Native American Issues

Up for the Count

December 5, 2019  • Shandiin Herrera

It was not long ago for our people that our fathers, mothers, and children were marched to Fort Sumner during Hwéldi—the Long Walk—or taken from our homelands during the era of forced removals to boarding schools. The stench of cultural cleansing at the hands of the federal government is still pertinent in our communities. The long history of deceit and abuse is visible in every area of our tribal societies.

So the answer to why Native Americans are the most undercounted population in the census starts with mistrust of the federal government. Many of our community members, if they are even notified of a census, are unaware of the critical implications of ensuring an accurate count of our people. This mistrust is combined with the facts on the ground: a third of Native people live in hardto-count areas, many speak languages other than English, and a majority do not have access to broadband. Furthermore, efforts to count tribal communities are extremely underfunded. The result is the continued erasure of Native presence in the census. In 2010, Native people were undercounted by 4.9 percent—double the undercount of any other demographic in this country.

For many Native communities, being involved in the census is not exactly a priority. In my own experience of living on the Navajo Nation in the rural community of Monument Valley, Utah, taking the time to fill out a census application will always come behind hauling water, gathering wood for the winter, and caring for the communities families. This is especially true when we are not told that participating in the census can bring tangible change to our communities.

The Aspen Institute’s Center for Native American Youth has been significant in bridging the informational gap common among tribal communities and especially among Native youth. I was selected as a 2019 Champion for Change, recognized for my work both at home in Monument Valley and on campus at Duke University, where I received my bachelor’s in public policy. By providing leadership, networking, and professional development skills, CNAY has helped me in my journey of advocacy. That work for me is to create a movement for change in tribal communities that will shine through the 2020 census.

Many tribal communities are working diligently to change the traditional view that the rapidly approaching census is one more imposition by the federal government. Instead, the census offers a unique opportunity to show the country we are still here and our communities are still strong. Being part of the census is important because it acts as a numerical picture of the country. It is the foundation for reapportionment and representation. Census outcomes determine the number of representatives states have at the federal level and are the force behind redistricting. The census also provides demographic data commonly used in academic institutions, grant applications, and independent research projects.

Last and perhaps most important, the census guides about $900 billion in government funding to tribal, state, and local governments. This funding includes Indian schools, Indian education programs, Indian health programs, Indian housing programs, water and sewage projects, roads, and economic development. This can greatly benefit tribal communities in rebuilding local infrastructure, creating opportunities, and driving progress for generations to come. We in fact cannot miss the opportunity to be included and ensure that our communities are in the best position to receive funding. It is vital that Native people to show up in census data.

As a recent college student, I know how frustrating it is to not see my people included in university and federally funded research and labeled—if referred to at all—as “insignificant.” This is pivotal: research in health care, economic development, and education is what influences policy change.

How can we be sure that every Native person is well informed about the census and understands how to participate? I believe it is important to involve local community members in counting, because familiar faces can alleviate the uneasiness of the process and serve as trusted messengers. The only Native language the 2020 census will be translated into is Navajo. This means that all other tribes will have to work assiduously to be sure that translators are available to help tribal members fill out forms.

It is crucial to include youth voices in this movement for change and representation, not only for critical mass—according to the last census, 27.4 percent of Native people are under the age of 18—but because we are ready to carry on our ancestors’ legacy of protecting our people. Today, protecting our people means counting them. It means protecting our way of life by seeing that we have funding for health care, education, and economic development, and that we are given the representation we deserve. Native youth are adapting to modern challenges. We are carrying on the cultures of our people and learning how to maximize our roles in Western institutions to benefit our communities. The 2020 census is both an opportunity and a challenge for our people. I believe Native youth will have a critical part in informing, encouraging, and assisting our communities to ensure a complete count.

Shandiin Herrera, a member of the Navajo Nation, is a 2019 Champion for Change at the Institute’s Center for Native American Youth. She recently earned a bachelor’s degree in public policy at Duke University.