Canku Ota - A Newsletter Celebrating Native America
February 26, 2000 - Issue 04

Tribal Census Issues
Removing Barriers for a New Century
by Curtis Zunigha (Delaware/Isleta Pueblo)

Excerpts of speech to tribal leaders at a recent meeting on the Census

I come to you today as a member of the Census Bureau's American Indian and Alaska Native Advisory Committee with a unique perspective on the incredible process known as Census 2000. Our committee of nine members from all across Indian Country is charged with advising Ken Prewitt and the rest of the Census Bureau on policy and procedure regarding Indian Country. I recognize the incredible diversity that exists in Indian Country and I know all too well the frustrations and failures of federal government relations in Indian Country. With some apprehension and a keen desire to make a difference, I joined this committee in November 1997, and I am here to tell you that today's Census Bureau represents a change for the better to Indian Country. There has been a significant, serious, and sincere response by the Census Bureau since my contact.

Both Indian Country and the Census Bureau must embrace this premise and use it as a foundation to remedy the 12.2% undercount of American Indians and Alaska Natives in the 1990 decennial census. This was the highest undercount of any race/ethnic population. And we have only 2 million Indians in this country out of some 280 million. There are major concerns about privacy and confidentiality whether it affects one tribal elder at a reservation health clinic, a struggling young Indian family on welfare in an urban center, or a tribal government protecting its sovereignty. Add to that an inherent mistrust of the federal government, fears of Congress pushing anti-Indian legislation, and lack of knowledge about census data and its impact.

What an incredible maze of barriers! And our experience is to tackle it as best we can without sufficient resources, or just ignore it because we don't understand it, or refuse to participate because we don't like to be treated second class. But to ignore an opportunity to take a proactive role in Census 2000 is not so much a slam on the U.S. Government as it is on your own people. I know there is base funding for tribal governments to operate and shares of money for tribal and community development. And BIA money is derived from a certain formula separate from census data. But so many other government agencies and the private sector use census demographics to determine funding and/or investment. Long range economic and social development planning for health, education, welfare, and housing among other things depends on actual census data to reconcile with declarations of tribal jurisdictional areas.

We are challenged with reviewing complex and inexact maps, jurisdictional areas, and population statistics. Of particular concern is the vast urban Indian population that may live outside the tribe's jurisdictional area. We must continue to demand our unique legal and political status in addition to our ethnic and cultural identity. We have made incredible advances just in our opportunity to declare ourselves on the census form. Remember when we were listed as "other"? Now we declare our Indian racial identity and principally enrolled tribe. While this form may still not be a complete picture of who you are (multi-tribal or multi-racial), it is imperative that you list yourself as Indian and list your enrolled tribe. When data collection and tabulation occurs over the next few years, we must demand that all data for anyone declaring Indian should be separated due to our legal and political status as sovereign Indian nations.

That is why your Indian program contacts at the state, regional, and national levels are so important. That is why IndianNet and a Census Information Center for Indian Country is a critical link. I urge you to invest in the human and technological resources to ensure your participation in Census 2000.

As I look back on the history of my tribe, the Delaware Tribe of Indians, this country's first federally recognized treaty tribe, I am struck by the government's census efforts a century ago. We were forced to assemble and be counted if we wanted to be recognized for so-called treaty rights and benefits. Unfortunately for our Indian people that census effort and subsequent enrollments through 1906 preceded Oklahoma statehood that made the Indian state promised in our treaties vanish. Allotment of Indian lands was part of the subversive plan to take our land and destroy our governments. However, many of our Oklahoma tribes now see the problems with those of our ancestors who did not participate. Those who did not answer a census or take part in enrollment caused their descendants to lose out on tribal membership in today's context. But the barriers of the past should only be the milestones of lessons learned. Both tribal governments and the U.S. Government must enter into a good faith effort to make the census work for community empowerment. As we enter a new century, we should demand our rightful involvement in this endeavor known as Census 2000. What is good for Indian Country is good for the United States. We can make this census work for us and create a stronger foundation for the development of our tribes and communities.

Remember, tell your people to answer the census forms when they come to us in April 2000. Generations are counting on this. Don't leave it blank.

To learn more about Census 2000 visit this site:
Census 2000

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