A Sense of Tradition

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Written by: Director Robert Groves

I just got back from beautiful Southern California where I attended the National Congress of American Indians. I learned a lot about the diverse American Indian nations – there are 564 federally recognized tribes (though not all are members of NCAI). The American Indian nations are a very important group to the census because prior censuses have tended to undercount these populations.

I had a great time meeting with the various tribal leaders, and I was honored by their warmth and good humor. They told me about the unique challenges involved in enumerating their populations. Some reservations sit on very tough terrain, and tribal members living off the reservations need to be correctly classified as members of their tribe. These leaders shared excellent ideas about how we can improve our methods.

At the Congress, I was pleased to sign the Census Bureau’s formal American Indian and Alaska Native Policy Statement. I was the second director to sign this statement, following my predecessor, Steve Murdock. The policy pledges to consult with tribal leaders and cooperate with them on any activities regarding the census that might affect their tribes. I am proud of this good and strong policy that applies to all activities of the Census Bureau.

Since each nation forms its own government, the Census Bureau works with them one by one. Each tribe has its own customs, beliefs, and cultural norms and the Census Bureau strives to respect them all. Our staff meets frequently with tribal leaders, describing the purpose of the census, the need to locate each person at a residence, and the methods of counting. On some reservations, the census delivers forms by hand; on others, it interviews tribal members face to face.

In California, I also met with many of our American Indian and Alaska Native partnership staff, who are in day-to-day contact with tribal leaders. These partners are the real front line of outreach to the tribes. They address the tribes’ concerns and assure them that their participation in the census is a positive step in their nations’ futures.

The whole trip was an experience that underscored the complexity of the census undertaking and how it relies on the collaboration of diverse groups.

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4 Responses to A Sense of Tradition

  1. Sam Eberhard says:

    In your spirit of “tell it like it is,” tell me why the Census Bureau guarantees the confidentiality of its data when the decision lies with Congress? Congress can nullify census confidentiality anytime it wants by changing the law. It did so during World War II in order to help round up Japanese-Americans, and the Census Bureau dutifully served up information on specific households. Why couldn’t this happen to Arab-Americans if there’s another 9/11?

  2. kev@censusstaff says:

    Sam,
    Today, no law — including the Patriot Act — overrides the Title 13 census confidentiality law. Could Congress pass a law requiring access to census records? Theoretically, but Congress has shown tremendous support for the census and understands the importance of participation in the census. Changing the confidentiality protections would essentially erode public support for the census and any chance of a complete and accurate count of the population, along with any ability to fairly apportion the House of Representatives or distribute the more than $400 billion annually that is based on census population data. The census truly is the cornerstone of our democracy.

  3. Judy F. says:

    I agree that it is important for the Census Bureau to account for everyone living in the U.S. whether a citizen or not but how would this Census affect the American Indians? Also, how will the count American Indians affect where the $400 billion dollars of federal funding go?

  4. Brett says:

    Why you were visiting these Nations, did anyone question the use of the phrase “American Indian”? I realize that you went to the National Congress of “American Indians”, however, there are many other terms that can be used to more accurately describe the people who truly are the only original Americans.
    To me, an American Indian would be some who is from India who now lives in America. Terms like Aboriginal, First Nation and Native American are much more accurate terms to describe the original inhabitants of this land.
    Using the phrase American Indian reminds me of narrow-minded Cowboy and “Indian” movies where Native Americans were depicted as the savage enemy. It was inaccurate back then and it is still inaccurate now. The term American Indian is something that is used all too often by all Americans. Prior to marrying a Native American, I often used that term as well. Since then, I have realized just how ignorant I, and many others are when it comes to understanding the original inhabitants of these lands. Unfortunately, had I not married an Native American, I am certain that I would still be suffering from the same ignorance and your Census would have re-enforced my ignorance. I believe that by using the term American Indian on such a widely distributed document you have done the Native American community a great disservice and, sadly, have revealed the lack of respect that the majority of Americans have towards the individuals who are truly the first Americans.
    I have seen Native American on many other forms in which Nationality is a question. I don’t see why it was not used on the Census. If you were worried about confusing people with “Native American” or Aboriginal or First Nation, you would only be confusing those who that answer did not apply. Anyone who identifies themselves as Native American, Aboriginal, or First Nation would not be confused by the terminology. I hope that future documents will label Native Americans appropriately. I just hope that the real American Indians (from India) did not get confused by your terminology and have now skewed the results for Native Americans.

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