The census struggled to count American Indians. Some tribes fear COVID-19 will worsen the situation

The latest census data shows Wisconsin is increasingly diverse with gains among the state’s Black, Hispanic and Asian populations. But, the American Indian and Native Alaskan population has remained largely unchanged over the past decade, declining 0.26 percent to 48,384 people.

Some tribes say the latest count may not provide an accurate picture of tribal communities, as the COVID-19 pandemic has added to already existing challenges the census has faced in counting American Indians.

“The pandemic itself has made it very difficult to get a full count of our community,” said Christopher Boyd, president of the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. “Many tribal members have tried to limit contact, you know we are facing a global pandemic. Not only are we trying to mitigate these dangers, but our population within our community is elderly.”


The Red Cliff Tribe led more census awareness by phone or email, as 2020 marked the first time people could respond online. But Boyd noted that tribal elders who are more vulnerable to complications from contracting the virus are also more likely to struggle with the technology.

A census website said data was not available on Red Cliff’s auto-response rate, which is the percentage of households that respond on their own. The same was true for Forest Potawatomi County and the Stockbridge-Munsee community. Self-response rates among all other Wisconsin tribes ranged from 23.9% for the Flambeau Lake Band of Lake Superior Chippewa to 81.2% for the Oneida Nation, which exceeded the response rate of l ‘State of 72.2%.

Oneida Nation city councilor Jennifer Webster attributed their high response rate to education and census planning which began a year before the count.

“We had to make it a priority and educate our members that this is what helps us get federal money for the police, the fire department – all that – and the schools,” Webster said. “These numbers help get more funding.”

The census not only determines the amount of federal funding allocated to reserves, but it also ensures that tribes receive accurate representation in the constituency draw.

According to census data, the counties that are home to the Oneida Reservation have seen a growth in the Native American / Alaska Native population over the past decade. Brown County saw its Native American population increase by about 6% to 6,329, while Outagamie County saw a more nominal increase of nearly 1% to 2,743.

Webster said census officers attended tribal events in the community and in schools to increase their response rate. It got a lot more complex when the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

“We had to let our community know that, yes the surveyors were still coming, but they would be safe,” said Webster. “But, I just don’t think all the tribes have been able to release this information.”

She noted that some may not have the people needed to conduct surveys, which is an issue Red Cliff has faced in previous censuses. The tribe had as many as 25 workers to get an accurate count when they took their own tribal census several years ago, but Boyd estimated that less than half of that number had conducted surveys last year due to of the pandemic.

The COVID-19 pandemic also highlighted a new challenge with the American Indian count when the census was first uploaded: lagging broadband coverage on tribal lands.

“Without face-to-face census surveys, many of our tribal members still struggle to access the internet and technology. We are working on it,” Boyd said. “The lack of consistent internet and telephone services exacerbates the low response rate, especially during the pandemic. “

The Federal Communications Commission found in its report on the 2021 broadband rollout that about 21 percent of tribal land residents lack nationwide broadband coverage. In Wisconsin, about 15% do not have high-speed internet access on tribal lands. The rural nature of reservations often makes it difficult for providers to justify the investment in broadband infrastructure as they experience issues with the field and fewer people who will be using the service.

In 2010, the US Census Bureau found that American Indians living on reserves were underestimated by nearly 5%, more than double the rate for other minority groups.

Rural conditions on reserves and distrust of the federal government have long posed challenges for the census to get an accurate count.

“A lot of our seniors don’t like the government to know who you are (or) where you are,” Webster said.

Boyd of Red Cliff also pointed to the repeated battles for the maintenance of tribal treaty rights as just one example of why tribal members have little confidence in the federal government.

Despite the challenges, census data shows the Native American population has grown by nearly 16% over the past decade to reach 1,612 in Bayfield County, where the Red Cliff Reservation is located.

Meanwhile, other places like Vilas County, where the Flambeau Lake Preserve is primarily located, saw their Native American / Alaska Native populations decline by nearly 5% to 2,181. Flambeau Lake had the lowest self-response rate among tribes in Wisconsin where census information was available.

But the Native American population has also fallen in off-reserve urban areas, with high response rates like Milwaukee County. The Native American population has declined by more than a quarter to 3,878 in Milwaukee County, reflecting a larger trend of population loss in the county over the past decade.

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