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About a dozen Census Bureau officials got an earful at a tribal consultation session held in Fairbanks, Alaska, October 16. The consultation was held at a tribal leaders conference hosted by the National Congress of American Indians and the Alaska Federation of Natives. More than a hundred tribal citizens from across Alaska attended.

People listened to presentations for maybe 40 minutes. During a pause for questions, one person asked, “When does the consultation part of this begin?” Officials said, “Go for it.”

One after another, more than a dozen people spoke, many of them talking about the importance of the census getting a proper count so they can get federal dollars tied to population. Saying it several different ways, officials made it clear they count people but the census bureau doesn’t have anything to do with funding formulas based on the agency’s data.

The 1.5 hour session ran over by ten minutes but a handful of people still hadn’t been able to get the mic to comment or ask questions before the end. Bureau staff will continue to share information and invite comments during the annual Alaska Federation of Natives convention, which wraps up Saturday.

Every ten years, the US Census Bureau does a head count to figure out just how many people live in the United States. Census data is used to set boundaries for legislative districts and Congressional representation. It’s used for long-term planning. And federal and state funding is allocated based on census population figures.

Gloria Burns, Haida, is secretary of the Ketchikan Indian Community Tribal Council. Like several other people who spoke up, she’s concerned about people getting counted in a way that leaves out the tribe that provides them services. She said she’s concerned people won’t specify they’re enrolled at the Ketchikan tribe.

Athabascan Councilwoman Faye Ewan of the Native Village of Kluti-Kaah, asked about jobs as census workers. (Photo by Joaqlin Estus)

Athabascan Councilwoman Faye Ewan of the Native Village of Kluti-Kaah, asked about jobs as census workers. (Photo by Joaqlin Estus)

“In my area, people are going to mark that they’re Apache,” said Burns. “They’re going to mark that they’re Wampanoag. They’re going to mark that they’re Alutiiq. They’re going to mark all those things. But it's not going to occur to them that that's not counting them” as Ketchikan Indian Community.

Burns said she’s worried those people “won’t count in the numbers that could help my people.”

Officials said since 2010 the bureau has changed its questionnaire. They’re going to collect up to six different race categories, and have more space, up to 200 characters, for people to write down tribal affiliations. People can also call in their responses on the telephone.

The bureau also has compiled an American Indian/Alaska Native code list so, depending on people’s responses, they can be linked to any of 589 tribes, councils, communities, and village associations.

However, “The census bureau is not in a position to tell you as an individual or community how to self identify,” said Nicholas Jones. He is director of race and ethnicity research and outreach for the bureau’s population division. “The census bureau shouldn’t be telling you how to respond. It’s so critical for you as tribal leaders to work with your communities and talk with people about how to self identify.”

Tribal leaders are concerned that if people mark more than one tribal affiliation, they will end up being categorized inaccurately. As it is now, a person who marks that they are both white and Asian, will end up being counted as non-white. Will someone who self identifies as Tlingit and Navajo be listed as an Alaska Native or American Indian?

"Tribal affiliations won’t get lost,” said Dee Alexander, Cheyenne Arapaho, and tribal consultation coordinator for the bureau’s office of Congressional and intergovernmental affairs. When asked how someone will be counted if they list, say, three races, Alexander replied, “All three of those will be classified and coded for the 2020 census. So we would be able to say there's a person that lives in such-and-such and they're classified with those three different tribal groupings.”

Still, a person who marks that they are both white and Asian, will end up being counted as non-white, even though they are predominantly white. Will someone who self identifies as Tlingit and Navajo be listed as an Alaska Native or an American Indian? And which tribe will be the one counted? Will either?

There are many questions yet to answer. But estimates show Alaska Natives were under counted in the 2010 census by at least eight percent.

That’s according to Carol Gore, a self-identified Alaskan of Aleut descent, is chairperson of the census bureau’s National Advisory Committee on Racial, Ethnic, and Other Populations. She also heads Cook Inlet Housing Authority.

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“To put that in context, Alaska receives approximately $3.2 billion in federal funding every single year,” said Gore. “That funding is for education, Indian health, Headstart, SNAP [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps], employment and training, housing, Medicaid,” said Gore.

While funding and population are not perfectly correlated, Alaska Natives are potentially losing out on hundreds of millions of federal dollars. (Eight percent of 3.2 billion is 256 million.)

While the big bucks for federal programs are important, Athabascan Councilwoman Faye Ewan of the Native Village of Kluti-Kaah asked about money that goes directly into villagers’ pockets as pay.

“They were told they were going to get these high-paying jobs [for the 2010 census] and they went through all this training but did not get hired,” said Ewan. “Other people came in who did the census. If you’re going to promise something to people make sure you do your job,” said Ewan.

Census officials showed a list of villages where they’re seeking local applicants. They said it helps that locals share the same culture and often speak the same Native language, so people are more willing to open the door. Local hire helps the bureau get a more accurate count.

“These are good jobs,” said Dee Alexander, “$28 an hour to start.”

If they hire locals, the bureau also doesn’t have to send census takers by small plane to remote villages. US Census Bureau director Dr. Steven Dillingham said when the 2020 US Census kicks off Jan. 21 he’ll travel by small plane to Toksook Bay, a tiny village on the Western edge of Alaska. “And I guess when I get there, I’m going to take a ride in a dogsled too.”

In years past, census directors have also traveled by 4-wheel all-terrain vehicle, and by snow machine to count the first person in the census, traditionally an Alaska Native elder in a remote village.

Outside Alaska, the count starts in April. The census comes early in Alaska because the state presents some unique challenges. For one thing, some 80 percent of Alaska communities are not linked by road. Vast regions lack Internet access.

In 2018 before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, Gore testified American Indian and Alaska Native people are hard to count. They may not have a fixed residence or lack traditional street addresses. She said Native households may take in relatives who they don’t list as residents because it’s a temporary arrangement. So those individuals don’t get counted. Poverty, educational levels, language, and distrust of non-Natives affect the count too.

Gore said more than 30 percent of American Indians and Alaska Native people live in hard-to-count areas. That jumps to 65 percent in Alaska, and to 80 percent hard-to-count in New Mexico. She urged the Senate to provide the bureau with the funding needed for more outreach, and to conduct test runs that will help the bureau measure the effectiveness of its methods in Indian Country.

Donna Bach, Yup’ik, lives in Anchorage. As a census bureau tribal partnership specialist, she works to engage other organizations in getting a complete count for the 2020 census. “There’s tremendous support for partnering to help spread this message on the importance to be counted,” said Bach. She said the statewide Alaska Federation of Natives and First Alaskans Institute, Native village and regional corporations, the entire tribal health system, and Alaska school districts all want to ensure an accurate count.

Giving fall hunting and preservation of food as an example, Bach said indigenous people are prudent. “It’s part of our value system and we know how to thrive based on our values,” said Bach. “I think that participating in the census is a basic civic engagement activity that helps shape the future essentially for the children that may need those services.”

The census bureau is also reaching out to youth to urge them to help get census forms filled out. “We know younger generations are on social media,”said Alexander. “So we’re going to do a huge media campaign encouraging youth to help grandparents fill out the form.”

Alexander said she was pleased at the level of engagement during the Alaska tribal consultation. The US Census Bureau will hold a tribal consultation at the National Congress of American Indians convention Monday Oct. 21.

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Joaqlin Estus, Tlingit, is a long-time Alaska journalist.