Desi Small-Rodriguez, Northern Cheyenne, was one of two American Indians and 10 new members selected to serve on the US Census Bureau’s National Advisory Committee on Racial, Ethnic and Other Populations in July. Small-Rodriguez holds bachelors and masters sociology degrees from Stanford University, and worked for four years as a researcher for the Waikato-Tainui Maori Tribe in New Zealand. Along with Fort Sill Apache Timothy Harjo, she hopes to turn data collecting in Indian country into a positive tribes can benefit from and eventually do on their own, and not something to be leery of. She meets with the National Congress of American Indians on October 8 to discuss concerns before a national meeting in D.C. October 17-18.
Tell me about your experience working with the Waikato-Tainui Maori tribe in New Zealand?
I landed in New Zealand and didn’t know a soul, and their was a large Maori man with a picture of me and a sign with my name on it, and so that was my introduction there! My whole family was freaked out and couldn’t believe I went halfway across the world by myself. Looking back at it now I think, “Wow, that was kind of naïve,” since I didn’t know a soul or even know where I was going to live. But what was a one-year gig turned into four years, and the Maoris really respected me, and my work ethic. They’re just like Natives here in that they’re very family-orientated, and tribalism is very much alive and well, and they have language programs to keep their culture thriving and alive. I really love New Zealand, and it was like a second home.
Is your position new to the U.S. Census Bureau?
This is it’s second year so it’s very fledgling, this will be only our second meeting as a group this October, and that’s really exciting because it’s a strong opportunity to really carve out a strong niche for American Indians and form the agendas that go to corporations that form the next U.S. census.
What are some of the problems with the U.S. Census Bureau regarding Natives?
If you look at the history of census’s and research in Indian communities it’s fraught with a lot of distrust issues and questions on the futility of it for our people. We’ve got that history of exploitation of indigenous people for research purposes, so I think that negative legacy still very much remains: “Why are all of these non-Indian people coming into our community and asking all these questions? What benefit is it going to yield to us as tribes and communities?” So of course there’s that.
Another thing is our population compared to the rest of the U.S. is very small. So being able to tell a representative story for each tribe is difficult, so they aggregate the data they gather data on American Indians, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians as one large ethnic group. But we all know in Indian country we’re not one group. We’re Cheyenne, Crow, Potawatomi, Winnebago, and Comanche. We are over 500 nations and tribes. And when we identify ourselves, we identify as tribes. Another problem is we’re very mobile and transient people. We might move between the reservation and urban areas so that’s hard to capture to in a census.
What do you hope to accomplish?
I’ve long been a proponent of data. Without data you really have nothing to stand on in terms of trying to advocate or push for any sort of proposed change. The policymakers in D.C. they want to see data and numbers as that’s what drives policy. We’re very data poor and we rely on all of these outside sources to tell us who we are. I have a very strong position against that, especially seeing as I see data as a key to sovereignty if we want to be driving our own economic development or cultural vision efforts. To embrace self-determination, we have to have something driving it and if we don’t have any sort of evidence, then what are we relying on? We’re relying on the thoughts and positions and very subjective opinions of our tribal politicians. Ideally, I’d love to have tribes to have their own clearing houses of data so they can analyze and kick out reports; for that to be driving Indian policy. But until that happens we’re reliant on federal and state sources of data.