Census Counts: Shaping the Future for Native Americans

During a national election, an unprecedented pandemic, a historic social movement, record adverse economic issues, and a polarized political environment, there lies a critical tool that can help ensure invaluable equity: the U.S. Census.

The Census is an age-old population-counting strategy that helps illustrate the vital statistics of the population, provide data for government decision-making and identify trends with demographic and geographic implications. This data helps government calculate funding for social service programs, healthcare and education across all states and ethnicities. Unfortunately, the compounding issues within the U.S. are setting Native Americans to be historically undercounted.

Native Americans have been underserved, underrepresented and undercounted in the census for centuries. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights has published several reports over the past 20 years, including A Quiet Crisis: Federal Funding and Unmet Needs in Indian Country and Broken Promises: Continuing Federal Funding Shortfall for Native Americans. Both reports highlight the systematic marginalization, intentional underfunding and gross mistreatment of Native Americans, along with a failure to honor Native-U.S. treaty obligations.

By most historic accounts, U.S. government agents often misused their authority to disenfranchise the very population they were assigned to protect. This type of mistreatment will be illustrated in the upcoming Martin Scorsese film “Killers of the Flower Moon,” based on the novel by David Grann. The true-crime film, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, will depict a series of murders of the Osage people in the early 1920’s.

Even now, many tribes have filed lawsuits against the federal government, alleging underpayment and the use of improper data to calculate eligible funds under the CARES Act. This perpetuates the cycle of erasure, continued underfunding of programs, and inadequate resources – much of which is a direct result of prior Census miscounts of the Native population.

Several obstacles make it difficult to count population in Native American communities, including geographic location, insufficient mailing addresses and an overall mistrust of government employees and those doing the counting. In 2020, we face a new series of barriers with an abruptly shortened census counting period due to fears of spreading coronavirus.

In the 2010 Census, Native Americans were the most undercounted population and now we’re confronting what feels like the perfect storm for repeating history by once again miscounting our communities. Yet another decade of underfunded healthcare, limited economic opportunity and poor infrastructure will only lead to lead to further harm and alienation of the people who most need the assistance.

If you overlay maps that identify food deserts, technology deserts, high poverty rates and reservation communities, they are all aligned to tribal nations. This means Native communities are absorbing the most devastating effects and continuing to be left behind.

This is a historic time in our country, with more Native American representatives at the highest levels of politics than ever before in the U.S. Now more than ever, it’s critical to demand an accurate Census count.  Otherwise, we risk the continuing diminishment of opportunity and civil rights for our First Nations.

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