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Census Bureau Cuts Short Its Count, Threatening To Exclude Native Americans

Antwon McMullen

This story was powered by America Amplified, a public radio initiative.

The U.S. Census Bureau has announced it's ending the 2020 count a month early, a move that's likely to have a big impact on Indigenous communities in the West.


When Marci McLean heard that the census was ending at the end of September instead of the end of October, “my stomach dropped," she said.

McLean's the director of Western Native Voice, a Montana-based organization that works to advance Native American engagement and representation. She says Indigenous communities in Montana are drastically undercounted so far this year.

Only 8.6% of households on the Crow Reservation in Montana have responded to the census online, by mail or by phone so far, according to Census Bureau data.

Other reservations across the West are reporting similarly low numbers – 14.7% on the Navajo Nation, 16.6% on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, for example. That's compared to a national response rate of 63% as of Wednesday. And they're far below the reservations' response rates in 2010.

"That affects funding, it affects legislative representation of our Native communities," said McLean, who plans to ramp up her organization's efforts to get more folks to fill out the census ahead of the Census Bureau ending its door-to-door data collection on September 30.

The low response rates are in part due to travel restrictions and stay-at-home orders on many reservations. "It's difficult doing this through a pandemic, and not many people want to open the doors," Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez was quoted as saying this week.

In 2010, American Indians and Alaska Natives living on reservations were undercounted by 4.9%, making them the most undercounted group in the census.

According to a recent analysis from Headwaters Economics, a nonprofit research group based in Montana, more than 700,000 people of color are at risk of being undercounted this year in the Mountain West alone, as the Mountain West News Bureau has reported.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM 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.

Nate Hegyi is a roving regional reporter for the Mountain West News Bureau, based at Nevada Public Radio. You can reach him at natehegyi@protonmail.com.