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COVID-19 Pandemic Complicates Census Outreach On Wind River

U.S. Census Bureau

The Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho Tribes have both mounted outreach efforts to ensure their members have the tools to complete the 2020 census. But the COVID-19 pandemic could get in the way of a complete count on the Wind River Reservation.

Native people living on reservations are among the least likely to participate regardless. In 2010, the Census Bureau estimates that group was undercounted by nearly 5 percent. Michael Yellowplume, who heads up census outreach for the Northern Arapaho Tribe, said that translates to underfunding of programs that many tribal members rely on.

"A lot of families depend on [Temporary Assistance for Needy Families,] and the Indian Health Service and things like that," Yellowplume said. "The government funds all of that. So, if we're low on numbers, we're going to be low on funding that you need for the people."

Historically, he said some Native people have feared sharing personal information, like the number of people living in their home, with the government. At an educational event last month, Yellowplume explained to tribal members that census information is confidential, and not shared with any federal, state, or tribal agencies. But similar events scheduled to take place in March and April were cancelled to help slow the spread of COVID-19, and to comply with the Wind River Inter-Tribal Council's stay-at-home order.

The pandemic has also thrown a wrench in plans to help those who lack internet connectivity fill out this year's census, which is being conducted primarily online. According to Wind River Internet, a provider owned by the Northern Arapaho Tribe, only about a third of homes on Wind River are connected to the internet. The Northern Arapaho Census Committee had partnered with Wind River Internet to set up wifi hotspots and census-taking laptop stations at community halls around the reservation.

"The plan to use the community halls on the inside is kind of dead," said Patrick Lawson, executive manager of Wind River Internet. "What we have done is set up public hotspots at those locations."

Lawson said free wifi donated by Wind River Internet is available in the parking lots of Wyoming Indian High School and Blue Sky Hall in Ethete, and Great Plains Hall in Arapahoe. The company is also working to set up hotspots in Fort Washakie, Lander and Riverton.

"That way people can go over there with their census information and if they've got a phone or a tablet or a laptop or something from school - they could borrow their kid's Chromebook -- they could do it [in the parking lot]," Lawson said.

The Census Bureau delayed the start of door-to-door field operations to April 15, and extended the deadline for filling out the census by two weeks to mid-August. In a social media post this week, Yellowplume urged tribal members not to let the pandemic stop them from participating.

"I am asking everyone to get counted. These numbers are very crucial to our people not just for funding but to get the right amount of money to cover all expenses for everyone for the next 10 years," Yellowplume wrote. "If we do not get the right count, then we are missing out on a lot of funding to service out people."

Have a question about this story? Contact the reporter, Savannah Maher, at smaher4@uwyo.edu.

Savannah comes to Wyoming Public Media from NPR’s midday show Here & Now, where her work explored everything from Native peoples’ fraught relationship with American elections to the erosion of press freedoms for tribal media outlets. A proud citizen of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, she’s excited to get to know the people of the Wind River reservation and dig into the stories that matter to them.
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