Choctaw Nation census approaches a historic first

By Bradley Gernand

The Choctaw Nation’s approach to solving a serious regional difficulty is being noted by the United States Census Bureau as a “first” by any tribe in the United States.

Preparations for the 2020 United States Census are underway across the country, in some places more energetically than others. In the 2010 census, many regions, including most of Oklahoma, were underreported. Many households failed to turn in their census forms and the people living in them were not counted. This was especially true of southeastern Oklahoma.

Because its official population count was low for these communities, the federal government reduced the amount of aid allocated to this region. This is true, too, both of the Choctaw Nation, which relies on federal grants for 24% of its operating budget, and of the 10½ counties which comprise it.

The Choctaw Nation’s response to the issue is historic, according to the United States Census Bureau. “Nobody else is doing what you are doing,” said Charles Tippeconnic, the Census Bureau’s official liaison to the Choctaw Nation. “No other tribe is taking an active role in helping the cities and counties inside their service territories organize for the census. You are taking partnership to an entirely new level,” Tippeconnic said.

This is for good reason.

“We want all of Oklahoma to fare the best it can,” said Chief Gary Batton. “We all live, work, shop, go to school and contribute to our communities,” he added. “I absolutely believe a successful census will be important to increasing our prosperity during the next ten years, and beyond.”

Chief Batton established a steering group and began organizing the Choctaw Nation’s efforts for the upcoming census in the summer of 2019. The group planned a major effort to reach out to every Choctaw tribal member regardless of where they live. It quickly discovered the same was not true in the 10½ counties, where less local planning was underway. Only the towns of Broken Bow, Durant, and McAlester were organizing to ensure a successful Census.

“Many citizens didn’t fill out their census forms in 2010 because nobody told them how important it is. As a result, many people went uncounted and their cities and counties have received far less federal aid for the past ten years than they should have,” said Melissa Landers, a member of Chief Batton’s steering group.

In McCurtain County, the Choctaw Nation helped Idabel organize a committee, and then helped it and Broken Bow consolidate their efforts into a single, county-wide campaign to include the towns of Valliant and Wright City. Over 7,000 tribal members live in McCurtain County, and the Choctaw Nation is partnering actively with city and county leaders to reach out to everyone in the county.

“This is important,” said Chief Batton. “We’re helping the cities and counties organize because we need everybody living there to be represented in the Census.  2010 was a real mess, and we’ve been living with the aftermath for the past ten years. We absolutely are going to turn this around in 2020,” Chief Batton said.

In Poteau, the Choctaw Nation has helped organize the outreach committee serving Le Flore County. 

Karen Wages, chairperson of the Poteau Chamber of Commerce, noted how important it has been. “We’re so appreciative that the Choctaw Nation cares as much about our community as we do,” she said. “They’ve partnered with us at every step in the process.”

The tribe is coordinating with the Oklahoma Department of Commerce and the United States Census Bureau to make sure the count in 2020 is the best one possible. This includes generating and sharing data with the local jurisdictions about the severe undercounts which occurred in 2010. In McCurtain County, for example, the undercount was at least 62%.