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'It's up to us': Census response risks undercount, underfunding for North Dakota tribes

'It's up to us': Census response risks undercount, underfunding for North Dakota tribes

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Cheryl Kary knows how important an accurate census is for Indian Country.

“We know that tribal programs, whether they serve the Native population off-reservation or whether they’re on-reservation, are typically underfunded, and so when you have an undercount as well as a program being underfunded, that creates -- exponentially creates -- more poverty and more disparity,” said the executive director of the Sacred Pipe Resource Center in Mandan.

The organization is one of several groups trying to increase participation in the 2020 U.S. census before counting ends Sept. 30. North Dakota has about a 64% self-response rate -- and an 86% total response rate -- but participation among the five tribal nations within its borders ranges from 21-40% for self-response, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.

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Several factors account for the low response -- chiefly the coronavirus pandemic, census advocates say.

“The ability for workers going door to door, social distancing -- that’s been a big, big part of it,” North Dakota Indian Affairs Commission Executive Director Scott Davis said. “That’s probably been the biggest factor that I’ve seen experienced.”

Every tribe has a complete count committee for census outreach and promotion. Reservations can be harder to count due to rural settings and a lack of housing, Davis said. 

The Fort Berthold Reservation has a total self-response rate of 22.4%, according to the data. Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation Chairman Mark Fox said tribal leaders have participated in public relations events such as commercials to publicize the census. An outdoor social distancing powwow also is planned, where the census will be promoted at the same time, he said.

There have been no powwows on Fort Berthold since the pandemic emerged in North Dakota in March, which has "really hurt our people," Fox said.

"That's an important part of our culture, important part of our ways, our traditions," he said.

Remote communities as well as government distrust also are factors in the census response, said Nicole Donaghy, executive director of North Dakota Native Vote, which advocates civic engagement on reservations.

Four organizers will be doing local census outreach on reservations “in a safe manner,” Donaghy said. North Dakota Native Vote also has worked with other organizations, such as Turnaround Arts and the Sacred Pipe Resource Center, for outreach, and is coordinating some events with tribes.

"It’s up to us. It’s always up to us to take care of our communities,” Donaghy said.

To boost the census on reservations, the state has funded local complete count committees and recently did outreach on the Turtle Mountain Reservation and in New Town on Fort Berthold, North Dakota Census Office Demographer Kevin Iverson said.

North Dakota's rural and Bakken oil patch residents also have proven challenging to count, and the pandemic brought setbacks with it, he said. Some census operations, such as nonresponse follow-up, were delayed.

"COVID has just kind of changed everything, but towards the end of the self-response period, we were doing better in 2010 than we're doing now, and that's not just true for American Indians ... that's true for just about everywhere," Iverson said.

The Sacred Pipe Resource Center has used COVID-19 relief events, such as food distribution, to share census information with tribal members who live on and off reservations, Kary said. The organization’s census efforts are statewide, she added.

Some tribal members might distrust government workers who come calling, asking for personal information that could be perceived to be used against them, Donaghy and Davis said. Fox said the census brings "a lot of apprehension, historically, from it." Some tribal members might fear for their housing situation or assistance if they are not compliant with federal requirements, he said.

The U.S. Census Bureau cannot share any identifiable information about people or households. Census records can be released after 72 years for historical research.

Fox said his greatest concern is not an undercount, but historical underfunding and being "still left out in the cold."

"We're taxpayers like everybody else. We're governments like everybody else. We are historically and extremely underfunded at all levels," Fox said, pointing to Indian Health Service funding being 40-45% of the tribe's need, with the rest supplemented by the tribe spending millions of dollars every year. Federal CARES Act coronavirus relief funding also fell short for tribes, he said.

"As much as we understand that there's a direct impact by being undercounted, there's a historical problem that we've got to get the United States government to recognize and do something about, which is underfunding us anyway, whether that count is accurate or not," he said.

Reach Jack Dura at 701-250-8225 or


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