Does society even care about Native American people, issues?

By Karen Lincoln Michel
Special to Navajo Times

Jan. 30, 2014

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Cynthia-Lou Coleman verbalized something that I hadn’t allowed myself to consider seriously until now: People don’t care about Native Americans and their concerns.

Coleman, a professor and researcher at Portland State University and a member of the Osage tribe, said she came to that realization in the 1980s when she couldn’t find data on Native American voting.

"The conclusion I came to was that it’s because nobody cares," Coleman said in a telephone interview on Saturday. "Nobody was doing studies on it because nobody who had the authority to write about it cared enough about it. So I had to give it up and I ended up doing work on environmental journalism instead."

I have faced that same problem repeatedly when researching data regarding Indian Country. And although I believe there are many people who care about Native issues, I understand what Coleman means about decision-makers not caring enough to include Native people in socioeconomic research and other studies that have the power to help bring about change.

Coleman, who studies science communication and specializes in issues that impact Native Americans, said she understands why national polls don’t include statistics for groups like Native people. Their population size is a small percentage of the total U.S. population.

The U.S. Census Bureau states there are 5.2 million American Indian and Alaska Natives, either alone or in combination with one or more races, living in the U.S. Of this number, 2.9 million identified as American Indian and Alaska Native alone.

So if the total number of people surveyed is a couple of thousand or fewer, Coleman said, the number of Native American responses would likely be about 1 percent – not enough to glean accurate findings. In order to get a representative sample, the entire survey sample would have to be extremely large, and researchers consider it too costly in terms of time and monetary expense.

Last week I interviewed Dr. Robert Griffin, professor of journalism and media studies at Marquette University, about the data reliability problem with samplings of Native Americans in national surveys. He said there is "no magic potion" to address it, but offered one possible alternative called "stratified sampling." This technique is used to get roughly equal numbers of respondents from various groups, regardless of how large or small the group is in terms of population. This method, however, is also costly and it becomes difficult to "make more general statements" about the overall population.

Both Griffin and Coleman say that a more effective way to gauge opinions of Native Americans is not through national polling, but through surveying Native people as a single group.

Granted, these types of surveys would not allow for data comparisons with other demographic groups, but direct polling would be an instrument for solid data collection on Native Americans.

The next question is: Who is going to pursue important data on tribes? I’m talking about the kind of data that has the ability to show who Native people are, on and off the reservation, and what life is like for them. I’m talking about the kind of information that can sway public policy. And who will push for it?

Coleman said the apathy toward Native issues that she saw decades ago persists. She called Native people "forgotten" and, in some cases, "invisible." She said there are agencies, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, that do a good job of tracking important data on Native communities, but their numbers are few.

Her sobering view, though hard to hear, needs to be shared – especially for those of us who want Native voices to be heard in mainstream America.

Karen Lincoln Michel, Ho-Chunk, is an independent journalist who writes about diversity and its role in the future of journalism in her blog, "A Digital Native American: Views of a Ho-Chunk journalist." She is a past president of the Native American Journalists Association and a past president of UNITY: Journalists for Diversity. She lives in Lafayette, La., with her husband, Roberto Michel. Reach her through her blog at www.lincolnmichel.wordpress.com or on Twitter @karenmichel.

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