Reservations in Washington, Dakotas selected for Census test

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — Two Native American reservations — one in the Dakotas and another in Washington state — have been selected as test sites ahead of the 2020 census, as officials mull whether to ask for the first time about tribal enrollment.

Standing Rock Indian Reservation, which straddles North Dakota and South Dakota, and Colville Reservation in Washington will be the focus of next year’s testing on tribal lands, the U.S. Census Bureau announced this month. The bureau has enlisted the help of the tribes on those reservations as it pilots efforts to avoid a 5 percent undercount of the population seen in the 2010 census.

“By selecting these geographic areas, we are allowing ourselves an opportunity to test our methods, procedures in areas where it is difficult to deliver questionnaires by mail,” said Deirdre Bishop, chief of the bureau’s Decennial Census Management Division.

The test sites were selected in part because they have more than 2,000 housing units each and a large percentage of population that identifies as American Indian. The areas also hold the potential for undercounting because of their lack of traditional home addresses. Only 16 percent of housing units on Standing Rock and 33 percent at Colville are able to receive questionnaires through the U.S. Postal Service, Bishop said.

The test will allow people to respond using the traditional paper questionnaires, as well as by phone and online using computers, tablets or smartphones. Census workers will be sent to addresses that don’t provide answers using any of the available methods.

In addition to the standard questions, the bureau will experiment with asking individuals to identify their tribal enrollment. The agency has met with tribal focus groups to develop three questions on tribal enrollment and has been testing them in interviews designed to study how people respond. Two of the three questions will later be selected to be used during next year’s test.

The 2010 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.

Officials suspect that one of the main reasons for the 5 percent undercount during the 2010 census was the general distrust tribal members have of the federal government. But for tribes, an accurate count is crucial because census data helps guide how billions in federal, state, and tribal funding are distributed. Tribes also use census data to attract new business and to plan new facilities and programs.

Bishop said the tribes on each test site have appointed someone to act as liaison with the agency throughout the test process. The agency will also be hiring people from the community ahead of the April 1 test date to generate awareness about the importance of answering all questions and doing so accurately.

At Standing Rock, where 8,000 people live on an area slightly bigger than Connecticut, individuals who are fluent in English and Lakota will be available to assist in translating questions for elders whose English skills are limited, said Dave Archambault II, chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. Community members familiar with the reservation’s geography will also help census workers get to difficult-to-reach areas.

“Tribes know that the census data is inaccurate,” Archambault said. “By being able to participate in a project like this, it will better enable the Census to collect data not just for Standing Rock but for all tribal nations. It is in our best interest to come up with innovative ways to collect accurate data in regards to our nations.”

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