Back in 2010 when the census came in the mail, I remember sitting with my roommate at the kitchen table filling out our forms together, laughing and joking about our “household.” When we got to the race category listed above, my roommate quickly checked the “Black, African Am, or Negro” box, with a snide comment about how it still says “Negro” in 2010, and moved on. I sat, contemplating the boxes for a bit, wondering how to identify to best capture “me”.
I knew, from my prior work in admissions, that checking Native “alone” would mean something very different than checking Native “in combination,” in terms of statistics and reporting, but I also am Native “in combination,” so it felt disingenuous to check only Indian. I thought about it for a bit, checked American Indian/Alaska Native, and wrote in “Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma”–then checked the White box too. My roommate thought I was weird for thinking so deeply about it. But it mattered to me, because I was already anticipating the statistics that the US Census released yesterday. I am Native. Period. But when you try and fit a political/citizenship category into a racialized one, the results get complicated, as you’ll see.
The lead headline for the census press release is “2010 Census Shows Nearly Half of American Indians and Alaska Natives Report Multiple Races.” I already, right there, see that as problematic, wrought with assumptions, and loaded with colonial underpinnings. But we all know I think that about most things. ha.
To “over-sensitive” and “easily offended” me, the headline is a commentary on the “realness” of the American Indian population, loaded with western/colonial conceptions of blood quantum and racial purity as markers for belonging and identity. This, to me, screams “Real Indians are disappearing!!!”. But since we have been “disappearing” for 500 years, despite our growing population numbers, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. The real number is 44% identify as more than one race, which is different to me than “nearly half”. They could have just as easily said “56% of AI/AN population identifies solely as Native!” which tells a very different story. The majority of our peeps still identify as only AI or AN. We are not disappearing.
Reading the report (which is available in PDF and I highly recommend flipping through), there are many, many things they could have focused on, like the fact the Native population has increased at a rate much greater than the overall population, or that the ability to self-designate tribal group for the first time created new tribal categories (like “Hopi” being counted outside of “Pueblo”), but they instead focused in on the racial categories. Speaking of that population increase, here’s a handy graphic:
So this shows us that the total US population increased 9.7% from 2000-2010, but the AI/AN population (alone) increased at nearly twice that rate, and AI/AN (in combo) increased almost 40%! You go, Natives–keep on making those ndn babies (I joke, I joke). But interesting, right?
The other thing this data made me think about is how ingrained the myth of an Indian ancestor is in our national narrative. Cause according to this data, there are HELLA Natives out there!
Ok, let’s break down this chart (click to make it bigger). This shows the “largest tribal groupings” in the US. Personally, I also have some problems with the groupings erasing individual tribal identities–“Chippewa” is both an antiquated term as well as not a tribe, same with “Iroquois” or “Sioux”–but that’s an aside.
I think the fascinating part of this chart is to compare the number of enrolled members of any of these tribes to the number of people who identified on the census. Cherokees (I’m assuming that’s CN, UKB, and EBC together?) at 819,105? That’s about 400,000 more than are enrolled (based on my really vague and loose mental math). The Blackfeet one cracks me up too–I’m sure the Blackfeet Nation is stunned to know they’ve got 90,000 relatives they didn’t know about! (Their reservation in MT is home to about 8,500 enrolled members, and I assume there are some more not living on the rez, but not nearly that many).
I chose Cherokee and Blackfeet, because based on my personal experience, those are the two tribes that everyone seems to have an ancestor from–“Cherokee” is big for both white and Black folks, and “Blackfeet” seems to be big in the Black/African American community. While many people may actually have some Native blood in there, chances are it’s probably not Cherokee or Blackfeet. Sorry to burst your bubble. This appropriation of Indian identity is a whole other blog post, which I’ll get to at some point.
But that brings us back to the “alone” versus “in combination” conversation. What does it mean for these people who are checking the box based on some long lost ancestor to be counted in the numbers of AI/AN in the US? Is this a good thing, or a bad thing? Chances are, that person is not dedicated to Indian causes or has any cultural ties whatsoever, but we can’t discount those numbers completely, because in those “in combination” numbers are plenty of mixed Natives who have cultural connections and are enrolled.
The way the question is phrased on the census is interesting too. It asks for “Enrolled or Principle tribe”–I think a better measure of these numbers would just say “enrolled tribe” with a line, and then “other tribal affiliations” with another.
These are just some things I’ve been thinking about as I’ve been reading through the data–what are your thoughts?