How Native Communities Are Fighting To Be Accurately Counted In The 2020 Census

2020 Census

By Harrison Mantas

January 28, 2020

Outreach campaigns aim to boost engagement in the face of persistent challenges.

Native Americans in Arizona are stepping up their efforts to ensure tribal lands receive an accurate count in the 2020 Census. This is in spite of challenges presented by language barriers, the digital divide, and lack of qualified census workers. 

The CEO of the National Congress of American Indians, Kevin Allis told a congressional committee in early January that the U.S. Census Bureau is still behind its hiring targets for 2020.

“The hiring process has been sluggish at best, requiring applicants to wait weeks or even months before hearing back about open positions,” Allis’ prepared testimony read.

Not wanting a repeat of 2010 Census undercount, local groups like the Inter Tribal Council of Arizona are working together to get everyone counted. A 2012 study by the U.S. Census Bureau found that American Indians and Alaska Natives living on reservations were undercounted by 4.9%.

Why the Data Is Important


Census data has become increasingly important for its role in determining congressional districts. It is also used to distribute federal funding for education, health, and development programs. However, Assistant Director of the Inter Tribal Council of Arizona Travis Lane is cautious about the federal funding tribes could potentially see from new census data.

“We still have poor roads; we still have lack of hospitals; we still have lack of water infrastructure,” Lane said. Those improvements didn’t materialize after the 2010 Census, according to Lane, who now warns against putting those potential improvements front and center.


With the potential for Arizona to pick up a congressional seat after the 2020 Census, Alexander Castillo-Nunez, an assistant coordinator with the ITCA, said outreach in 2020 impacts representation as much as resources. The ITCA has incorporated census outreach into its voter registration efforts.

“Keep in mind the due diligence after the census as well when it comes to being a part of redistricting–when it comes to being a part of representation,” Castillo-Nunez said. “Those things go hand in hand… if we’re talking about resources that are coming into our communities, and we want to make sure that people are actually simply engaged.”

That political engagement has the potential to bring another Native American to the U.S. House of Representatives. Arizona’s 1st Congressional District includes parts of eight Native American reservations.

Both Lane and Castillo-Nunez hope that census outreach and voter registration will bring more native voters to the polls, and potentially inspire native candidates to run for federal office. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Arizona has the third largest American Indian population behind California and Oklahoma.

“It’s such a large population. I’m surprised we don’t already have one,” Lane said.

Potential Problems

While there is a lot to gain through participation in the 2020 Census, gaps in language, technology, and local knowledge pose a challenge to ensuring an accurate count.


The U.S. Census Bureau recognized the need for bridging the language gap in its 2017 Tribal consultation. Officials said they would put an emphasis hiring local census takers who could translate the questionnaire, and expand how tribes could identify themselves for different languages. 

Lane said the bureau also included a handbook of terms local census takers can translate into native languages. However, the “census might not be a word that translates into tribal languages,” Lane said.

He added that there are still many tribal elders who only speak their native language, so having local census takers is key.


Changes to the way technology is used in the Census process might also prove to be an issue. The Census Bureau is only taking applications for census takers online, creating a built-in barrier for those living in rural Native Communities. A 2019 study by the American Indian Policy Institute at Arizona State University showed that these regions have limited access to high speed internet.

Thus, the ITCA is producing radio ads to recruit local tribal members to apply, but Lane said the lack of internet access is a barrier to entry. There are, however, efforts to get more tribes connected.  

In February, the Federal Communications Commission is giving tribes a six-month priority window to apply for wireless internet licenses. 

Gila River Telecommunications Inc., along with Bay Area non-profit MuralNet, are helping rural tribes navigate the FCC’s process to get more rural tribes connected to the internet. 

Local Knowledge

In the absence of local census takers, Lane worries that census takers from outside tribal communities will struggle to get an accurate count.

“The Census Bureau is doing something real strange this year. They’re not mailing the census questionnaire to a P.O. Box.,” Lane said. 

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez testified before a congressional panel in October 2019 that many of his citizens use P.O. Boxes because of the remote locations of their houses. 

Census workers will instead travel to these remote houses to get a more accurate count. Lane says lack of local knowledge and language will be a problem for rural tribal communities. 

What’s Being Done?

The ITCA is one of many groups in Arizona working on outreach to get every Native American counted. The agency is producing radio ads, and launching a social media campaign to raise awareness.

In August, Gov. Doug Ducey appointed Kristine Firethunder, head of the Governor’s Office of Tribal Relations, to lead tribal outreach for Arizona’s Complete Count Committee. Local Indian Centers in Phoenix, Tucson, and Flagstaff are also spreading the word to the urban Indian population.

Members of the ITCA and other groups working on census effort hope their aggressive outreach push will result in an accurate count, but some admit that success will be measured by the census numbers themselves.

“We won’t really know until the count is made,” Castillo-Nunez said. He said ITCA is making their big ad push later in January, and he hopes to see their efforts reflected when the census numbers are reported to Congress at the end of the year.


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