BOSTON — Native Americans weren't counted as part of the U.S. Census until the late 1800s and remain one of the hardest-to-count populations in the nation.

Indigenous people living on reservations were undercounted by more than 5 percent during the last decennial count in 2010, according to the Census Bureau, the highest among any racial or ethnic group.

In Massachusetts, where the state's tribes are relatively small and their people scattered across many communities, counting the Native American population is even more of a challenge.

With the 2020 Census less than a year away, state officials and tribal leaders have been organizing efforts behind the scenes with hope of getting a more accurate tally.

"The biggest challenge is finding them," said John "Jim" Peters, executive director of the Massachusetts Indian Affairs Commission, a state agency. "The population is so small and people are spread around the state, so it's not like you can go to a reservation to get a good count."

Peters, a member of the Mashpee Wampanoag, said his office is working with tribal leaders on outreach to the Native American community to encourage participation.

"We're gearing up to do a more concerted effort to get the word out," he said. "The technology has changed a lot over the past 10 years, which makes it easier to reach people."

Complicating the task is the fact that the seven-member Indian Affairs Commission is struggling to fill three vacancies on its governing board and has not formally met in more than two years.

For the state's two federally recognized Wampanoag tribes — the Mashpee and Gay Head on Martha's Vineyard — there's more at stake than just an accurate head count.

While the threat of an undercount puts the state at risk of missing out on federal funding for health care, roads and schools, tribal nations risk missing out on federal dollars for housing and employment training programs. The federal government distributes more than $1 billion a year to recognized tribes, according to the National Congress of American Indians.

Concerns about undercounted populations were highlighted by efforts from the Trump administration to add a citizenship question to the 2020 Census that was recently blocked by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The move raised the ire of congressional lawmakers and state leaders, stirring concerns that immigrants and their families — even those living in the U.S. legally — would avoid the count.

The constitutionally mandated U.S. Census is required to count the country's entire population, regardless of citizenship status. It asks questions about race, marital status and other topics.

For Native Americans, there's an option on the Census questionnaire to identify as "American Indian or Alaska Native," which the Census Bureau defines as "a person having origins in any of the original peoples of North and South America (including Central America), and who maintains tribal affiliation or community attachment."

But respondents must write in their tribal association in the box below the question to be counted as members of a specific tribe.

Questions on tribal enrollment are important for identity, but also funding, as the federal government conveys special status and benefits such as housing and tuition breaks only to tribes with which it has treaties.

But there are also concerns that Native Americans who list other races will skew the overall count of indigenous people. The 2010 Census found that 2.9 million identified as American Indian or Alaska Native alone. That figure nearly doubled among respondents who said they were American Indian or Alaska Native and another race.

An even wider gap was found in Massachusetts in 2010 when 50,705 respondents identified as American Indian and another race, compared to 18,850 who identified as Indian alone.

Overall, the number of Massachusetts respondents who identified as American Indian and another race increased by more than 30% from 2000 to 2010, according to the data.

Nationwide, an estimated one-third of the 5.3 million indigenous people are characterized as being in the "hard to count" category because of high poverty rates, a younger-than-average population, rural reservations, a lack of mailing addresses, and a general distrust of the federal government.

Massachusetts is considered one of the most difficult states to count indigenous people, with 33% living in hard-to-count tracts, according to the federal data.

Secretary of State Bill Galvin, whose office oversees the decennial count in Massachusetts, has acknowledged the unique challenges of counting the state's indigenous people in addition to immigrants, college students and the elderly.

Galvin's office created a Census count committee in response to concerns about undercounted populations amid the Trump administration's push for the citizenship question.

The committee is expected to discuss outreach to the state's Native American community at its meeting Sept. 10, according to Galvin's office.

"We're concerned about every hard-to-reach community, including the Native American population," said Eva Millona, executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrant Refugee Advocacy Coalition, who chairs the committee. "We've been reaching out to leaders of those communities and will be working with them to make sure everyone is counted."

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. 

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