Leonard Jones doesn’t remember a survey packet on the porch or a knock on his front door during the last census count.
But that doesn’t surprise him — not out here. Only family and close friends make the dusty 10-mile trek from the paved road, down dirt switchbacks lined by sandstone mesas, to his secluded home in northwestern New Mexico. There is no electricity, no running water, in the single-level sandstone structure.
“Few people know we’re out here,” Jones, who lives on the Navajo Nation reservation, said on a recent morning as his son Brett trimmed his hair. “We live in nature.”
“The thought of people coming out here and making us a part of any official count seems like a stretch, you know?”
As the 2020 census nears, concern about an undercount of Native Americans is gaining traction here and across the country.
Approximately 600,000 Native Americans live on tribal reservations, semi-sovereign entities governed by elected indigenous leaders. Here on the Navajo Nation — the country’s largest reservation, spanning portions of New Mexico, Arizona and Utah — roughly 175,000 people live in a mostly rural high desert area bigger than West Virginia.
While other reservations are smaller, most are also remote. And all are home to a longstanding distrust of the U.S. government. Those factors help make Native American reservations among the most difficult places to canvass during the census, the once-per-decade federal effort to find and tally every resident of the U.S.
In the 2010 count, nearly 1 in 7 Native Americans living on a reservation was missed, according to an audit by the U.S. Census Bureau. That adds up to 82,000 people overlooked and uncounted — equal to skipping the entire city of Santa Fe, New Mexico’s capital.
With seats in Congress and statehouses determined by population, political power is at stake. So is each reservation’s slice of more than $900 billion in annual federal spending doled out largely in accordance with census data.
“If a place doesn’t get a fair count, they don’t get their fair share,” said William O’Hare, a demographer and author who has studied the effects of errors in the census.
Getting a fair share is especially important in places like the Navajo Nation, said Seth Damon, speaker for the tribal council.
Roughly 85% of the reservation’s roads are unpaved. If there hadn’t been an undercount in 2010, Damon said, the tribe likely would have received more money from the Federal Highway Administration Tribal Transportation Program.
“For the Navajo Nation and Indian Country,” Damon said, “the census determines whether your dirt roads get graveled or paved, or whether your people move from dirt floors to a solid foundation.”
The Census Bureau’s struggles in 2010 resulted in more than 80% of reservation lands being ranked among the country’s hardest-to-count areas, according to a Times analysis of estimates published by the City University of New York Graduate Center.
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The upcoming count is also facing new challenges.
Budget cuts have forced the bureau to reduce staff and field testing. The nonpartisan Government Accountability Office has deemed the agency at “high risk” of fraud and mismanagement.
Next year’s effort will also shift to having many households filling out their forms online. The move is expected to cut costs and streamline the process, but some experts worry it will make it more difficult to catalog communities that do not have widespread Internet access. On the Navajo Nation, like many reservations, the majority of households are without a web connection.
Those changes have prompted experts at the Urban Institute, a nonprofit group that studies government policy, to project another undercount of Native Americans in 2020.
To avoid that outcome federal officials say they are banking on improved outreach efforts, including a door-to-door campaign dropping off forms in vulnerable areas.
Last month, Census Bureau officials visited New Mexico to meet with state and local officials and tribal leaders. The group traveled to homes near Albuquerque and heard firsthand testimony about the challenges of counting individuals on the Navajo Nation and other rural locales.
Jessica Imotichey, a member of the Chickasaw Nation, is one of many Native Americans working for the bureau to help prepare reservations. She says distrust is the most important barrier to overcome.
“It is very difficult to get folks to open the door if they don’t recognize you,” she said. “There is a lot of sensitivity in the relationship between the tribes and the federal government. That’s something we have to be real about.”
That lack of trust is a major issue for the bureau nationwide, amplified by the Trump administration’s plans to add a citizenship question to next year’s census form. The Supreme Court is expected to rule this month on whether the question can remain.
Some state governments are going further, allocating extra money to aid the count in a bid to avoid losing out on federal funding.
New Mexico’s budget coffers depend on nearly $7.8 billion a year from Washington for programs like Medicaid, food stamps and road repairs tied to the census. The New Mexico Legislature recently endowed a new state commission with $3.5 million to spend on ensuring an accurate count.
In May, members of the Navajo Nation created a similar panel and plan to advertise the importance of participation.
Eugenia Charles-Newton, a Navajo Nation council delegate, said hiring locals to help is also crucial.
“We’re the ones who know where people live,” she said. “Want a good count? Talk to us.”
Back on the reservation, outreach efforts are already underway.
On a recent afternoon, Jay DeGroat, who heads a tribal council chapter near Crownpoint, a town of about 2,000, rumbled down a dirt road, past pinyon pines and Indian paintbrush. The latter, a native wildflower, looked like ripe oranges sprawling across the high desert floor.
DeGroat — well-known in Navajo country for having designed the tribe’s flag — popped out of an SUV and headed toward a gray stucco hogan, a traditional Navajo dwelling that could hardly be distinguished from the road and had no address. But DeGroat knew it was there. Ahead of the census, he spends time visiting out-of-the-way residences to get a sense of when people are likely to be home. Many are gone for much of the day to sell their artwork.
Such knowledge is particularly valuable in Indian Country, where records are sporadic and many homes do not even have addresses, a problem tribal officials have asked the bureau to take on.
Inside the hogan, John Hoskie III and his sister, Johnelle, helped their father use nickel and copper to shape belt buckles, which they planned to sell at local rodeos. As they continued to work, DeGroat peppered them with questions.
“What can be done to help people know about the census?” DeGroat asked, gripping his cowboy hat.
“There needs to be locals doing the counting,” John said.
“The distrust of government is here,” Johnelle added. “It’s always going to be on the reservation.”
He and other local members share a common belief that relying on the federal government to take the lead in locating and enumerating everyone is a mistake.
“It’s on us,” he said.
About 35 miles away, Jones was back out on the porch of his secluded home, where his son had guided a pair of clippers powered by a rusted solar panel through his hair, crafting a medium fade.
Trailers with tin roofs and hogans dot the high desert land that stretches for 25 miles between his home and Crownpoint. Jones, 44, has lived much of his life on the Navajo Nation, where his ancestors herded sheep before the U.S. Army forced them away.
Inside the home Jones shares with his wife, son and parents, five 6-gallon buckets sit stacked in a corner. Each is etched, in black pen, with “drinking water.” Burning cedar crackles from a wood stove in the middle of the living room.
Jones, a pastor, travels hundreds of miles a week around the reservation spreading the gospel — sharing the faith that has sustained him during hard times. Recently, he said, the need for electricity has become much more urgent. Both of his parents have diabetes, and reliable phone service would ease concerns.
“It would also be ideal to have internet and better roads to get in and out,” he said, echoing the same issues that could affect the official count.
Jones said he’s not optimistic about being counted.
“Who’s going to make it here? No one knows we’re here,” he said, looking out at the empty horizon. “I just hope we’re not forgotten.”