Battered by the virus, tribes race to boost census count

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Lauri Dawn Kindness, left, helps a family participate in the U.S. Census as part of a campaign to increase Native American participation in the count, on the Crow Indian Reservation, in Lodge Grass, Mont. on Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2020. Some predict a historic undercount of Native Americans in this year's census as the coronavirus complicates efforts to encourage participation. (AP Photo/Matthew Brown)

LODGE GRASS, Mont. – When Lauri Dawn Kindness was growing up, her hometown on the Crow Indian Reservation had an arcade, movie theater, gas stations and family cafe along streets shaded by towering cottonwood trees near a bend in the Little Bighorn River. Today, there's only a small grocer and a propane dealer among the deserted lots scattered through downtown Lodge Grass.

Kindness is back here after more than a dozen years in the U.S. Army, including four combat tours, and she wants to help her people. One essential step, she said, is an accurate count on the once-a-decade U.S. census, which will determine how much federal money flows in for housing, schools, health care and other dire needs.

Reaching a full count on most reservations now looks nearly impossible. Less than a month before the Sept. 30 deadline, just a fraction of people have been counted on Crow land, where the coronavirus pandemic has taken a toll.

The Trump administration has pushed the Census Bureau to speed up the timeline for the count, and the Republican-controlled Senate failed to pass an extension allowing it to continue into next year. That has exacerbated concerns by civil rights groups and others of hard-to-count communities getting missed, especially people of color like Native Americans.

So Kindness, an activist for a Native American nonprofit, spends her days sweating in a mask and face shield under the merciless summer sun, urging drivers to fill out the forms at drive-thru census sign-up stations, including in Lodge Grass, known among the Crow as Aashbacheeitche, or Valley of the Chiefs.

“Our ancestors fought for a reason — for us to be here,” she said. “At the end of the day, if I’m tired and exhausted because I’ve made just a little bit of an impact on somebody ... then I feel good. The fight was worth it.”

With millions of federal dollars for impoverished Native American communities on the line, tribes are racing to avoid being undercounted — again — in the 2020 census. Only 24% of residents of Montana tribal areas had been counted as of Sept. 1, woefully lagging the national rate of 85%. There are more than 300 reservations nationwide, and almost all trail significantly behind the rest of the country in the count.

There have long been geographic and cultural challenges counting people on Native lands. But the pandemic has dealt a devastating new setback, with lockdowns keeping census takers away as Indian Country has struggled with disproportionate numbers of infections and a lack of internet access that prevents people from filling out the questionnaire online.