Skip to main content

The U.S. Census has taken place every 10 years since 1790 despite wars (like the Civil War), political fights and economic crises. Now, it faces two of the three, plus a global pandemic.

The first counting started in Toksook Bay, Alaska, in January. Other Americans could start participating in the census by March 12 by phone, online or a paper questionnaire. This is the self-response period.

However, the census can fall by the wayside during a pandemic.

Researchers from the University of California in Los Angeles took a look at the census response rates for tribal reservations as of May 13 and compared them to the 2010 self-response rate. They excluded Oklahoma tribes, Alaska Natives and reservations where there was no information or a zero recorded response rate.

They found that seven reservations had a greater response rate than the current national average of 60 percent. Those seven are Washoe Ranches, Kootenai, Puyallup, Isabella, Pokagon, Port Gamble and Oneida in Wisconsin. In 2010, 23 tribal reservations were above the national response rate of 67 percent.

Two other findings in the analysis: 50 reservations have a higher response rate for the 2020 census than their 2010 final response; and 118 reservations have a lower response rate during this census when compared to the 2010 census.

There are more than 300 reservations, and not all tribes have a reservation. It’s also important to note that not all Native people live on reservations, and many live in urban areas that the self-response map by the census lays out.

Randall Akee, Paul Ong and Desi Rodriquez-Lonebear say in a press release, “The low self-response rate during the first phase of the 2020 Census will create major challenges for the second phase, the non-response follow-up in-person interviews.”

The non-response follow-up is when enumerators, or census takers, go door to door to ask 10 questions of those who did not fill out the census by phone, online or on a paper questionnaire.

This door knocking, and closure of tribal communities, is difficult for census takers and may affect the response rate.

“Low self-response means many more labor-intensive contacts will be needed, which is particularly difficult during the pandemic due to health risks to Census workers and households. Ultimately, this may produce a significant undercount of American Indians,” the press release stated. “It is critical that we act now to reduce the response gap as much as possible and to use updated information on the location and magnitude of the gap to more effectively guide outreach efforts in the near future.”

A low response rate has the potential to affect federal funding for tribal governments, the Indian Health Service, housing, Head Start programs, political representation in Congress, policies, school districts and more.

An example is the Navajo Nation, which has recorded a total of 4,153 cases as of May 20. The tribe has a census self-response rate of 0.7 percent, of which all have been online as of May 20. In 2010, it had a final response rate of 29.4 percent.

The pandemic had many census coalitions restrategizing so they can reach tribal communities.

One solution the three researchers suggest is census takers making calls to households in the hard-to-count areas, which are more often tribal communities in rural areas.

(Related: The Census is Indian Country’s 2020 'selfie')

In Montana, Tajin Perez of Western Native Voice, a nonprofit organization, has relied on newspaper ads, billboards and peer-to-peer texting to inform people about the importance of the census.

Its biggest advertising theme: “Be a good ancestor.” He said our ancestors faced a number of adversities and hardship to get to where they are today.

As restrictions are being lifted, the organization’s members are doing what they can to protect themselves and the tribal nations they go into.

The organization is communicating with tribal nations about good practices and having hand sanitizer, wipes and personal protective equipment on hand. All the electronics used have a clear plastic film that will be replaced after every use, he said.

Scroll to Continue

Read More

Perez hopes they can get into the field as soon as next week because it’s their “bread and butter,” and encourages people to be welcoming to the census information coming at them.

“We understand that this is a time full of uncertainty and a lot of anxiety and apprehension about outsiders. But it's really important especially right now to be open with the Census Bureau because this data is very important,” Pere said.

Case in point: Coronavirus relief funds for tribes.

The 2010 Census numbers are being used to allocate federal relief funds for tribal governments. Tribes are sending updated enrollment numbers, but the numbers from the last census, which aren’t fully accurate, are still being used.

“That means thousands if not millions or billions of dollars have actually gone somewhere else and they’re not going, tribes are not getting money through CARES Act because of that,” Perez said.

For the Puyallup tribe, one of the seven tribes that has a high self-response rate, Jennifer Keating said tribal citizens are “very social media savvy” and many of them do not live on the reservation. So the pandemic didn’t hit them as hard as they kept up their social media announcements. Keating has been on the Puyallup complete count committee since June 2019.

To use technology to their advantage, they interviewed an individual from the domestic violence service to talk about how the funding affects them.

“One of the departments that was hit hardest was the domestic violence department. Their budget was cut down to 30 percent to what it was previously,” Keating said. It was reduced before the pandemic. They told their tribal members that this service would help the person watching the interview or someone they know in the community. “If you're not doing for yourself, do it for the rest of us.”

When COVID-19 hit, Keating said they realized they couldn’t rely on gaming revenue.

“So grants are floating the boat,” she said. The census data is used for grant funding. Federal and local aid came later but in the beginning, grant money kept the tribe afloat.

“We need accurate stats and now it's real life, ‘Oh man,’” Keating said. “‘This isn’t an option. It’s an absolute necessity.”

The public can participate in the census until October 31. The census bureau adjusted its operations timeline due to the novel coronavirus pandemic.


Online: If WiFi is accessible, people can go to to complete the online questionnaire. It will be open until October 31, 2020. You don’t need the 12-digit census ID to complete the form. A census ID is printed on the mail invite. Instructions are here or in the video below.

The National of Congress of American Indians has an internet and phone guide for census stakeholders to use as well as other resources.

Phone: If by phone, you can call 844-330-2020 between 7 a.m. and 2 a.m. Eastern Time. Here are the instructions.

Mail: People will receive reminders in the mail. Some households will receive a paper questionnaire if they don’t respond online or by phone. Here is what the letters and postcards look like. Here are guidelines if you respond by mail.

Areas with low internet access will get a paper questionnaire. The U.S. Census Bureau will not send the questionnaires to P.O. boxes. In these cases and where there is no address, a census taker will deliver the paper questionnaire to the door. In remote areas, a census taker will get responses in person.

ICT Phone Logo

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

Indian Country Today, LLC., is a non-profit, public media enterprise. Reader support is critical. We do not charge for subscriptions and tribal media (or any media, for that matter) can use our content for free. Our goal is public service. Please join our cause and support independent journalism today. We have an audacious plan for 2020 and your donation will help us make it so. #MyICT #MyVoiceMyICT #SocksAlot