Sarah Sandoval sees all sorts of reactions going door-to-door as a U.S. Census Bureau enumerator on the Flathead Reservation—even when nobody actually comes to the door. The affable, 43-year-old with a big smile says it's not unusual to spot residents, especially the elderly, through their front window, purposefully ignoring her arrival.
"Even though I see them right there [they won't answer]," says Sandoval, chuckling. "They're eating a sandwich."
Sandoval is quick to laugh because, as one of more than 300 canvassers currently working on the Flathead Reservation, her job is far from easy. She covers hundreds of miles each week, zigzagging across the reservation in hopes of wooing skeptical locals to answer the survey.
Mistrust lingers among the Salish and Kootenai because of a long history of problems with the federal government. Some residents are scared information will be shared with housing authorities, law enforcement or the Internal Revenue Service. Others remember—or have heard about—times when government-ordered headcounts triggered upheaval on the reservation. For instance, tribal elders recall a 1943 government survey that led to the Termination Era, wherein the U.S. government tried to buy out trust agreements with specific tribes. The policy largely failed, stripping tribes of valuable funding for health care and education, while also taking control of the land.
It's Sandoval's job to overcome these historical issues and glean an accurate count of her neighbors. Whereas most Montanans have already returned surveys by mail, representatives from each of Montana's seven reservations asked for an in-person tally of what tribal officials and census managers agree is a traditionally undercounted population.
Sandoval, who's lived on the Flathead Reservation for 10 years, considers her role as something of a detective. If she can't find residents during her first visit, she'll return daily, even if that entails knocking on the same door several times. If she can't find an individual at home, Sandoval then canvasses the neighborhood, inquiring among neighbors and family members. After forming a significant social network during her time on the reservation, she's well suited for the job.
"The Native people that I've encountered, you know, it's funny, we all know each other in some way, even if we don't know each other," says Sandoval, an Isleta Pueblo from New Mexico, speaking to a general familiarity developed since she moved to the Flathead. "Everybody knows everybody."
Census and tribal officials say tapping members of the community to work as enumerators is part of their strategy to gather an accurate count. In fact, Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribal (CSKT) Government Secretary Steve Lozar says his cousin, a paid enumerator, showed up at the secretary's home.
"It was actually quite wonderful," says Lozar.
During the last census in 2000, surveys were dropped off by canvassers and then mailed in by residents. It's tough to say how many American Indians went underreported, but the federal government estimates Montana's population as a whole saw a 32-percent undercount. Lozar says that percentage more than likely translates to a significantly skewed tally among reservation residents.
"As First Nation's people we're often, because we're relatively small numbers, we're often overlooked," he says.
The U.S. Census Bureau says it's aware of the issue, and has been steadily ramping up efforts in Indian Country.
"They decided early on that we need a lot of help with civic leaders and others," says Mary Craigle, bureau chief for the Census and Economic Information Center at the Montana Department of Commerce.
In 1990, the U.S. Census Bureau created the Tribal Governments Liaison Program, which encourages reservation governments to appoint tribal members capable of more efficiently communicating between tribal and federal agencies. Since then, the effort has expanded. New tribal partnership assistant positions came online this year along with a flurry of public service announcements speaking to the importance of being counted. A tribal road tour is also taking the message to communities across the West.
"I think this time it's just way more of a partnership," Craigle says.
The emphasis on an accurate count is especially important when it comes to political and financial impact. The census is used to reapportion boundaries for both congressional and state legislative districts, and Craigle says approximately 140 government agencies base financial disbursements on census numbers. She adds that for each individual not represented, the state loses $4,000 in federal funding across a 10-year period.
"Those things break down to mathematics," Lozar says. "And so, it's incumbent upon us to make sure that, again, that it be correct math."
But Lozar says the issue goes beyond money on the reservation.
"When the facts are presented truthfully about who the Salish Kootenai people are, and in this homeland of ours, I think it tells more than just numbers," he says. "I think that it continues to, at least in the public eye, hopefully, it continues to buttress our belief that we've been here since time immemorial."
As for Sandoval, she's not thinking about all that. By the end of her eight-week stint as an enumerator, she will have knocked on approximately 500 doors. When asked about historical precedents she admits it's never occurred to her before. She's too busy keeping her eye on the next door.