My Two Census

Formerly the non-partisan watchdog of the 2010 US Census, and currently an opinion blog that covers all things political, media, foreign policy, globalization, and culture…but sometimes returning to its census/demographics roots.

The $23,000 Totem Pole Debacle

Yesterday, I blogged about how  the Census Bureau paid $20,000 to construct a 2010 Census totem pole that is now being shipped from Alaska to Washington DC for more than $3,000.

This leads to many questions:

1. What other art work has the Census Bureau commissioned? (Isn’t this the job of the National Endowment for the Arts?)

2. How much money has the Census Bureau spent on art projects?

3.  How much money did it cost to make the totem pole video that is on YouTube that (before I blogged about it)  received only 42 total views and still only has 217 views?

4. Who are Deni Luna/Gutacetla — the people who are  responsible for this video? Is it the same person as on this web site? Was the bidding process to make this video competitive? Were the Tinglit Raven Clan compensated for their part in the video? If so, how much money?

5. Why would the Census Bureau commission Tommy Joseph, an artist from Sitka, Alaska, to design a totem pole to commemorate an action taken by people of Noorvik, Alaska — two places that are approximately 1,500 miles apart from each other?

Steve Jost of the Census Bureau answered my previous questions about this by writing the following:

The image you posted is not that of the 2010 Census Totem.  You can see the totem in this video:

Since you have prejudged the value of this important promotional effort before knowing anything about the cost, I’m doubtful the following will be of much solace to you.

In early 2010 while plans were being made for the first enumeration in Noorvik, Alaska, one of the oldest native organizations in the state made a significant gesture. The Alaska Native Brotherhood passed a resolution supporting the Census and forming the creation of a totem pole to mark this significant event.  Our Seattle Region put together a plan to commission the art, and have it travel Alaska and Washington State tribal events for several months  to promote participation in the 2010 Census.  The totem pole is a storytelling icon steeped in the culture and traditions of the Alaska Native and Northwest Pacific Coastal peoples. It is an immediately recognizable symbol to the native people throughout America’s largest state.

The art was commissioned at a cost of $20,000.  The cost to have it travel across the country for permanent display at Census is $3,111.   We believe strongly that this has been a very effective promotional investment that symbolizes the Census Bureau’s constitutional mandate to ensure a complete count of all tribal lands, especially the 564 Federally recognized tribes.  The response to the Census Totem encouraged us to find a permanent home for it here at our headquarters along with other historical Census artifacts.

I would venture a guess that the total cost for the Totem project is less than the cost burden the Census Bureau has incurred to complete the search of your list of 26 explicit profanities that might have been found in any emails regarding the 2010 Census of 10 senior staff at the Census Bureau over several years.  I understand we have found just two emails responsive to your request which refer to news accounts which happened to have one of the words on your list.

Dear Ms. Potter and Staff:

Under the Freedom of Information Act, 5 U.S.C. § 552, I am requesting
copies of all memos, documents, e-mais and reports that directly discuss
the 2010 Census, including ESA correspondence, e-mail, records, etc. from
the office of Dr. Robert M. Groves and the office of Steve Jost, as well as
the Office of the Secretary, the CIO and Administration from the time that
Mr. Jost took over until the present.

As you probably already know, I run, the non-partisan
watchdog of the 2010 Census. My work has also appeared on,, and other publications.  Since this is a
non-commercial request and the release of these documents will serve the
public interest (because analyzing these documents is likely to contribute
significantly to public understanding of the operations or activities of
the government), I am requesting that all fees be waived.

I am also requesting expedited processing of these documents under the
clause on your web page that states I can do so if this information is
“urgently needed to inform the public concerning some actual or alleged
government activity.” With the 2010 Census just around the corner, and
recent reports by the Associated Press and other organizations that
language translations have been inadequate and sub-par, this request
deserves your prompt attention.

If you deny all or any part of this request, please cite each specific
exemption you think justifies your withholding of information. Notify me of
appeal procedures available under the law. If you have any questions about
handling this request, you may telephone me at any time at XXXXXXXXX.


Stephen Robert Morse

Fri, Feb 26, 2010 at 6:06 PM

Dear Mr. Morse,
To document our conversation this morning you have clarified your request
FOIA 10-099 to collect records from:

1.) The Office of Dr. Robert Groves
2.) The Office of Steven Jost
3.) The Economics and Statistics Administration (ESA)
4.) The Department of Commerce’s (DOC) Office of the Secretary
5.)  Chief Information Office (CIO)
6.)  Administration

and you are requesting the following information:

-Copies of all memos, documents, e-mails and reports that directly discuss
the 2010 Census, specifically problems, trouble areas, or cover-ups
regarding the following:
a.) Money
b.) Software
c.) Fees
d.) Contracts/ Contractors (operational glitches, problems with
e.) Technology
f.) Status Updates
g.) Reporting to Dr. Groves on major/minor operations
h.) Regional Directors reporting/ status updates
i.)  Hiring/ Firing
j.)  Personnel Incidents
k.) Human Resources Incidents
l.)  Disputes with Congress
m.)Responses to negative media coverage

Our Office will continue processing your request with all practical speed.


Anita M. Molina
Office of Analysis and Executive Support
Freedom of Information Act and Information Branch
US Census Bureau

P Save Paper –  Please consider the environment before printing this email

More to come should this saga continue…

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10 Responses to “The $23,000 Totem Pole Debacle”

  1. anonymous Says:

    artfreak, I respect your opinion, however, we live and work in the U.S. Thanks to and the historical libraries, many of our ancestors fought for the freedoms of our country.

    Thank you Stephen and MyTwoCensus for providing a balanced forum.

  2. artfreak Says:

    anonymous–I am a disabled vet and fought for our country.

  3. Laney Says:

    Interesting that you decided to just post questions rather than try to answer them. Five minutes of internet research found two of your answers right off the bat.

    4. The Deni Luna in question is not the psychic whose link you posted, as I’m sure you well know. How disingenuous of you to provide a link to the most “scandalous” of the Deni Lunas that you found. It is obviously the contact in the Seattle Regional Office, which you would know if you bothered to spend more than 30 seconds searching. Google “Deni Luna Census”, and even a contact number appears that you could have used to, you know, ask him/her questions about this issue, rather than simply posting accusations.

    5. I don’t know much about Alaska, but again, a simple search and you’ll have your answer to this question, as well. While Tommy Joseph may live in Sitka, which is in the Southeastern part of the state, the website that YOU link to (reading comprehension!) states that he specializes in Northwest Coast carving (where Noorvik is located), and has for over 20 years. Since the 1990s he has also interpreted Northwest Coast art for tourists, and he has made numerous totems over the years.

    There, I answered 2/5 questions for you. Can I call myself a journalist now?

  4. Stephen Robert Morse Says:

    @readers: I respect your opinions, but I am deleting flagrantly inappropriate comments.

  5. Current Resident Says:

    I’ve already commented under the prior day’s “On your dime” post, so I will change topics to the video documentary short on the totem. I also wonder about the project bidding, as I find numerous points of sloppy production and beginner’s errors:

    Wobbly camera work, awkward edits, overuse of wipe transitions, clumsy and illegible graphics, footage left to run with no context, an interview conducted with no external mic, no effort to balance synchronous audio with the narration and library music, a really “wet” voice-over track, and a problem endemic to many docs, the ‘clip art approach’ to filling visually what the script calls for.

    One last strong mark of inexperience is that the sparse end credits are stretched out for two entire minutes of the short’s 08m 47s running time. Either the producer is way too proud of herself or she’d promised a longer piece than the footage actually cut down to. Possibly both, much like the undercooked producers I stopped working for years ago.

  6. Stephen Robert Morse Says:

    It appears that the video was made by Census Bureau media specialists in the Seattle region.

  7. anon Says:

    Have you submitted another FOIA request?

  8. anon Says:

    Laney – Thanks for the info and the quick research.

  9. Carol Bradley Says:

    Mr. Joseph’s work is indeed renowned and outstanding. However, my husband, who is Native American, would like to make this observation: Open up the competition to all Native Americans and ALL Americans. Why favor any one artisan — he considers Mr. Joseph’s message wonderful, but at Mr. Joseph’s own expense and cultural imperative. My husband was going by horseback to all outlying Navajo hogans and small landholdings, without working for the Census, just “to get them off their angry asses and get counted.” The Census then “lost” some 183 original blue questionnaires and tried to “redo” them at the last minute. Well, this certainly undermined my husband’s and his friends’ “Paul Revere” rides.

    To save a lot of publicity for 2020, why doesn’t the Census have a 1st-class postage stamp designed and circulated for one previous year (2009) announcing the Census? Open it up to the general public, make it an artist competition even — it would be cheaper and more obvious to people than caps, de-icer-blades, totem poles, whatever — or make Census toilet paper (by Charmin), condums, sanitary napkins, etc. Make the Census really out there in everyone’s face (and rear/frontal ends) way ahead of 2020, and save the public relations money for employees pay. What a carnival.

  10. Admin OOS Says:

    This was an outreach program you moron. Certainly not a debacle.