriarchal rights that Navajos follow like land and resources.

“I need to get her enrolled because she counts. My nieces and nephews, they count. It matters that we count all Navajo people,” she said.

Although her daughter is a young adult, Cini-Pinto said it’s also part of the parents responsibility to help them maneuver the process, which some may just haven’t got around to.

She said she knows four other people who haven’t enrolled themselves.

She acknowledges the Navajo CARES Act Hardship Assistance Program may have been a big incentive, but is still glad that it grew to its current numbers.

“I would hope that we’re enrolling because we’re very proud people. That we know that enrolling provides the systematic numbers that we need to show the world that we’re alive and well and thriving,” Cini-Pinto said.

Kirk thanked the controller’s office staff and consultants who dedicated their time and efforts in order for programs to continue to help the Navajo people.

“Thank you to our Navajo people for helping to make this population increase possible,” she said.

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