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Challenge 2000: counting the first Americans

It stands as one of the great ironies of the 1990 census: The nation's earliest inhabitants were undercounted the most.

The Census Bureau estimates it missed some 12.2 percent of native Americans the last time around. That's why it is reaching out to tribes across the United States for Census 2000 - and why most tribes are reaching back.

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"Of all the people that shouldn't be undercounted, it shouldn't be Indian tribes," says John "Rocky" Barrett Jr., chairman of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation here in Shawnee, Okla. "I have the name of every single Potawatomi in the United States in that computer over there."

He motions to a personal computer behind his desk. At last count, the tribe had 24,942 members. (In 1990, before a growth spurt within the tribe, the census counted 16,763.)

Tribal governments are keen to get an accurate count because they often provide their own government services. As dependent sovereign nations, they're allowed to offer education, healthcare, nutrition, and other programs. Then the federal government reimburses them.

The Citizen Potawatomi Nation receives more than $8 million a year from various federal agencies. If the tribe got a decent count, Mr. Barrett estimates it would get another $1 million. While many tribal leaders are anxious to cooperate with the Census Bureau, their members aren't always as eager.

"The Indian does not trust the white man in any way," says Merrilyn Livermon, attorney for the Absentee Shawnee Tribe, which also inhabits the area. "They don't want to have Social Security cards. If they have a Social Security number, they're not going to give it to you."

In upstate New York, even some tribal leaders are reluctant to cooperate with the Census Bureau, despite its efforts to hire native Americans to go door to door and, for the first time, to check its address rolls against the tribes' membership rolls.

Many native Americans live traditionally, far off the beaten track, making it difficult to find them.

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The Potawatomi, however, have taken a lead role in cooperation. Their newspaper has run ads urging members to participate; their radio station has interviewed Census officials and is setting up a monthly Census Bureau radio program, and on April 1 - a year before census day - they hosted a meeting between Census officials and area tribes.

All of Oklahoma's 37 Indian tribes now have liaisons working with a Census 2000 coordinator. Barrett is confident the Citizen Potawatomi Nation count will be better this time. "We're not going to get them all," he says. "But I bet you we get 98 percent."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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