The once-per-decade United States Census kicks off in April 2010, and the manager for the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Indian/Alaska Native Program is leading a focused effort to obtain an accurate count of the Native American and Alaska Native populations within the United States.
Program Director Curtis Zunigha, a member of the Delaware Tribe of Indians in Oklahoma, is already undertaking population counts in isolated sectors of Alaska, even though Census Day is April 1. “We’re actually beginning our remote Alaska operation in January. Many of the Alaska Natives engage in subsistence hunting and fishing in the spring in camps that our enumerators wouldn’t be able to find and they’re not going to get anything in the mail, so we’re going in early to the Native village of Noorvik. They’re a partner and the Tribal leadership has agreed to host the very first enumeration.”
Partnership is the key to a successful census, Zunigha said.
“After the first enumeration in Noorvik, we’ll be going village to village all across those remote areas all through the State of Alaska and getting these people counted early. And all the work that’s gone into building relationships and partnerships with the Native tribes and villages, all the outreach that’s gone into it to make people aware of the census, hiring people from the villages to be enumerators – all of that is a model of what we’re doing all across Indian country. If it happens the way we’ve planned in Noorvik, I expect a very positive response from Indian country over all.”
Data from the census is a primary element in determining the distribution of more than $400 billion in federal funding nationwide. For Native communities, that means funding for Indian Child Welfare, Children and Family Education, employment assistance, food distribution, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, housing, community development block grants, and numerous other programs. The data will affect policy and resource allocations for human service programs for Native communities throughout the country.
According to Zunigha, one of the most challenging aspects of census taking in Native communities is establishing trust.
“The whole idea of mistrust of the federal government – that’s no secret in Indian country – but I think the best thing to overcome that is to emphasis the partnership aspect of the way we’re doing the census in Indian country.”
“Tribal leaders know true tribal sovereignty and self-determination means you don’t let somebody else come in and figure out this data for us. We do it ourselves and we can do our own planning and development for business and communities. I fully expect tribal demographers and data analysts to be using the reports that will be generated. You can bet the people like Harrahs and Bally's and other casino companies are using census data to do long range planning for site locations and businesses. So a good and successful census for Indian country only helps support tribal sovereignty and self-determination.”