Census Bureau Makes Effort to Count American Indians: Distrust of White Culture Has Kept Them off the Tally

By Duin, Julia | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), September 1, 1999 | Go to article overview

Census Bureau Makes Effort to Count American Indians: Distrust of White Culture Has Kept Them off the Tally


Duin, Julia, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


Filmed in shades of sepia and blue and white, the ad is an obvious effort toward cultural sensitivity.

Raymond, a small boy with long, black hair, is shown making his way from a mailbox through a rural landscape, accompanied by his dog. He bears an envelope for his grandmother, an elderly white-haired woman wearing a beaded necklace. An Indian flute and drum echo softly in the background. As Raymond smiles at his grandmother, the woman pencils in "American Indian" on the census form.

"Generations are counting on this. Don't leave it blank," says a male voice-over. The census form "is a small investment of your time," it continues.

Because the 1990 census undercounted the country's population by as much as 4.4 million, the U.S. Census Bureau has for the first time mounted a paid ad campaign to round up as many tallies as possible for 2000. Part of its strategy is to aim ads toward dozens of ethnic groups, including American blacks, Africans, Hispanics, Asians and other varieties of immigrants.

Its 60-second Indian-related ad, running Nov. 1 to June 1, is aimed at America's most undercounted minority. Although the country's 550 tribes were estimated at 10 million by the 1990 census, Indians were undercounted by as much as 12.2 percent or 2.5 million, census officials say. This is possibly because of their historic suspicion of the U.S. government.

Part of the problem is location. Unlike other hard-to-reach people, Indians are spread across reservations and homes ranging from the suburbs of Miami to Alaska's Northern Slope. Which is why Young & Rubicam, a New York ad agency retained by the Census Bureau to do a $167 million national marketing campaign, selected an Albuquerque, N.M., firm for its expertise on Indians. G&G, which has nine employees, may be the nation's only ad group that specializes in the American Indian market.

In the spring of 1998, G&G came up with the aforementioned ad, worded to appeal to any brand of Indian culture. "In the circle of life, we speak not only for ourselves, but for all our people, our native people," the voice-over says, referring to the Indian reverence for circle symbolism.

"Being silent means no one will know of your reservation's need for health facilities, schools, housing and roads." Census numbers will dictate how $180 billion in federal funds will be distributed to social programs nationwide.

"There never has been a campaign of this magnitude," says Michael Gray, 33, founder and president of the ad firm. "In 1990, there were a lot of public service announcements running at 2 a.m. This year, the ads will be on prime time and drive time."

This is to counteract the U.S. census' poor mail-in response rate of 65 percent in 1990. Those who do not mail in their forms require a visit from census takers. Each visit costs the Census Bureau $12 to $36.

Some of the country's hardest-to-reach citizens live in "Indian country," which includes parts of three southwestern states - Arizona, New Mexico and Utah - the homeland for dozens of tribes. The Navajo reservation, the nation's largest, straddles all three states. Many of its inhabitants live on isolated farms with their sheep, miles from any sort of communication.

G&G also aims for a diaspora of Indians scattered nationwide in an invisible country of sorts that includes 45,000 people in Los Angeles and 30,000 in New York City. At least 60 percent of all Indians live outside reservations. The states with the largest Indian populations, Oklahoma and Alaska, have no reservations. …

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