The decennial U.S. census begins in a few months. The government determines how to distribute millions of federal dollars to programs, grants and Native American tribes through the data collected by the U.S. Census Bureau. Filling out the form truthfully and accurately remains one of the best ways to ensure the Tribe remains vibrant and an essential part of the broader community.

The census’ methods result in a habitual undercount of Indigenous people. The Washington Post called American Indians and Alaska Natives “one of the most undercounted minority groups in the country” with a 4.8 percent discrepancy in the 2010 census, according to the Census Bureau.

“Census takers in the past have been blasted for not doing a great job of … assisting Native Americans in self-identifying as such if they’re enrolled members of a tribe,” said Citizen Potawatomi Nation Self-Governance Director Kasie Nichols. “They haven’t been sensitive culturally or otherwise to collecting that information.”

During the 2020 census, the bureau will distribute only short-form surveys, making it more critical to know how and why to fill out the form to give accurate data.

Data at CPN

Several departments across CPN use census numbers, including Workforce Development and Social Services, education, self-governance, and safety and housekeeping.

“It’s very important information, and it’s important because it’s translated to federal dollars for us,” Nichols said.

A few of the Tribal programs that depend on and receive aid from federal grants and organizations include Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act services for the Tribal area’s unemployed, child care, Department of Labor workforce funds, Housing and Urban Development resources for Indigenous people in Oklahoma, and more.

Other nonprofits and organizations that distribute funds reference census numbers as well.

In 2013, the American Red Cross granted CPN a portion of the capital needed to build storm shelters in the Nation’s jurisdiction following a natural disaster that destroyed land and houses. Safety and Housekeeping Director Tim Zientek showed a need through the numbers.

“We were awarded … in part due to the fact that we had those census numbers and knew how many Natives were within our jurisdictional area plus how many Tribal members when we went through Tribal Rolls,” he said.

Self-Governance Grants Analyst Jeremy Arnette says grant application processes also often use census data as a snapshot of CPN.

“It can be a contributing factor paired with other things,” he said. “And we don’t generally have control over what gets used, so we want all of the data sources to be as advantageous as possible.”

As Pottawatomie County’s biggest employer and a pillar in the eastern periphery of the Oklahoma City metro, CPN utilizes the data to determine its economic impact on the area, that effect on the larger Native population in the state, and worth to prospective businesses partners and employers.

“I’m finding new organizations that are volunteer organizations as we go along that their sole purpose is to reach out to Native American tribes that need assistance during disasters,” Tim said.

From a self-governance perspective, the issue regarding the data boils down to “ensuring that the Citizen Potawatomi Nation is always receiving whatever it is entitled to receive,” according to Nichols.

Selecting “American Indian”

In 2010, the Census Bureau did not send out long-form surveys for the first time in 70 years.

The bureau sent out the first American Community Survey in 2005, which replaced the long-form questionnaire. It distributes the ACS every month to a small number of households and aggregates data on a rotating schedule, generally providing estimates for responses every one to five years.

CPN Workforce Development and Social Services’ Employment and Training Assistant Director and Grants Coordinator Margaret Zientek believes both the census and ACS fall short.

“It’s a sample; they’re doing nothing but sampling and projecting. It’s a hit and miss,” she explained. “When you have Tribal rolls, it says we have 34-35,000 people, but census says you have 1,400; you know there’s an error.”

The small number of households chosen and underrepresentation add to the importance of filling out both surveys.

One of the most crucial questions on the census defines the householder. If only one member of a family is not a citizen of a federally recognized tribe and they identify them as the householder, the census records the entire household as such, which includes enrolled children.

Labeling the Indigenous person the householder allows for more accurate Native representation in the federal population data.

“If you’re a Native or you live in a home where maybe you’re not Native but a spouse is or your children are, (make sure) that they are counted as Native because that makes an impact to not just our department but across the board,” Tim said.

The “Race” section under the 2020 census includes the ability to check multiple boxes to increase specificity and accuracy. The survey also provides space to write out a tribal affiliation. Selecting Native American ancestry on the form, whether alone or in combination with another race makes the data more reliable.

Inclusion and representation in everything from advocacy to politics relies on an accurate calculation of Indigenous people.

Local and national

“For program funding, ensuring that the AI/AN, American Indian/Alaskan Native, population is not undercounted is really an important issue,” Nichols said.

Arnette expanded, highlighting that while Tribal members outside of Oklahoma cannot physically use services bound by jurisdiction, services CPN members utilize everywhere use census numbers as well.

“CPN tribal members nationwide should answer accordingly because a program could serve them in their area or serve Native Americans in their area,” he said. “And they could be counted in their area … for the same purpose.”

According to Tim, tribes as a whole receive federal help and obtain more local dollars as the number of Indigenous citizens increases.

“If they’re not counted as Native, then they don’t exist as far as the federal government goes,” he said. “But the federal government has a trust responsibility to support Native American tribes, federally recognized tribes. And if the numbers aren’t there, then, of course, their support is going to be less.”

Representation requires the U.S. government to acknowledge colonization and that American Indian people deserve assistance.

“Just because you might be Citizen Potawatomi and not living here in Oklahoma, but you live in California or Wisconsin or Florida or Texas or wherever, you’re still Native American and need to be counted as such,” Tim said.

Arnette also explained the necessity of updating decade-old numbers.

“Assuming you’re in an area where population is increasing, the further you get away from a census date, the worse that data is for you if your population is growing because you’re reporting potentially now 10-year-old data,” he said.

Participation matters on every level.

Next year will be the first time citizens have the option to fill out the survey online. Read more about the census at