Wednesday, April 7, 2010

"It's been an opportunity of a lifetime."

"War Paint' census tour in Great Falls

Tribune Staff Writer

An earnest effort to encourage the Rocky Mountain region's Native American population to fill out census forms and be counted during this year's tabulation effort brought the "War Paint" tour to Great Falls on Saturday.

The 2010 Census Denver Region Tribal Road Tour, nicknamed War Paint, complete with a bright yellow and orange vehicle with feathers and an eagle painted on it, is stopping on reservations and in towns with large populations of urban Indians in an effort to inform them about the importance of being counted. Saturday's stop was at the Great Falls Housing complex on Chowen Springs Loop.

Johnel Barcus, tribal partnership specialist for the Denver Regional Census Center, said the response among Native Americans in Montana has been impressive so far.

"We're doing really good," she said.

Since Montana's reservations opted to have residents counted through a door-to-door method that began March 22, the goal of the tour's stops in the state is to let people know that the census process is safe, important and easy. The 10-question form is the key to getting funding for Native American communities, Barcus said. Susie Aikman, the producer and driver for the Denver Regional Tribal Road Tour, said that many Native Americans she has talked since the tour began Feb. 8 have been receptive to filling out the form.

"Mostly positive," she said of the reception she has received. "They understand that this is important to get federal dollars that Native people have been left out of for 500 years."

Both Aikman and Barcus said that Native Americans are traditionally grossly undercounted in the census, which is conducted every 10 years to determine the country's population, the appropriation of House seats and the disbursement of federal dollars.

Barcus said that in addition to teaching people about the importance of the Census, the tour helps Native Americans learn how to properly fill out the form. One of the crucial elements is that after marking the box by "American Indian or Alaska Native" under question nine, which asks for the respondent's race, Native Americans should write in any and all tribes they belong to. She noted that though the Little Shell tribe based in Great Falls is not federally recognized, it is recognized as a tribe for census purposes.

Aikman said that as she travels the region and teaches people about the census, she learns how Native Americans live on various reservations in different states. She already has logged more than 6,000 miles in Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Nevada, Idaho and Montana.

"We've been in sandstorms, snowstorms, rainstorms — we've got caught in a cattle drive," she said, laughing.

"It has been exciting and exhausting," Aikman added. "It's been an opportunity of a lifetime."

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