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KUER’s Southeast Utah Bureau is based in San Juan County. The Southwest Utah Bureau is based in the St. George area. Both initiatives focus on local government, public lands and the environment, indigenous issues, faith and spirituality and other topics of relevance to Utahns.

Census Workers On The Navajo Nation Race To Catch Up With Less Than A Month To Finish Count

Halchita Navajo Nation KG.jpg
Kate Groetzinger
Halchita is a census-designated place on the Navajo Nation in San Juan County, Utah. The nation has some of the lowest census response rates in the country, and some are worried there won’t be enough time to get an accurate count. The population in Hachita was 266 according to the 2010 census.

The Navajo Nation’s census self-response rate is lagging far behind the rest of Utah. Only around 18% of households on the Nation have filled out the census so far, compared to nearly 70% statewide.

Part of the reason that number is so low is that most Navajo residents weren’t able to respond to the questionnaire until mid-June because they don’t have standard street addresses. Workers began delivering packets to homes with a special code identifying their location on June 11. The Nation’s response rate at that time was just 0.8%.

But the Tribe’s 2020 census director, Arbin Mitchell, said that even after receiving the packets, not everyone knew what to do with them.

“For the previous census, you knock on the door, somebody answers, you tell them ‘Here’s the packet,’” Mitchell said. “But because of COVID we just hung it on the door handle, so a lot of our elders probably wondered ‘What is this?’”

The self-response rate on the Navajo Nation was up to 15% at the beginning of August, when census workers started conducting in-person questionnaires for the Bureau’s non-response follow up operation. So far, workers have visited about a third of households on the reservation, according to numbers released by the Bureau this week, bringing the total response rate for the Nation up to 52.8% as of Sept. 1.

While that’s a big improvement, it still lags behind the state’s current rate of 87%.

Earlier this spring, the U.S. Census Bureau announced the non-response follow up operation would be extended through Oct. 31 to make up for COVID-19 related delays. But the Bureau decided to move the deadline up to the end of this month to accommodate the White House’s request that they deliver population numbers for redistricting before President Trump leaves office.

That cuts the non-response follow-up period to 57 days — about half of what it was during the last census — and could mean a huge undercount on the Navajo Nation, according to the tribe’s Census Liaison, Norbert Nez.

“The time is very short,” Nez said. “We have to hope for a miracle to get everything completed.”

The Navajo Nation joined a federal lawsuit this week to restore the Oct. 31 deadline, according to James Tucker, vice chair of the Census National Advisory Committee. Tucker also serves as a pro-bono attorney for the Native American Rights Fund, and said shortening the non-response follow up period could lead to an undercount in many tribal areas.

“Literally tens of millions of dollars will be lost, especially for larger reservations like the Navajo Nation,” Tucker said. “It really matters.”

Navajo people could also lose political representation through federal, state, and local redistricting processes, he added.

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