Folks driving past Glacier Family Foods on Monday, July 27, were likely to have noticed a booth with signs saying, “Natives Count” and a helpful Western Native Voice (WNV) volunteer offering to help folks complete their 2020 Census form. The outreach effort is the first of many planned by WNV, not only because of its importance in the allocation of federal funding and representation, but also because of the complications introduced by the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to Tracie Moss of WNV, the national average response to the 2020 Census so far is around 62% while Montana’s response has been a bit lower at 56%. Among the seven Montana reservations, Flathead leads the way at 42%, followed by Ft. Peck at 30%, Blackfeet 18%, Ft. Belknap 14%, Crow 6% and Northern Cheyenne 5%.
“The highest undercount in the last Census was Native Americans, so the message is they’re at risk of losing lots of money,” Moss said. “We thought we would be knocking on doors, but we can’t do that, and we struggle on reservations which have stricter guidelines than other places. As a result, community organizers can’t go out, so we’re working with social media, especially at Northern Cheyenne and Crow.”
Moss notes that several issues with the Census were created by the coronavirus pandemic, particularly with schools and libraries being shut down, eliminating computer access for many people.
Ta’jin Perez, also of WNV, notes time runs out on being counted in the Census on Halloween, Oct. 31, but Native Voice’s efforts began a while ago.
“We’ve been working at this since last summer with outreach, telling people it’s coming and it’s important for funding for the next 10 years,” Perez said. “And we’ve been thinking about it since 2018, about our goal and getting foundations to pitch in to get the word out to Indian Country.”
Again, the virus has called for a thoughtful response.
“The coronavirus complicates the fieldwork so we have to be creative with activities like the drive-through,” Perez said, adding that the outreach on July 27 was the first “experimental” activity by Western Native Voice, and if successful it is hoped it may be repeated on all of Montana’s seven reservations.
With in-person opportunities being limited, Western Native Voice has added yard signs to its outreach activities.
“The yard signs people are beginning to see appearing around town represent an effort to keep the conversation alive,” Perez said, “especially with the pandemic, when people have other priorities.”
Future outreach events are being planned and will be announced as the plans are finalized.