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Originally published Wednesday, May 26, 2010 at 10:02 PM

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Census Bureau tackles undercount of Native Americans

Increased efforts by the Census Bureau to reach Native Americans and other populations appear to be paying off. By taking a government-to-government approach with tribes, the bureau hoped to inspire them to take ownership of the process — and Washington's Tulalip Tribes are a leading example.

Seattle Times staff reporter

U.S. Census 2010

Important dates at a glance

Fall 2009: Beginning of recruitment for 2010 census takers

March 2010: Census forms mailed or delivered to households

April 1, 2010: Census Bureau's target date for submission of completed forms

April to July 2010: Census enumerators visit households that did not return mail-in forms

December 2010: Bureau delivers population information to president for apportionment

Source: U.S. Census Bureau

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Several times a week, Tulalip Reservation resident Roberta Belanich gathers her questionnaires and heads out to the homes of neighbors who haven't returned their Census 2010 forms.

Belanich is an Alaska Native, a member of the Haida and Tlingit tribes, but came to the reservation in Marysville through marriage in 1981. She remembers when a nearby hill was all trees. "Now it's all houses," she said. "That's all happened in the last 10 years."

Little more than half the reservation's residents took part in the 2000 count, reflecting a long pattern of nonparticipation among Native Americans whose deep-rooted skepticism of the federal government, among other factors, has made them historically one of the country's most undercounted groups. The issue is especially keen on reservations, where the U.S. Census Bureau estimated it had undercounted the population by more than 12 percent in 1990.

"If anybody should feel a disconnect from the government, it's Native Americans," said Deni Luna of the bureau's regional center in Seattle. "... There's still this feeling of, 'Don't trust the government, because this is how we got wiped out.' "

Locally grown, door-to-door enumerators such as Belanich are part of the bureau's efforts to change that.

The outreach efforts seem to be paying off for the bureau, which in 2000 reduced to less than 1 percent its estimated undercount of American Indians and Alaska Natives living on reservations.

That was similar to undercount figures for the nation's Hispanic population and less than the nearly 2 percent estimated undercount for the black population.

This time around, the bureau looks to continue that success.

Locally, tribes such as the Muckleshoot, Puyallup, Lummi and Quinault are returning their census forms in greater numbers, but maybe none more so than the Tulalip Tribes, whose return rate by last month had hit 70 percent — even before enumerators such as Belanich hit the streets. In 2000, the Tulalip final return rate was 54 percent. The rate reflects everyone living on the reservation, including nontribal members.

Next Thursday, the Tulalip Tribes plan a news conference to thank the bureau for its efforts. "We're deeply appreciative of the Census Bureau for understanding that Indian Country was underrepresented 10 years ago," said tribal Chairman Mel Sheldon.

At first Belanich took the $17.50-an-hour, part-time job just for extra income, but she said she now sees the importance of what she's doing. "I didn't realize that finding out how many people live in certain areas and stuff could help with the schools and roads," she said.

Accurate population counts, she found out, help tribes receive their fair share of federal funds. That's her message as she goes door to door now: You want better land use? Speedy emergency assistance? Health and education services? Then fill out your census forms.

Few households have balked, she said. One woman, ill, didn't want to be troubled; another insisted she'd already sent her form in. "Everyone else was pretty cooperative," she said. "It was just, like, they forgot."

Reversing trend

Nationwide, census participation rates declined across the board from 1970 to 1990. Heading into its 2000 count, the bureau began widespread outreach efforts aimed at hard-to-count communities and made its first gains in 30 years.

The bureau appears headed toward similar success this year. Nationally, 72 percent of households have mailed in their census forms, while both Seattle (75 percent) and Washington state (74 percent) bettered that rate.

The bureau has conducted outreach efforts across the board to undercounted communities, said Sonny Le, of the bureau's Seattle regional office. In the Hispanic community, it has partnered with influential television networks such as Telemundo and Univision to get the word out.

It has been harder, Le said, to reach out to African Americans, a population that tends to be less concentrated. "In order to mobilize the community around the census, we need an infrastructure," he said.

Infrastructure helps explain why the bureau's biggest gains in the past 20 years have been made on reservations, but that has been no simple task. Distrust persists on tribal lands where, for example, structures that once housed boarding schools linger as reminders of an era when Indian children were forcibly placed into harsh, military-style programs meant to assimilate them into general society.

"We do not forget our history," Tulalip Chairman Sheldon said. "It hasn't always been the best of relationships ... but there's a new era here, and we're looking forward with optimism."

The bureau partnered with groups such as the National Congress of American Indians and took a government-to-government approach, making formal presentations to each of 564 federally recognized tribes and asking permission to conduct operations on tribal lands.

"It's a sense of, 'We're asking you as a sovereign entity to help us,' rather than, 'This is what you shall do,' " the bureau's Luna said.

The bureau also sought enumerators with tribal roots or residences. By offering respect and support, the agency hoped to inspire tribes to take active roles in the count.

Spreading the word

Across the country, tribes threw informational parties to get the word out. Locally, the Puyallups ran ads on their video billboard just off Interstate 5, while the Muckleshoots repainted a tribal van with census slogans that beckoned to locals as it drove around.

On the Tulalip Reservation, more than 500 households attended a census party, drawn by ads on the tribe's budding cable channel and informational fliers created by tribal members and featuring Tulalip imagery.

As part of the effort, Tulalip policy analyst Theresa Sheldon recruited tribal members to pose for census posters. The bureau had provided similar materials, but she believed familiar faces would be more effective.

"The really important thing was for them to see someone they knew, and to know they were Tulalip," she said. "It doesn't matter if you have other minorities on there if they're not from your actual tribe."

In addition to issues of distrust, other challenges exist — for instance, she said, young tribal apartment dwellers sometimes didn't realize they needed to fill out the forms. "They take it that their mother or grandmother runs the household, even if they have their own roof," she said. "They still go by their elders' rules."

Featuring young people on the posters, she said, helped attract their attention. "They knew that this was not just an older person's thing to worry about," she said.

After some people had posed for the pictures, they asked her: What is the census? "I had to explain, it's this thing that comes every 10 years. ... People were, like, 'This is cool.' "

Marc Ramirez: 206-464-8102 or mramirez@seattletimes.com

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