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Census Goes Off the Rez to Count American Indians

New America Media, News Report , Jacob Simas Posted: Dec 26, 2009

LOS ANGELES-- When United American Indian Involvement, Inc., opened its doors in 1974 on Los Angeles Skid Row, it was a modest shelter serving downtowns American Indian community. Today it occupies a larger facility, has centers in Fresno and Bakersfield, and provides an array of social services.

UAIIs growth reflects the explosive surge in American Indians moving from tribal reservations to urban centers, like Los Angeles County. According to U.S. Census data, more than 90 percent of the states American Indian population now lives off tribal reservations. That demographic shift requires targeted strategies by the Census Bureau in getting an accurate count of American Indians in the upcoming 2010 census count.

Were looking at a huge challenge, due to the federal policies of relocation of our people over the years, and then just the outright economic conditions that were present and are still present, causing people to go off the reservation for work, to make a living, said Tim Harjo, the American Indian partnership specialist for the U.S. Census Bureau in Los Angeles. And then they get to these places [like Los Angeles], and its not easy. They find themselves in bad situations.

Harjos job is to encourage participation in the 2010 Census by more than 300,000 American Indians in his region, which includes Southern California and Hawaii.

While Harjo and his colleagues have been outreaching directly to tribal governments across California, he says the tougher test in 2010 will be to count the American Indian majority who are increasingly leaving the reservations and moving into the urban areas. They are most likely not members of local or regional tribes but in fact may have migrated from elsewhere in the state or country.

According to 2000 Census data, more than 90 percent of Californias American Indian population now lives off tribal reservations. In fact, the bureaus most recent population estimates show there are now more than 155,000 American Indian and Alaska Natives residing in Los Angeles county alone, making it the most populous county in the nation for that racial category.

Placed in historical context, the numbers are extraordinary.

When the federal government first recognized American Indians on the 1860 census, their official population nationwide stood at roughly 44,000. By 1950, they numbered 343,000, and in the 2000 census, the American Indian population was 4 million. It is a trend that the bureau expects to continue. By 2050, the nations native population could surpass 8.6 million, or 2 percent of the U.S. population.

To some people those numbers may not seem like a lot, but it is huge for us, said [explained] Harjo.

Which is why community organizations like UAII are paying close attention to the 2010 Census and becoming active participants in spreading the message of being counted to community members.

Weve already sent out fliers [encouraging census participation] to thousands of names on our mailing list, said Jerimy Billy, associate director of UAII. We took it upon ourselves to promote it using our own funds because we want to see an accurate count.

Many UAII programs are funded through government contracts. And with an annual $400 billion in federal allocations based on 2010 Census numbers, UAII and other organizations have a vested interest in making sure their communities get a fair share of that funding.

The census does play a part, because it allows us to have a number to work with, said Billy. Our funders want to get the most bang for their buck. They want to give where they think we can serve the most. And without that concrete data, its really hard to convince them we have a large population.

Changing public perceptions of where American Indians reside, explained Billy, will be helpful for both funders and tribal governments alike in the years to come.

Sometimes what happens is, people from the reservation come through LA, and they may need to access our health services, but the people from those other tribes or reservations may not really be aware of what we do, he said. They might say, Well, urban organizations are serving non-Indians. No. For example, there is a huge Lakota population living in LA. Or we can go back to the Navajo tribe and say, Weve got a huge population here that were trying to serve.

Specifying tribal affiliation on the 2010 Census questionnaire will have huge ramifications for American Indian communities because there is a direct correlation between how many people identify with a particular tribe and how much money that tribe receives from the government for services.

Harjo points to tribal numbers from the 2000 census as proof that American Indians lost out on funding for their communities 10 years ago.

Of the 4.1 million American Indian and Alaskan Natives identified on the 2000 census, the tribal affiliations of over 1 million were not specified. While lack of education on how to fill out the form is part of the problem, Harjo says there are also structural problems with the census questionnaire that led to the missing information.

Question number 9 [on the census questionnaire] is the race question, and thats the biggest issue, he said. There are only 19 boxes to write in the name of your tribe. But many tribe names require more than 19 boxes. And then there are people who write-in their tribe, but its a traditional name that the data processors dont recognize, so that doesnt get counted. Thats a lot of money that was lost.

In California, there are over 100 federally recognized tribal groups, as well as dozens of smaller tribes that are still unrecognized by the government.

Further complicating the census outreach efforts of organizations like UAII and census officials like Harjo, are deep-seated and well-founded - feelings of distrust toward government.

Confidentiality is always a big concern, said Harjo, but perhaps more so, there are quite simply a lot of people who are saying, it doesnt matter to me.

Between now and National Census Day on April 1, Harjo and his allies in the Los Angeles region will be putting their all into making sure the growing community of urban American Indians understand that it does matter.

We dont have the resources to get out and be everywhere, said Billy. Our staff is still not big enough to meet everybodys needs. At least to capture that, and show there is a need I think thats the most important thing.

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