Census 2020 opened in Oregon on Thursday with an elder from the Warm Springs Reservation, and a prayer for protection from illness.
Native Americans were significantly under counted in 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs chairman Raymond Tsumpti urged tribal members not to let that happen again, partly because the count affects hundreds of billions in federal funding.
“In my mind that’s only secondary. The primary reason is that we will have a voice that has been not heard for many generations,” Tsumpti said at a community gathering where about 100 people came and went.
It was a morning of speeches, a powwow with small children dancing and a taco luncheon. Meanwhile, Gov. Kate Brown was announcing a ban on gatherings of 250 people or more, in order to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.
The pandemic will actually speed up door-to-door census outreach on the reservation, so volunteers can bring the hardest to reach residents virus prevention information at the same time.
“We already had a plan to do the census, and now with the virus, we’re going to do it together,” said Caroline Cruz, head of the tribes' health and human services department, and a lead census count organizer.
“We know our community. We’re on 164,000 acres here,” Cruz said, adding that many residents don’t have internet access. To reach them, it’s crucial to know about the geography, the culture and the generational differences, she said.
“There’s always distrust, and so it’s our job to try to erase some of that fear because I’m not going to deny that some of us do still carry distrust, just in terms of our own historical story," Cruz said. "But, it’s our job to make sure that we are counted and get to the people the importance of being counted."
Cruz has been planning for months to bring people together to fill out their census forms over meals, raffles and dances. Now, those plans may need to adjust to the threat of a growing pandemic.
“If we have to make our gatherings smaller, we will do that. If we have to go to the locations, we’re going to do that. We’re optimistic we are going to get this done, and that we’re all going to be counted,” Cruz said, noting that the target population figure, based on tribal counts, is 5,000.
"I truly believe we’re going to get there," she said. "We have to have someone leading who is a believer.”