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  6.  | How Alaskans Are Making the 2020 Census Count

How Alaskans Are Making the 2020 Census Count

by Aug 31, 2020Alaska Native, Government, Magazine

Emily Keneggnarkayaaggaq Edenshaw, executive director of the Alaska Native Heritage Center, speaks alongside Governor Mike Dunleavy and Census Bureau Director Steve Dillingham at the official 2020 Census kick-off at the Alaska Native Heritage Center on January 17.

First Alaskans Institute

ANCs, tribal organizations, and nonprofits get the word out to get the numbers in

Census enumerators kicked off the 2020 Census in Toksook Bay, Alaska, a small village on Nelson Island west of Bethel, on January 21. Though Census materials wouldn’t be mailed to the rest of the country until mid-March, the early arrival of enumerators to rural Alaska dates back to 1880. The early start is necessary to provide enough time to obtain an accurate count of the state’s residents.

“Alaska is definitely one of the hardest states to count, just because of the size and how our communities are really spread out and only accessible by plane or boat or other ways,” says Carmell Engebretson, communications manager with Bristol Bay Native Corporation (BBNC). “So, it’s definitely a challenge for Alaska Native people in those communities to be counted at times.”

Required by the US Constitution to take place every ten years, the Census aims to gather demographic data on every person living in the country. The data provides a snapshot of how the country’s population is distributed and breaks it down by age, sex, ethnic, and racial groups, explains Jeanette Durán Pacheco, media specialist with the Bureau’s Los Angeles Regional Office, which oversees Census activities in Alaska.

Census data guides the allocation of federal funding to local, state, and tribal governments—$675 billion annually over the next ten years, she says. It also determines the number of seats each state has in the House of Representatives and is used to redraw state legislative districts.

“Undercounting means that Alaska won’t receive its full share of federal funding for the next decade, so it will have a big impact if even one family isn’t counted,” Engebretson explains.

In the months leading up to the Census, government officials, advertising agencies, and tribal leaders worked together to create public outreach campaigns to encourage Alaska Native participation and ensure Alaska’s communities receive their fair share of federal funding.

Census Impact on Alaska Natives

Alaska Native communities receive roughly $3,500 annually in federal funds for each tribal member which is then used to support community programs, according to the Alaska Federation of Natives.

“In particular for tribal areas, Census data help tribal leaders plan programs their community needs: housing, construction, business development, schools, hospitals, Head Start, lunch programs in schools, as well as federal grants and scholarships,” Pacheco explains.

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BBNC encouraged shareholders to post pictures of themselves with their #BristolBayCounts stickers to BBNC’s social media channels and offered prizes for those who did. BBNC President and CEO Jason Metrokin (left) and Chairman of the Board Joe Chythlook pose with theirs.


Yet despite its importance in determining funding allocations, counts aren’t always accurate and certain populations are routinely underreported. During the 2010 Census, Alaska was hit doubly hard. According to Alaska Counts, a nonpartisan education initiative designed to share information about the Census, Alaska’s participation was the lowest of any state, with a 64 percent response rate. Alaska Natives were also underrepresented. Timothy Olson, associate director for field operations with the Census Bureau, said at a July press briefing that Alaska Natives and American Indians were undercounted by 5 percent, the highest of any group.

These low numbers are why Native corporations and other tribal leaders have taken an active role encouraging shareholders to complete the census.

“We know that the Census determines funding for local services and economic opportunities for the next decade,” says Megan Moore, senior director of corporate communications for NANA Regional Corporation. “Whether that’s federal funding for healthcare, Head Start, housing, public schools, or infrastructure projects, we know that those services are really valuable to NANA shareholders, so we support the effort.”

In addition to determining funding allocations, Census data is used to redraw political boundaries for state legislative districts, meaning an undercount can impact Alaska Native representation in state government.

“Ten years ago, when the Census was complete, the redistricting ended up really challenging the way the legislative districts were organized and kind of really disrupted how we had been operating,” says Barbara Blake, director of the Alaska Native Policy Center at the First Alaskans Institute. “The number of Alaska Native legislators did go down with the last Census; we at least lost two different seats to non-Natives due to redistricting.”

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Marketing the Census

The 2020 Census marks the first time the Census Bureau has designated a portion of its paid media budget to reach Alaska Native and American Indian populations: $7.55 million, or 2.5 percent of its total advertising budget, according to the Census website.

Work on that messaging began in 2016, with Montana-based G&G Advertising tasked with creating the campaign for Alaska Native and American Indians, says Gerald Gray, vice president of G&G Advertising and tribal chair of the Little Shell Tribe in Montana.

Through focus groups, he says, the agency found that what resonated with other populations—“‘Get your piece of the pie,’ that sort of money thing”—didn’t have the same impact with Alaska Natives and American Indians.

“What really came out of the focus groups, it was more about participating and ‘our youth and children are counting on us to shape our future’ because this Census data is used for programs and grants and things like that,” Gray says. “We were in Michigan, we were in Kotzebue, Riverside, California, Portland, all over the country, and that was kind of the cream that rose to the top. It was pretty consistent across all of the areas that we went to.”

On a statewide level, Native corporations and other Alaska Native groups began working with Census officials last year.

“We worked with representatives with Alaska Counts in conjunction with some of the other Alaska Native corporations and ANCSA corporations, just to learn more about what we could do to support census outreach,” Moore says.

The Bureau’s tribal partnership specialist was instrumental in helping Native leaders better understand the ins and outs of the Census, which helped them better understand where to focus their outreach efforts.

“One of the things we hear from folks is they just don’t understand the impact or the importance that the Census plays in our communities with federal funding,” Blake says. “Folks are just kind of unknowing about the actual, real implications.”

Messaging efforts were therefore focused on explaining the need for an accurate count and highlighting services dependent on federal funding. Explaining how to correctly complete the Census was another area of focus. For money to be allocated to the tribe, heads of household must identify solely as Alaska Native—not biracial, even if that is correct—and also indicate their tribal affiliation, Blake explains.

Public Outreach

Native corporations relied on a variety of media channels to promote the Census, including paid and earned media in newspapers and magazines, public service announcements, shareholder communications, and social media. They also made sure outreach materials were available in shareholder languages. Moore and Engebretson say that NANA and BBNC, respectively, worked with the Alaska Federation of Natives to translate scripts for public service announcements into Iñupiaq and Yup’ik.

Some outreach materials, such as shareholder communications, were created in-house and distributed via newsletters or special announcements. Others were taken from graphics and informational materials created by Alaska Counts and Alaska Federation of Natives, with corporations tailoring the message to their region.

“We kind of did a mix of both,” Moore says. “We ‘NANA-fied’ some of those materials to make them more specific to NANA shareholders, but really pointed shareholders to the Alaska Counts website. I think they had a lot of really great FAQs on their website, so it was a great resource.”

The First Alaskans Institute also reshared existing messaging, Blake says, and has “been trying to be creative in utilizing a lot of the indigenous or the artistic forms of the Census, memes, little informational pieces.”

They also organized a live Zoom Census game show modeled after “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” complete with lifelines, “minor Alaskan celebrities” as contestants, and a chance for audience members to win prizes.

“We’re trying to make it fun, so it’s not the same old Census messaging and lecturing,” Blake says.

BBNC used social media to get its shareholders excited about participating in the Census, mailing shareholders stickers printed with #BristolBayCounts and encouraging them to post pictures wearing the stickers to their Facebook and Instagram pages, Engebretson says.

“Our whole effort was to make sure our shareholders were aware that the Census was taking place and to build excitement about participating and being counted,” she says. “And we offered some different prizes for those that did post the photo, just to give that little incentive.”

A Pandemic and Other Hurdles

Like every other aspect of life in 2020, Census efforts came to a halt in mid-March with the arrival of COVID-19. Workers scrambled to obtain personal protective equipment for field operators and to create protocols to keep enumerators and residents safe, Al Fontenot, associate director for Decennial Census Programs, explained at a July press briefing.

Census deadlines were also extended–self-response and non-response follow-up deadlines were pushed from July to October 31, Fontenot said. The Bureau also requested four-month extensions to the deadlines to provide Census data to the President and the states, to April 30 and July 31, respectively. Despite the delays, Fontenot said the Bureau was on track to complete the counts in rural communities by August 31.

But the pandemic isn’t the only hurdle to accurately counting Alaska Native communities.

The sheer size of Alaska and the semi-transient lifestyle of rural residents practicing a subsistence lifestyle—a bigger problem in the summer than it would have been in the winter months—makes reaching all residents difficult.

Historical mistrust of the federal government and concerns regarding how Census information will be used also make people hesitant to participate.

“In a lot of the hard to count communities, it’s because there is the distrust with the government and concerns about confidentiality and how secure the Census is,” Pacheco says. Residents worried that enumerators will, for example, report them to housing authorities for exceeding occupancy levels or public benefits programs, may actively avoid completing the census. Those fears, however real, are unfounded.

“The Census shares none of this information, other than determining funding for the State of Alaska and federal funds that come into our state,” Blake says. “They’re not going to cross-reference with anything.”

In fact, census workers are prohibited by law from ever sharing data they obtain and face up to five years in prison or a $250,000 fine for doing so, Pacheco says.

With Census activities pushed until late Fall, Native corporations will continue to reach out to shareholders and encourage participation.

“We know that participating in the Census leads to direct benefits for our communities through federal funding, so we’re happy to support that effort in conjunction with our partners,” Moore says.

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