Tribal communities have low returns as U.S. Census set to begin door-to-door phase

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A coloring book developed to encourage people to return their census forms.

A coloring book to encourage Native Americans to fill out the census / Courtesy of New Mexico Native Census Coalition

While 99 percent of homes on the New Mexico side of the Navajo Nation have received their “Update Leave” census packet–a specific form with an identification number that is geo-tagged to the person’s home–four tribes in the state have yet to allow census workers to begin dropping the packets door to door because of COVID-19 concerns. 

Jicarilla Apache and the Pueblos of Zia, Pojoaque and Acoma have hired tribal members to drop packets at doors but haven’t started the training necessary to begin the work, Census officials said Tuesday during a media briefing. 

The door-to-door packet delivery is designed to target rural and hard-to-reach homes. In August, census workers will begin doing in-person visits to homes that haven’t returned the packets. But how that will work in tribes that have yet to start the drops at the door remains unclear. The deadline to complete the census is October 31. 

“They are in lockdown right now, that’s why we are not able to progress,” said Cathy Lacey, the U.S. Census Regional Director in Denver that oversees the operation in New Mexico tribes. “It could be that we’re never able to get on (these particular tribal lands) and do our Update Leave operation and we are in talks right now that we absolutely have to get on in order to do our non response follow up operation.”

Because tribal residents are encouraged to wait until they receive their packet, these communities have some of the lowest census returns in the nation. According to the latest census data, the return rate for Acoma was 11.1%, for Pojoaque, 30.2%, for Zia, 22.8%, and for Jicarilla Apache, 6.3%. 

The census count every 10 years has a large impact on the federal funding tribes receive over the following decade. Most tribal communities in the country have completed delivery of the census packets to tribal homes,  and are aggressively encouraging residents to submit their form. 

It’s impossible to catch a commercial television or radio break without seeing or hearing an ad for the Census. The latest national ad campaign centers around a “social distance powwow” that connected some tribal communities during pandemic lockdowns. 

In New Mexico, the latest round of outreach includes a media blitz across all platforms, including radio and digital billboards operated by tribes. A coloring book with designs from local New Mexico artists was printed and is available for download. Phone banks are operating as a means to avoid direct contact.

Some tribal leaders offer incentives such as gift cards to boost return rates. 

For communities that have started or completed Update Leave their responses have significantly increased. Nearly half of Cochiti and Santo Domingo Pueblo have responded. But even with the increase, each of New Mexico’s 23 tribal communities is still well below the national average of 62 percent.

Native Americans that live in Albuquerque who have yet to respond will receive a reminder in the mail. The Census is sending postcards this week to more than 34 million households with mailing addresses. To date, 92 million homes have returned their questionnaire. 

People with a mailing address can respond online at 2020census.gov, by phone or by mail. Anyone with a P.O. Box is urged to wait until they receive their packet or until a census worker arrives at their door. 

Latest tribal census returns:

Acoma 11.1 

Cochiti 49.6 

Isleta 26.3

Fort Sill NA

Jemez 34.1 

Jicarilla 6.3 

Laguna 24.3 

Mescalero 21.3 

Nambe 33.5 

Navajo Nation 10.3 

Ohkay Owingeh 23.7 

Picuris 29.6  

Pojoaque 30.2  

San Felipe 25.4 

San Ildefonso 38.9 

Sandia 38.3 

Santa Ana 41 

Santa Clara 26.7  

Santo Domingo 49.7  

Taos 29.8  

Tesuque 19.8 

Zia 22.8 

Zuni 32.8

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