How Young Native Americans Are Using The Census To Make Their Communities Heard

'It's hard to feel like you don't belong even though you're on your original homeland, you know?'

By Rebecca Nathanson

For Austin Weahkee, a member of the Cochiti and Zuni tribes and Navajo Nation, his activism began “basically from the day I was born.” When he was a child, his family was part of a campaign to prevent the construction of a road through Petroglyph National Monument, a sacred Native American site in New Mexico, where he grew up. They ended up losing that particular battle in 2004, but the experience far from discouraged Weahkee, who comes from a long line of activists involved in protecting sacred sites.

“It inspired us to get into politics, to move away from more traditional activism to getting people registered to vote, to make sure that we actually had good policymakers and good decision-makers,” he tells MTV News. So in the lead-up to 2020 — both the presidential election and the United States census — Weahkee, now 22, is following through on that early inspiration. He is one of a handful of young Native Americans stepping up to tackle some of the challenges that these events have long brought to their communities by raising awareness, advocating for more accessibility, and convincing their peers to fight with them.

The undercounting of Native Americans in the census is a persistent, chronic ailment that most people acknowledge just once a decade even though it impacts its victims every day of every year — and has for decades. In the 1990 census, Native Americans on reservations were undercounted by 12.2 percent. That dropped to just 0.7 percent in 2000 before jumping back up to about 5 percent in 2010. That same year, the Black population was undercounted by 2.1 percent and the Latinx population by 1.5 percent; the non-white Latinx population was overcounted by 0.8 percent. (The census groups Latinx people under the “Hispanic” category.) Around a quarter of all Native Americans live in what are considered hard-to-count census tracts: issues like poverty, education level, housing insecurity, and a low-median age all come together to increase their risk of undercounting.

The consequences of this are manifold: Census data determines how funding and resources are distributed. “It affects everything in everyday life, especially for our more federally funded tribal groups because a lot of their money doesn't come from the state. It does come from federal programs,” says Weahkee, an organizer with the Native American Voters Alliance and a 2018 Movement Builders Fellow with the Center for Native American Youth. “It affects roads, schools, Internet, healthcare... It's really a lot of resources that we’re missing out on by not making sure that everyone's counted.”

Weahkee acknowledges that including everyone in the census tally is a daunting task — a potentially demoralizing task, so all-encompassing that, not knowing where to start, some never start at all. One challenge is accessibility: he says that in 2010, a helicopter was sent to a remote area to reach someone. Offering the census form in Native languages would also make filling it out less intimidating.

“We don't have to make sure that we're counting everybody, but that we're counting everybody that we know and that we can count,” Weahkee suggests. “So really just making sure that our at-home radius is fully covered, making sure that grandma who lives a mile down a dirt road is counted.” The hope is that these efforts ensure that every household receives either a self-response census form or a visit from a census volunteer.

Voting in the 2020 election presents another challenge in the effort to ease and eliminate the under-representation of Native Americans on all levels. After all, they’re not immune to the voter ID laws currently impacting other minorities. In 2012, only 66 percent of eligible Native Americans and Alaska Natives were registered to vote. Voter registration and polling sites accept identification issued by tribal governments, but voters still need to have residential information in the form of a house number or a street name, which those living on reservations often lack.

It isn’t simply a matter of having the right form of ID, either: Native voters first have to know about the election. “For me, the most important thing is to be on the ground and present and doing what I can to ensure people are just aware. That's one of the biggest issues, especially on the reservation because it's so rural and people live very far from one another,” says Shandiin Herrera, a 22-year-old from the Navajo Nation in Utah and one of the Center for Native American Youth’s 2019 Champions for Change. “Even this past election [in 2018], a lot of people didn't even know there was an election going on. So I think my job is at the very least to make sure people are aware and informed and have accurate information.”

Robert Alexander/Getty Images

Native American participants in the 2019 Women's March walk with signs and bullhorns in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Lack of awareness is one thing — lack of interest is another entirely. The former is potentially solvable, a matter of organizing and communication; the latter is based on a widespread distrust of the U.S. government that is only deepening with every instance of undercounting and under-representation. Herrera says that this is, at least in part, generational — a consequence of elders who were born before they had the right to vote. In 1924, the Indian Citizenship Act guaranteed citizenship to all Native peoples born in the United States, but until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 banned the exclusion of citizens from voting, states could still deny them their right to vote.

And yet, some young people are also reacting with disillusionment and disengagement to a lifetime of slights from the federal government. Amari McCoy, a 22-year-old member of the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma and part of the National Congress of American Indians’ Youth Commission, believes disinterest is pervasive for many young people. “It’s actually more common than you would think, if you just go ahead and ask, ‘Are you registered to vote?’ to have youth say, ‘No, we're not. It doesn't matter anyway.’ And they're just so nonchalant, relaxed about it.”

When it comes to political candidates offering specific policies or making plays for support from different minority groups, Native Americans are rarely addressed directly; sometimes find themselves grouped together with other minorities for broad-strokes initiatives, which can serve an overall good but also render the most vulnerable people invisible. (So far, few of the over 20 major candidates from both the Democratic and Republican parties for the 2020 election have specifically asserted Native issues within their broader policies.)

As a result of this categorization, as well as of undercounting, they get far less "political or justice attention" than other vulnerable populations, as Janeen Comenote, director of the National Urban Indian Family Coalition, tells MTV News. Understandably, then, many Native peoples are left with an antipathy for the U.S. government that fails to inspire action.

As 2020 approaches, activists are focused on the hows of it all: How to change a warranted wariness and reticence towards participating in U.S. politics; how to mobilize in the face of stagnancy; how young people like Weahkee, Herrera, and McCoy can organize their peers to take advantage of the opportunities presented by the election and the census, regardless of the shortcomings of both those events and the government that facilitates them.

“There's still a lot of resentment within our Native communities and I can absolutely understand where they're coming from,” McCoy says. “But at the same time, if we want to have change, if we want to move forward, we're going to have to get out and make our voices heard. Right now, the best way for us to do that is to turn in the census and to get out and vote.”

For a community that has been subjected to erasure in countless aspects of the United States’s past and present, all of this is easier said than done. “I think the hardest part is realizing every day that you're in this country that doesn't think you're still here,” Herrera explains. “It's hard to feel like you don't belong even though you're on your original homeland, you know? And so the sense of belonging, the sense of community, I think that is the most difficult part of navigating this world where you're not included at all.”

She adds: “That's why the more representation we get—whether that be local government, state government, federal—for Native youth is a chance for us to finally feel seen and to feel like these policies are going to be representative of us.”

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