Census weighs changes to counting American Indians in 2020

FILE - In this April 24, 2015, file photo, Native American and indigenous dancers wait their turn to join the procession during the grand entrance at the 32nd annual Gathering of Nations in Albuquerque N.M. The U.S. Census Bureau is testing new questions on tribal enrollment for the 2020 count in an effort to get a more accurate tally of American Indians. Census director John Thompson told The Associated Press on Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2015, that the agency is aiming to avoid a 5 percent undercount of the population seen in 2010. (AP Photo/Susan Montoya Bryan, File)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) – The U.S. Census Bureau is testing new questions on tribal enrollment to try to get a more accurate count of American Indians in 2020, officials said Tuesday.

The agency is aiming to avoid a 5 percent undercount of the population seen in 2010 and reaching out to tribes years in advance, Director John Thompson told The Associated Press.

“We are testing whether we can ask a separate question on enrollment,” Thompson said. “We are trying to put together a question that American Indians and Alaska Natives can look at, understand and respond accurately.”

Questions on tribal enrollment are important because of funding and discussions about Native American identity in a changing nation, officials said.

Dee Ann Alexander, a census tribal specialist, said past censuses didn’t ask whether someone was an enrolled tribal member. She says there was an American Indian box to check with instructions on describing a tribe.

Officials say the bureau is getting feedback from tribal leaders and will decide later whether the questions make it on the 2020 census. Thompson was in Albuquerque on Tuesday for the fifth of eight tribal consultation meetings with tribal leaders.

While the tribal membership question has supporters, others in Alaska have concerns since some of them identify with a village or village corporation rather than a tribe.

Still, Thompson said the agency is reaching out to American Indian tribes and Alaska Native villages five years early because of deep distrust of the federal government – a main reason officials suspect there was an undercount in 2010.

That census found that 2.9 million identified as American Indian or Alaska Native alone. That figure nearly doubled among respondents who said they were American Indian or Alaska Native and another race, the census reported.

Sharon Clahchischilliage, a Republican state lawmaker in New Mexico and a member of the Navajo Nation, said she was pleased the Census Bureau was testing out a question on tribal enrollment. “It’s never been done before and it would be nice to have that information,” she said.

Yet the bureau’s biggest challenge remains getting some American Indians to trust the federal agency, especially in rural areas, she said.

“I know way out in the middle of Navajoland people out there weren’t counted,” Clahchischilliage said. “They weren’t answering any questions from the government.”

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