Advocates for incarcerated Montanans gathered at the Capitol Monday to speak against how the correctional system fills out census forms on behalf of inmates.
Last month, activists found the Montana Department of Corrections had not included tribal affiliation when filling out census forms for incarcerated Native Americans. They say an inaccurate census count will result in insufficient funding for tribal services, such as healthcare and schools, during the next decade.
They brought up a variety of issues, including a lack of programming the DOC had promised, the expense of communicating with family, and their problems with how the DOC handles the Census.
Micah Braided Hair, a Northern Cheyenne tribal member, is one of several former inmates and family members of incarcerated people who testified at a recent Law and Justice Interim Committee meeting. He was released 60 days ago.
"I’ve never in the 15 years that I’ve done, been given a census form ever to be counted…DOC’s done it for me," Braided Hair said.
DOC Director Reginald Michael said the department uses booking data on census forms, which he says is sometimes incomplete. He said the DOC found 60 of the 445 inmates who identified as American Indian had not disclosed their tribal membership when taken into custody. The DOC contacted the inmates and received 57 responses.
"The Census [Bureau] allowed us to resubmit and clean up that data and we've done that. So we've tried to do as much as we can to correct that problem. And hopefully that will be sufficient," Michael said.
In an email, Michael told YPR that the DOC had asked the US Census Bureau if they could provide paper forms to incarcerated Native Americans, but his department was told to provide tribal affiliation information electronically.
Activists found this response problematic.
"The 2020 Census has critical repercussions for tribal nations," Laurie Little Dog chanted during a protest in front of the DOC following the meeting.
"You have no right to withhold census forms," she chanted.
Little Dog is a Native American Rights activist with Jicarilla Apache and Ute heritage.
She says many Native Americans are reluctant to disclose their Indigenous identity for fear of racist backlash. She says inmates contacted to update their forms likely did not include all Native Americans incarcerated in Montana.
"What needs to happen is everybody, not just Natives, every incarcerated person across the state of Montana, and across the country, needs to be given a form so that they can self-identify what they are, who they are, if they have tribal lineage. It needs to be a uniform process. And in Montana it has not happened yet," Little Dog said.
Little Dog has been particularly active for Indigenous rights in Montana prisons because her husband, Gabriel Little Dog, is currently incarcerated.
Little Dog says the stakes of not being counted for the correct tribe are too high to stop protesting. In 2019, the DOC reported that over 17 percent of Montana inmates are Native American. Only 6.5 percent of Montana residents are Indigenous according to the 2010 Census.
"We cannot let our most vulnerable fall through the cracks on this one. It means too much," she said.
More than 40 percent of Montana remains to be counted. Funding for 250 more census counters was recently approved.
The final date to be counted is currently Sept. 30. A bipartisan Senate bill to push back the deadline until at least Oct. 31 was proposed Tuesday.
Kaitlyn Nicholas is Yellowtone Public Radio's Report For America tribal affairs reporter.