Census Bureau’s ‘My Tribal Area’ tool is helpful to some, incomplete to others
The Census Bureau has a tool called My Tribal Area that provides accessible demographic information about tribal communities. It’s been around since 2016, but changes to the available data – or lack thereof – have affected how the tool has been received over the years.
Anyone can access the tool from the Census Bureau's website. Users can search for a particular reservation or pueblo and find information gathered from 2017 to 2021 related to five demographic categories: people, jobs, housing, economy and education. The tool can also answer questions like, “What percentage of the Southern Ute Reservation population has access to computers at home?” or, “What is the median income for people who live on the Navajo Nation?”
All of the data comes from the American Community Survey five-year estimates developed by the Census Bureau. But My Tribal Area aims to make the data clear and more readily accessible so users do not need to dig through databases.
“Instead of having to go into all those tables individually, and all those different tribal areas individually, the tool allows you to get a quick subset of the data for that particular tribal area,” Ian O’Brien, a statistician at the Census Bureau, said.
This data can be especially useful for grant writers, who heavily rely on proof in numbers to persuade funders to support their causes.
“I send them a link to this tool and I just get 'thank you's' all around,” said Eric Coyle, an intergovernmental affairs specialist at the Census Bureau. “They just get really enthused about this prospect of making their job easier to access data.”
But not much has changed with My Tribal Area’s layout since its inception in 2016, besides periodic updates to the data. Coyle said many tribal members want to see more details added to the tool. Coyle said the bureau added data about internet access after tribal members asked for it, but he still views most requests for additional data with caution. The goal, he said, is to make the tool both useful and usable.
“We always have to kind of be careful how much we add to a particular tool, whether or not we make it more cumbersome to use,” he said.
Some census data points have large margins of error. Carolyn Liebler, a professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota, found that the Bad River Reservation in Wisconsin had a rental vacancy rate of 2.4%, but the margin of error was plus or minus 2.6%. A higher margin of error means the data is less likely to be an accurate representation of the population, and in this case, the margin of error is bigger than the data point itself.
“It's really important that they had the margin of error on there or else you would not realize that that's a meaningless number, actually,” she said.
“It is really hard to make policy decisions when some of the data that you're working with are different over time for reasons that aren't related to what's happening on the ground,” she said.
Additionally, some cultural aspects of life for American Indian and Alaska Native peoples are not taken into account. Liebler noted the American Community Survey looks at how long people live in one place, but many Native peoples are used to living in different locations seasonally.
"They don't really have a good system for figuring out if someone is living here on two days and then over there for a week and then over there for another five days," she said. “The American Community Survey itself is not designed to be for American Indian and Alaska Native people or tribal leaders. It leaves out concepts that would perhaps be relevant to some communities.”
Despite its imperfections, Liebler believes My Tribal Area is one of the best tools for accessing data on American Indian and Alaska Native populations. She said it represents a “bright spot” in the Census Bureau’s commitment to making these communities more visible.
The bureau will update the data in the My Tribal Area tool in December, when the latest American Community Survey data comes out.
The tool can be accessed at census.gov/tribal.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, KUNC in Colorado and KANW in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.