Event helps boost census participation on Navajo Nation

Noel Lyn Smith
Farmington Daily Times

UPPER FRUITLAND — Attendance held steady at a Sept. 19 drive-thru event at Northern Edge Casino to boost participation in the 2020 census among members of the Navajo Nation.

Data from the once-a-decade head count of every person living in the United States and its five territories determines distribution of federal dollars and political representation.

This is the first time the census is being conducted primarily online, but questionnaires can also be completed over the telephone or by mail.

Arbin Mitchell, who supervises the tribe's 2020 Census office, said the overall self-response rate on Navajo was 19.9% as of Sept. 18.

While they are trying to increase participation before the Sept. 30 deadline, the count has been troubled by lack of internet access in communities and a shortage of census workers.

"If you're way out there in the middle of Navajo Nation and it doesn't work, then you have to find a place where it works," Mitchell said about internet connectivity.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, individuals were applying to work as census takers, but interest quickly diminished as concerns rose over the new virus, he said.

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez said the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority has provided some internet access by setting up temporary service in communities.

Nez said that another barrier is language, especially since census takers are not conducting face-to-face interviews because of the coronavirus.

When they visit homes, they leave census packets on door knobs, he added.

"Ten years ago, they would knock on the door and they would help translate all this information into Navajo and then help the elders fill out the information. This time you can't do that. You just hang it on the door and that's it," Nez said.

In April, the U.S. Census Bureau extended the end of counting from July 31 to Oct. 31 then announced last month that efforts would end on Sept. 30.

At left, Arbin Mitchell, who supervises the tribe's 2020 Census office, and Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez finish talking about the response to the census and food distribution event on Sept. 19 at Northern Edge Casino in Upper Fruitland.

The shortened time frame has resulted in two lawsuits filed by several non-profits, city and county governments.

The Navajo Nation joined the lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California against the census bureau and the U.S. Department of Commerce for expediting the deadline, dubbed as the "rush plan."

"The rush plan threatens to undercount 'hard-to-count' populations, which are primarily minority communities, including members of tribal nations," stated a Sept. 2 press release from the tribe's Department of Justice that announced the tribe was joining the lawsuit.

With the deadline looming, the Navajo Nation Gaming Enterprise wanted to help by conducting participant events at its casinos in New Mexico and Arizona.

Miss Navajo Nation Shaandiin Parrish loads a box of food on Sept. 19. The Navajo Nation president's office distributed food and supplies during the 2020 Census event at Northern Edge Casino in Upper Fruitland.

"The whole idea is to stimulate the Navajo people to take the census, which is so important for everybody," Northern Edge and Flowing Water Casino General Manager Cliff Ehrlich said.

Additional outreach is happening at events organized by the tribe's census office at shopping centers and during food distribution conducted by Nez's office at chapter houses.

At Saturday's event, boxes of food from World Central Kitchen and hygiene kits from CORE were handed out by members of the two non-profit organizations and by Miss Navajo Nation Shaandiin Parrish, President Nez, Vice President Myron Lizer and their staff members.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636 or by email at nsmith@daily-times.com.

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