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Washington tribes working for strong turnout in 2020 US Census

 screenshot of the 2020 Census Canoe Race, which has Washington Tribes competing to see who can get the highest count.
Courtesy of Pyramid Communications
screenshot of the 2020 Census Canoe Race, which has Washington Tribes competing to see who can get the highest count.

Tribal communities in Washington are stepping up efforts to make sure they’re accurately counted in the 2020 U.S. Census. Tribes are historically the most undercounted group. The reasons range from a legacy of mistrust in government to the technicalities of how data was collected in the past, before self-reporting was an option; officials tallying based on visual evaluations often overlooked Native Americans.

But it’s estimated that for every citizen not counted, tribes miss out on at least $3,000 worth of federal programs per year, for things like housing, food assistance, roads or Medicaid. And that funding gap lasts for ten years, till the next census. 

So really, when a community’s undercounted, even by a small amount, there's millions of dollars that don't go back into our communities,” says Samantha Biasca, Community Engagement Coordinator with Na’ah Illahee Fund, a Native-led nonprofit working on a statewide census campaign. The group has distributed grants and helped deploy thousands of  so-called “trusted messengers” to get the word out among tribes about how much depends on census data.

“Even in terms of the coronavirus — how communities are going to be able to get access to this vaccine when it does come out — it's going to be based off of this new census data," Biasca says.  “So it's really it's not just health care or child care or school lunch programs.  It's everything.”

Normally, getting out that message would take place at in-person events such as pow-wows or other community gatherings, where census outreach workers could walk people through the paperwork and offer incentives through raffles and the like. Social distancing requirements have prevented that this year. So, communities have gotten creative.

In eastern Washington, the Spokane Tribe organized a 2020 Census Jam to raise awareness for the count, with people submitting videos of songs and pow-wow dancing for prizes.  

Biasca’s group put together a statewide virtual 2020 Census Canoe Race.

With traditional summer paddling canceled, she says it’s a way to remind people of the connection the census has to their ability to sustain their tradtions.

Because really, when we are not filling out the census, we're the ones that lose out — our communities, our elders, our children,” she says.   

 screenshot of the 2020 Census Canoe Race, which has Washington Tribes competing to see who can get the highest count.
Credit Courtesy of Pyramid Communications
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screenshot of the 2020 Census Canoe Race, which has Washington Tribes competing to see who can get the highest count.

It’s all online, with the display of distance traveled by each Washington tribe based on the percentage of each community’s population that has been counted. The tribes are competing to see who can get the highest count, with prize money of up to $25,000 sponsored by state government and local philanthropy. Results will be announced on Sept. 25.

Biasca says so far, several tribes are meeting or exceeding their 2010 levels, despite the challenges of the pandemic.

Right now, it looks like the Puyallup Tribe is coming in third place, with more than 70 percent counted.

“We're very urbanized. So with that, you know, our response rate is typically a little bit better than what you would see in somewhere that's much more rural,” says Robert Barandon, the tribe’s census liaison.  He calls the graphic “awesome” and an eye-catching way to raise awareness and make the census more culturally relevant. But he says the Puyallup also benefit from all of the census messaging going out to the general population in the area around their reservation.

Still, he says building enough trust for tribal members to provide their data is a process that takes time. Currently, census reporting is set to end on Sept. 30.  

On Thursday, more than 100 Washington state leaders called for an extension of the census deadline, as well as $400 million to address continued challenges in reaching undercounted communities.

Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment beat for KNKX, where she has worked since 1999. From 2000-2012, she covered the business and labor beat. Bellamy has a deep interest in Indigenous affairs and the Salish Sea. She has a masters in journalism from Columbia University.
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