COVID-19 disrupts US Census count in Navajo Nation

Native Americans are often missed by the census — this year COVID-19 is perpetuating the issue

September 25, 2020
People in difficult to reach areas are often undercounted
The residents of the Navajo Nation are often undercounted. [Credit: CKSegarra | CC-BY]

You know the drill: Every 10 years the census form arrives in your mailbox, you quickly fill it out and get on with your day; if you don’t, someone will come knocking. It’s a fairly easy process that you might not give much thought to. But with hundreds of billions of dollars of federal funding and seats in the U.S. House of Representatives at stake each year, the data collected from the census has an immense effect on people across the country.

Census data has a huge impact on Native Americans in sovereign nations as well. In 2018 alone, more than $20 billion in federal funding was distributed to tribes and Native communities. The census is the basis for how much funding the federal government provides to programs like tribal child support and the Indian Health Service. Unfortunately, Native Americans have been undercounted time and time again.

For example, the Navajo Nation, which includes land in Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico, and is one of the most populated tribal groups, had a census participation rate of 24% in 2010 — the national rate was 74%.

“There’s always that fear that we would have an undercount,” says Amadeo Shije, Tribal Partnership Coordinator for the U.S. Census Bureau in the Denver Region. “It’s not anything new in tribal areas.”

Shije, who helps oversee census operations for more than 120 different tribal nations, points out that it’s not only tribal areas that are undercounted. Other minorities are undercounted as well. In fact, the Census estimated that the last enumeration, in 2010, undercounted Alaskan Natives and American Indians living on reservations by 4.9%. Black Americans were undercounted by 2.1%. White, non-hispanics, on the other hand, were overcounted by 0.8%.

There are many reasons why the census might miss minority populations and so-called “hard-to-count” populations. Some common reasons are a lack of internet access, distrust of the government and a lack of a home mailing address. Shije says this year was supposed to be different, at least for people in Native communities. 

“I was hoping that tribal nations would have more of a complete and accurate count, because of all the outreach we were able to do prior to COVID-19,” Shije says.

For Shije and his coworkers across the country, this outreach began back in 2015, when the Census began working with tribal governments and leaders to coordinate the logistics of the 2020 census. A lot of that work was making sure Native community members knew the census was coming and knew how to participate.

“There has been a lot of work put into it,” Shije says. “The only problem,” he added, “is COVID-19. We’re restricted from entering tribal areas just like anyone else.”

Many tribal areas have completely closed to non-members in an effort to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Tribes both small and large have put up signs along roadways notifying non-members that access is only allowed to tribal members.

“We exercise our sovereign ability to govern ourselves,” explained Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez. “We began to shut down our nation to our visitors and we did a curfew mandating everyone to stay home during the weekends and the evenings. And many of those public health orders are still in place.”

The Navajo Nation was hit hard by the virus. In May, the Navajo Nation had a higher per-capita infection rate than most U.S. states. Since then, infections have subsided somewhat, but the effects on the census have been tangible. The Census tries to employ tribal community members as census workers, but the pandemic has scared off potential workers.

“Tribal members fear for their lives, and of all the tribal individuals who have applied for census jobs, many of them have pulled out,” Shije says. This leaves the remaining workforce understaffed as they face the usual challenges of conducting a census on Native lands. These challenges include a lack of internet access in some communities, a lack of residential mailing addresses and language barriers. Now, COVID-19 has exacerbated the issues.

“We do have Navajo census workers here on our nation,” Nez says, “and they are categorized as essential workers.” So they are able to work during the community lockdowns, but he adds that they aren’t able to do their jobs as effectively due to the virus. 

“The Census has a no-contact visit criteria, meaning that they just go up to the door, they put a packet of information on the doorknob and they leave,” Nez says. This means that census workers can’t provide residents an in-person explanation like they normally would. “Many of our individuals out there still speak Navajo only,” Nez adds, so the Native census workers would usually help those residents fill out the census. “Now with this COVID-19 provision of just hanging the information on the doorknob, an elder opens the door and sees something hanging there with papers, and that elder may not know how to read and understand English,” Nez says, so the papers just “get tucked away somewhere, and there’s nobody there to help. And so that’s affecting the count right now.”

To make matters worse, it’s not clear what this year’s census deadline will be. Several lawsuits are in progress that could push the deadline back and provide more time to improve the count. But for now, the outcomes are up in the air, so it’s not clear how much time communities like the Navajo Nation have to complete the census. While they wait for the upcoming ruling, the Navajo Nation is pressing on and trying to count as many people as possible.

“We teamed up with the Census,” Navajo Nation President Nez says. “We’ve been having food and hygiene kit distributions, where we’ve gotten hundreds of people to come.” It’s set up as a non-contact, drive through operation, Nez explains. When they arrive, safely distanced in their cars, community members get a care kit and can register for the census too. There are Census workers with iPads and a mobile internet hotspot to get as many people registered as possible.

“It’s been a success,” Nez says, especially considering the trouble the pandemic has caused. And the Navajo Nation’s census response rate is climbing. As of mid-September, the self response rate for the Navajo Nation is about 20%. “Our goal is to get above 50 percent within the next couple of weeks,” Nez says.

From the outside it may seem impossible, but the Navajo Nation — and Native communities around the country — have allies. The New Mexico Native Census Coalition is one of those allies. Composed of tribes, Native-run businesses, and nonprofits, the coalition is trying to help boost the response rate across New Mexico. They’ve helped establish internet hotspots in Native communities and created videos explaining the census in the Navajo language.

With the deadline currently still set to the end of the month, everyone is rushing to make sure COVID-19 doesn’t ruin this years’ count. “We could have said, ‘Oh, we’re not going to be able to get our accurate count.’ But we started thinking of ideas of how to get the word out,” Nez says. “You’ve got to be hopeful in this position,” Nez says. “I hope it’s a story of resilience.”

About the Author

Curtis Segarra

Curtis is a photographer and science journalist who focuses on health, Earth science, and ecology. Growing up in New Mexico, his life was centered around nature—hiking, biking, and exploring. When he wasn’t outdoors, he was reading (he loves travelogues). Later, while studying geology at Trinity University, he realized he could combine these passions by becoming a science journalist. Now, he uses his words and photos to help others see practical beauty in science.


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