COVID-19 Complicates Native American Census Count

Many states and cities are putting millions of dollars towards promoting participation in the 2020 census. One of Oregon’s main focuses is their Native American population, but COVID-19 is making it even more difficult to get accurate numbers.  

The Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs Reservation was set to have a kickoff gala on March 12. It was highly anticipated by census officials and the media, with speeches by tribal officials, and with a highly regarded tribal elder and veteran the first participant of Oregon’s 2020 census.  

The night before the event, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown announced restrictions on gatherings due to the increase in coronavirus cases.  

The pandemic significantly slowed efforts to count more Native Americans. The Warm Springs reservation has a self-response rate of 40.2 percent as of Aug. 31. While this is better than 2010’s final response rate of 35.8 percent, it is below the state of Oregon’s rate of 67.9 percent, and census officials would like the number to be much higher. There are also significant financial losses for tribes with low response rates. 

Jaylyn Suppah, a community planner that worked for the tribe’s health and human services branch and had been tasked with catering the planned gala, has now become a Census activities coordinator according to an OregonLive report. While the Census may be taken online, Suppah does not think that will greatly impact the number of participants, saying that “you have a lot of folks that don’t use the internet or have access to the internet. It’s not our strong suit.” 

On top of that, the tribes are dealing with a COVID-19 outbreak, wildfires, and have had a boil-water notice. The extended data collection and self-response deadline is also being shifted from October 31 to the end of September, an action which caused several civil rights groups to file a federal lawsuit again the Trump administration.  

A member of the Oregon Complete Count Committee on Indian Affairs, William Miller, says that moving up the deadline will increase the risk of inaccuracy.  

“Moving the deadline sooner only continues to disenfranchise our communities from being counted. These efforts will only continue to increase the risk of an undercount, which will require our communities having to wait until 2030 to be accurately accounted for,” Miller said. 

Miller reports that enumerators with personal protective equipment and training in social distancing have been sent to those who have not self-reported to increase the chance of getting a full count.  

Six out of nine federally-recognized tribes in Oregon have surpassed their response rates from the previous census, but there is still a big push to get as accurate a count as possible.  

Tribal community coordinator Se-ah-dom Edmo for We Count Oregon, an organization that seeks to better representation of communities, said, “We’re one of the hardest to count communities in the United States, and a lot of that has been by design.” 

The federal government does not have a good history with their treatment of Indigenous populations, and Edmo points to the pandemic and census work as another shortcoming.  

There are tribal residents living in “in lieu” sites built by the government along the Columbia River and many do not have safe or sanitary conditions. Debra Whitefoot, a supporter of Census-taking in that area and a member of the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation, points to that as a trust issue.  

“Historically, the trust issue is that those aren’t designated tribal reservation areas,” she said. “That’s why they’re hard to count, and that’s why they fall through the cracks. Because it’s not a tribally designated area. It’s a ceded land.” 

She goes on to explain that despite efforts by the government to fix problems, doubts are widespread, and some point to that as a reason to avoid taking the census.  

Census data helps with fund allocations to programs such as the Fair Housing Act, the Public Health Act, and the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, which would help with things such as access to clean water and healthcare. 

By Hannah Ramsey