National Congress of American Indians: 2020 Census Webinar: Census Bureau Roundtable Discussion

Native Sun News Today: Pandemic protocols portend census undercount on tribal lands

FLANDREAU – As of June 1, U.S. Census Bureau decennial survey personnel had missed their 2020 field operation targets on all but one of South Dakota’s nine Indian reservations, illustrating the nationwide threat of an alarming Native American population undercount due to coronavirus pandemic safety protocols.

The only tribal jurisdiction in the state where the census team has delivered forms to residents is the Flandreau Santee Sioux Indian Reservation, according to Mike Beck, the U.S. Census Bureau media specialist for South Dakota.

The bureau has permission from the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate, Oglala Sioux and Rosebud Sioux tribes to send workers onto reservations, but operations have not yet begun, he told the Native Sun News Today.

Oglala Lakota tike Lucas Weston is following protocol, protecting himself and family from the Covid-19 pandemic, and “loves wearing his mask,” says his mother Dana K. Richards. Photo courtesy Dana K. Richards

He also said the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe will allow operations but has not indicated when, and the Yankton Sioux Tribe has yet to hold a council meeting before deciding.

The census team has not yet heard from the Crow Creek, Lower Brule, or Standing Rock Sioux tribes.

The bureau began field operations in mid-March but stopped after only three days because of its pandemic protocols. While crews resumed this work in early May, they have not been able to deliver census forms on some tribal lands because of reservation coronavirus lockdowns.

“Almost 90 percent of the 6.7 million addresses throughout rural America, in tribal lands particularly, never got invites, never got an opportunity to respond to the census,” said Tim Olson, associate director of Field Operations for the U.S. Census Bureau.

“In Arizona, we’ve opened all areas minus the Navajo Nation…. We’re holding off on that area until tribal leadership says it’s okay to resume work on their tribal lands,” he added.

The “invites” are called Update Leave packets, forms brought directly to peoples’ homes by census workers. Update Leave operations happen on what the Census Bureau considers “hard-to-count tracts”, largely made up of communities that receive their mail in post office boxes instead of at home addresses.

The Census Bureau does not mail forms to post office boxes because they cannot be matched to physical addresses -- essential to the count. This means getting an accurate count on many tribal lands relies more heavily on Update Leave. 

According to the National Congress for American Indians (NCAI), 52.4 percent of American Indians in South Dakota live in hard-to-count areas. This is the fourth highest rate in the nation after New Mexico, Arizona and Alaska.  

When asked during an NCAI webinar discussion on May 26 what the Census Bureau would do if employees don’t get the green light from tribes to come onto reservations before the extended October 31 deadline, Olson said there is no backup plan.

“I’m not sure honestly how to answer that,” he said. “If we can’t do the Update Leave, then we’ve got a different problem that would be larger than the Navajo Nation. We’re going to keep our fingers crossed that we can do these operations safely for our employees and safe for the residents in these timeframes.”


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