Stand Up and Be Counted 

Undercounted and shortchanged, Montana tribes prepare for Census 2000

U.S. Census Bureau officials are promising to improve population counting so American Indians in Montana don’t get shortchanged when the nation’s decennial survey is conducted next spring.

Although the actual number remains disputed by tribes, the federal government admits that Native Americans across the nation were undercounted by at least 12.6 percent in the 1990 Census. In Montana, Indian people suffered the largest undercount of any other group in the state, says George Wilson, director of the bureau’s Billings field office.

To avoid the problems of the past, Wilson explains, this time around his office is “making sure things are being covered in all aspects. We’ll actually go door-to-door and sit with the families to get the information.”

Wilson says getting an accurate count of all residents on Montana’s seven Indian reservations, as well as off the reservations, is extremely important, especially considering that Census numbers are intimately tied to funding for a wide variety of federal and state programs.

According to government figures, Census numbers provide the foundation for about $180 billion of federal funding distributed annually across the nation. And, Wilson says, each person who is not counted costs a community an estimated $165 in lost federal money each year. For Indian people, who are among the poorest in the country, such financial shortfalls can be dire.

Tribal leaders maintain that undercounting in 1990 stemmed largely from a lack of flexibility within the bureau, intergovernmental politics, and cultural misunderstandings. Bureau officials say some of the problems have arisen because many American Indians have a general mistrust of the government’s counting system and are concerned whether the collected data will remain confidential.

Krista Kanenwisher, who manages the bureau’s Missoula district office, says Census workers have had difficulties getting detailed information from tribal members in the past because some were worried about being turned in for having too many people living in public housing or some similar infraction.

Kanenwisher and Wilson note that the bureau’s strict rules of secrecy have repeatedly been upheld in the courts, and that statistics are the only information released for public or private consumption.

“Our confidentiality is held in such a strict manner that even the president of the United States can’t get the information,” Wilson says.

Language and other cultural differences have also posed challenges for data collectors operating on reservations in the past, the officials explained.

But tribal leaders and federal managers say the 2000 Census, which will begin in earnest in March, will be a cooperative venture that will focus on fully educating reservation residents about the process and hiring more tribal members to gather the information. Another change will be to conduct all reservation surveys face-to-face, rather than relying on residents to file their questionnaires by mail. To help, Census officials have broken Montana into four major districts and are staffing offices in Great Falls, Billings and Missoula, instead of just Helena. More detailed maps also have been drawn up and reviewed by tribal officials, Wilson says, which should eliminate many logistical problems encountered 10 years ago.

On the tribal side, each Montana reservation is also organizing its own Complete Count Committee to work with the bureau, says Velda Shelby, who served as the 1990 Census liaison for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. A representative from each reservation panel will sit on a statewide tribal panel, which will also work directly with the bureau to iron out problems, make suggestions and otherwise coordinate reservation and urban Indian counts. Blackfeet Tribal Business Council member and former state legislator George Heavy Runner serves as committee chairman.

Also working with federal Census managers is another, separate Complete Count Committee, chaired by Lt. Gov. Judy Martz. According to Martz, the 1990 Census missed a total of 19,283 residents in Montana, which represents a 2.4 percent error rate. That’s compared to the national undercount rate of 1.6 percent. The highest number of uncounted residents among all sectors, she adds, were children.

“That last count could have cost $15 million to $24 million a year, and we lost a U.S. House seat, too,” says Martz, who is seeking the Republican bid to succeed term-limited Gov. Marc Racicot. She added that she is anxious to team up with tribal leaders to improve the accuracy of the next survey.

“The tribes are serious about this,” Martz says. “This time we’re really going to concentrate on the reservations. When we can work together, it’s a win-win.”

According to Shelby, tribal members were largely bypassed when it came to hiring enumerators for the 1990 Census, even though the bureau had promised to sign up Indians to help do the work within their reservations. This time, Wilson says, the government plans to hire 50 to 100 tribal members on each reservation. In all, up to 3,000 people are expected to be hired to complete the count in Montana.

“Who can do it better than them?” Martz says. “Nobody.”

“They know the area,” adds Wilson. “Residents are more comfortable with people who are local.”

To help bridge cultural gaps, Wilson says Census officials have been attending powwows and other tribal events as a way of making reservation residents more comfortable. Kanenwisher, who is herself affiliated with Oklahoma’s Caddo Tribe, added that the bureau is taking its government-to-government relationship with tribes more seriously now.

“Before, we didn’t have that type of relationship,” she says.

Building trust, Wilson adds, is the main thrust behind improving reservation counts.

“[The Census] is not here to harm them,” he says. “It’s here to help them.”

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