Complicating the 2010 US Census Native Data

In 2010 US Census, multi-racial, Native identity, racial categories, US census data by Adrienne K.26 Comments

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?

US Census:  2010 Census Shows Nearly Half of American Indians and Alaska Natives Report Multiple Races
US Census: The American Indian and Alaska Native Population: 2010

  • ScurvyMorgan

    Love the blog. A quick comment, for your roommate: This is not to invalidate her outrage at the presence of the word “Negro,” but it is not “still” on the census–it is *again* on the census. The decision was made to include it after the 2000 census had 50,000+ people writing in their race as “Negro.” While it’s open to debate whether the officials were right to do so, the idea was to be inclusive, especially to older people who identified as that. From the NY Times:
    But when Americans receive their census forms this year, the category for race will include Negro as one of the options. So why, in 2010, is Negro still on the census?

    “The intent was not to offend,” said Robert Groves, the director of the United States Census Bureau. “The intent was to make sure that everybody could find themselves with the words there and check the box that fits.”

    In an interview, Mr. Groves explained that a research study found many older African-Americans who still referred to themselves as Negroes. In the 2000 census, he said, about 50,000 additional people wrote in the word Negro in a line that asked people how they wished to be identified. Half of those, he said, were 45 years old or younger.

    “This was a surprise,” Mr. Groves said. “No one expected this.”

    So the Census Bureau decided to keep Negro as an option in the race category in the 2010 census, in an effort to account for everyone.”

    • Adrienne_K

      That’s really interesting, thanks!

  • Rob

    My thought is that your thoughts are good. I agree that the headline and focus on the multiple-race issue is a little weird. I’m still not sure what the message is, although “Real Indians are disappearing!!!” could be it. “The percentage of people who checked more than one race is intermediate, about what you’d expect,” isn’t much of a hook.

  • wkrp

    When I discussed the Census with my mostly immigrant Latino students, many said they would choose white alone, although it is clear to me (based on their last names, phenotype, and native language) that some (most from Ecuador and Mexico, especially) are at least ‘in combination’ American Indian. The Latino/Hispanic/Chicano ethnicity fails to capture the people who are mestizo. More educated/political students were more likely to choose American Indian and Mexicans were more likely than Ecuadorians. It still seemed remarkable to me that a native Nahuatl speaker would not identify as American Indian. It’s also sad.

    • Perhaps the native Nahuatl speaker perceives the category “American Indian” as being something imposed by outsiders? What term did/does this person use to self-identify?

    • MB

      I am Mexican-American and the fact that “Latino/Hispanic” was not included as an option really bothered me. I felt I was being forced to deny my Native roots by checking “white.” I checked “other” and wrote in “mestizo.” I identify with having both Spanish/Native roots.

    • It is because in most Latin American countries, there is a great deal of discrimination against Indians. It is a shameful thing, to be an Indian. I just had a conversation about this with a Latino classmate, he was shocked that I would describe myself as “Indian” because in Mexico, where he is from, that’s an offensive word.

      It IS sad. They are instinctively protecting themselves from racism. While it’s trendy in the US to be “part Indian”, it is something to deny in most Latin American countries.

  • 10100111001

    I just checked American Indian, I did not check the white box.

    I also wrote Akwesasne Mohawk. Which I think is technically St. Regis Mohawk according to the BIA. I always wonder if there is someone who has the job of translating that to Iroquois, or what exactly is done with that sort of information.

    I also have problems with the enrollment issue because I know so many cross pollinated (hee) Natives that are 1/4 this tribe 1/4 that tribe and 1/8 the other tribe and 3/8 another and not qualifeid to enroll in any of them…

    Also it leaves out Natives that are members of Non federally recogozed tribes.

  • Sweet_Bird

    Doing some genealogical research, I did discover some tales of possible Native Americans in my ancestry. But regardless of who sits on the way-back twigs on my family tree, I’m white. I was raised with that set of cultural expectations and privileges.

    I think that there are a lot of people in my same situation — having a (possible) genetic tie, but no cultural tie whatsoever. That iota of related-ness doesn’t “make” someone other than what they are, and recognizing ancestry isn’t the same as identifying with a culture.

    • Exactly! I have shovel-shaped incisors which I certainly didn’t get from my French and English ancestors but I have no genealogical information about this ancestor. We do know that many of the English traders in South Carolina married native women during the colonial period.

  • liabia

    I agree, the issue of enrollment creates a quandary for accurate data in terms of not only cross pollinated (love it!) Natives, but also in terms of people of Native descent who were raised in Native families and identify with their Native heritage, but cannot enroll for whatever reason (inaccurate record-keeping, mixed/diminished blood quantums, etc). It inevitably leads to questions of authenticity that only reinforce the connection between blood quantum and “Indianness,” which, as I’m sure you all know, is an idea of European origin.
    My own family is very mixed, between races as well as tribes with enrolled and non-enrolled members (Spirit Lake Dakota and Turtle Mountain Chippewa), but I was taught that if you are a descendent and you retain your culture, you are a Native person.

  • I don’t even see my husband’s nation, the Comanche, up there. I don’t think too many people want to be associated with a group of Indians that really were quite brutal and bloody! Everyone wants to be the nice Indians!

  • It is a conundrum isn’t it? I am like you for blood, but I was not raised in the culture, so I would not check “Indian”, but I have official status, because in Canada if you are Metis and can prove a specific bloodline that is considered one of the First Nations.

  • Kat

    Well, the race does matter. Especially since you have White privilege in many many situations which don’t involve a deep knowledge of you. Even if you would say, Adrienne, “I identify as Cherokee and ‘discount’ [don’t focus on- whatever] my White heritage”, you will still consciously and subconsciously be identified as White by Whites, Asians, Blacks, Hispanics etc… and be treated thus.
    You also in this post choose to ignore that NDN used to be a racial category as well, with Whites (captives etc) being the exception that proved the rule.
    I am suspicious of the high amount of people whose ancestry is predominantly White who identify as NDN and mostly ‘explore’/emphasize their NDN ancestry (in many cases less than 25 %; mind you Eva Longaria has one third Native ancestry… many people who are much much much lighter only identify with their NDN ancestry). There is nowhere near a similar amount of people who identify as Black with a similar racial White-Nonwhite make-up… Lemme guess why… Oh wait, only NDNs are seen as exotic, magic etc by Whites.

    • another guest

      I agree, to some extent, that one should be suspicious of the whites with very small amount of Indian heritage who identify so strongly with this heritage. But let’s be real, some tribes require a lot less than 25% in order to be an enrolled member. If the Cherokee nation will allow anyone with an ancestor on the Dawe’s Roll to be an enrolled member, who are we to decide that person is not really Indian because they’re <25% Indian? If someone cares enough about their 1/8 Indian ancestry to be invested in their community and/or enroll, I don't know that we can decide they are less Indian than everyone else and are only doing it for appropriative reasons. Secondly, I wonder if you are involved in the Black community. Because those of us who are Black or live in Black communities can tell you that Black Americans absolutely do know about, talk about, identify with, and are curious about their Indian ancestry. Every other Black person I know talks about their family stories regarding an Indian grandparent or great-grand parent. More so, and more matter of factly, than whites I've heard having similar conversations. The main difference might be that white folks who do this are seen as appropriating, and often are (they often buy into the idea of this making them interesting/exotic), whereas Black folks don't need anything to make them more "ethnic" or more "of color" so being Indian is not a status symbol. Therefore non-Black folks might not hear these conversations as often. But rest assured, Black folks are well aware that being a Black American is, inherently, a mixed race identity – And most Black folks in the U.S. have white and/or Indian ancestry whether they like to admit it or not.

  • kittylu

    I’ve been seeing this everywhere I go. A lot more people, especially white, black and hispanic people seem to be identifying with their native heritage now more than ever.

  • Guest

    I agree with your introductory discussion about the alarming title of the headline that serves to perpetuate the myth that “Indians are disappearing”. I am however a bit disappointed in your further discussion about comparing the census numbers to enrolled members of tribes. Not all Natives are enrolled, and not all Natives are enrolled in federal or state recognized tribes. Furthermore, some tribes and I’m thinking of your tribe – the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, have disenfranchised and dis-enrolled tribal members. Do you think that the Cherokee Freedmen (who are largely Cherokee by ‘blood’ and by being enslaved by Cherokees) should not be able to check off American Indian and write in Cherokee for their tribal identification? (I’d also like to see you make a blog post to discuss the Cherokee Freedmen situation, slavery in the Cherokee Nation, and last year’s controversial principal chief election).
    You also tread on making some illogical assumptions. First, you assume that most of the people who identified as American Indian in combination with other races are those who talk about a distant Indian ancestor. And then you assume that most of these people who you put into this category, don’t have cultural ties. You could have then lead to a discussion about identity both biologically and culturally ie. if one does not have cultural ties to their ancestry, do they forfeit the right to identity as such? You do however say we shouldn’t discount these numbers, and I agree and think you should perhaps provide a much more nuanced discussion.
    Also, regarding Blackfeet, if you were to do further research on this topic instead of cracking up, you would note that Blackfoot is also used to describe the Saponi/Tutelo Indian peoples of Virginia and the Carolinas. According to my Saponi friends from that region, people actually refer to themselves as “Blackfoot” and not “Saponi”. So when people and it seems mostly those who are African-American talk about being Blackfoot, they are likely not referring to the confederacy of tribes that are in Montana and the Canadian province of Alberta, they’re referring to their Saponi/Tutelo ancestry. Does this mean that the extra 90,000 self-identified Blackfeet are all of Saponi/Tutelo heritage? No. But I think it’s very plausible that it accounts for a significant portion of those numbers.
    I do realize you are doing an initial reflection on these recently released numbers and therefore have not had the time to think critically about what these numbers mean.

    • another guest

      Right on. “What s/he said!” I was really insulted by the insinuation that most Black folks who report Indian heritage are just making it up and appropriating Indian culture/s. Quite an assertion from someone whose tribe has disenfranchised their own Black members. My kids are Black and Cherokee, and although there is enough concrete Indian family history that they could likely be enrolled, they are not. After what went on with the Freedmen we prefer not to enroll them. Also, the above poster “Guest” is totally correct with regards to Blackfoot – People who identify that way are usually tracing their lineage to Blackfoot peoples of the Southeast (Saponi) or use the term to refer to Black Cherokees. Again, still Indian – just not fitting in the convenient existing categories of the census or BIA. This is interesting, btw:

      • another guest

        Correction: There IS enough genealogical info that my kids could be enrolled, but for a variety of reasons we’ve chosen not to enroll them.

  • Bronwynstreet

    in new zealand we also gather information regarding race.. I only identify as Maori even though I have pakeha *white* blood as well, but prefer to identify as Maori… perhaps you can just indicate that you identify as American Indian… do they have a space for your tribal affiliation..

  • lovetheblog

    i haven’t looked closely at the census data, but i just wanted to bring up the possibility that maybe the increase in natives found on the census is more a product of people identifying as native/ checking the box than having more children. 2000 was the first year that you could check multiple races and so people are still figuring out how to identify themselves on the census- which has created a lot of data about shifting demographics that don’t reflect changes in population.

    just a possibility i wanted to throw out there.

  • I checked American Indian and white. I have huge problems with the perception that the dilution of Indian “blood” is making us disappear. It isn’t, and to insist that dwindling blood quanta make for less-real Indians is an extermination policy. Indianness is not simply about blood quantum, and we all know that. National identity (meaning, enrollment in an Indian Nation), community, tradition, and other factors make up Indian identity. The question of “how much Indian blood does this person have?” was not brought up before the time of contact. It’s important for Native communities to do what we can to take the focus off the idea of dwindling blood making us disappear and show that our cultures are strong.

  • Adrienne, I know you know this: the way that the blood quantum was “calculated” by white government employees means that a lot of people who were Native were not counted, or that those who were counted were assigned an incorrect “percentage of blood.” And also, there are people who are Native, who are involved in their communities, but who are not enrolled because their tribes require a certain “percentage of blood” for enrollment.

    So I think it is disingenuous to disparage people using terms like “relatives they didn’t know about!” It perpetuates the racism that denies some people Native identity despite their familial connections.

    There’s also the fact that some people have ancestry from multiple tribes but those tribes don’t allow dual enrollment. I am one of those people, so I am enrolled in only one tribe.

    Yeah, yeah, I KNOW there are a lot of people who have some old family story about an Indian Princess grandmother, etc, etc, who have no connection to any Indian ancestor at all. But there are a lot of Native people out there who are not enrolled.

    WRT to the “real Indians are disappearing” thing, one thing I have noticed is that when people learn I am an Indian, they often ask “what percentage Native American are you?” (My response these days is to calmly explain to them that I know they don’t mean to offend, but that is in fact an offensive question, and then explain why.) There is definitely an attitude among white people that the more “Indian blood” you have, the more genuinely Indian you are. But some people are willing to learn, they are open to knowing better: I had a long talk with a white friend of my partner’s the other day, and he was very apologetic for his prior racist remarks, and thanked me for speaking with him. So there’s hope.

  • Vanessa White

    I checked African American. However, I am told by family that we have some “Cherokee” in our blood as well. I am interested in knowing how Native American/Indigenous people feel about the 2012 U.S. GOP presidential race and its heavy focus on “immigrants.” Is it considered a “slap in the face” for the candidates to adamantly criticize “illegal immigration” when this country was arguably founded on such an action?

    I am writing an article covering this topic and welcome any response. Thanks

  • Javier

    This isn’t entirely pertinent to the whole article, but I really feel the need to share.

    When this census came around, I was really panicked about what to put for race. Despite playing up European/Western ties being the large Mexican cultural trend (both north and south of the border), my family lines are deeply rooted in indigenous Mexican culture, and I wanted the census to reflect that about me. For lack of a better option (and for disgust at being told to “just check white”), I chose “Native American” for race and “Mexican/Mexican American” for ethnicity.

    I’ve felt incredibly ashamed about that since, like maybe I was appropriating an identity from the “real” supra-Rio-Grande Native Americans and secretly mimicking the familiar “I’m 1/10th part Native American” party line. Imagine my joyous surprise at seeing how many people identify the way I do! To be honest, I never knew much about non-Mexican Native American causes until reading this blog today but after this post, I can’t help but feel that I have to ally myself to a whole new set of causes. So… thanks for the inadvertent info!

  • George Guess

    “Cherokee Nation”
    we’re not “of Oklahoma”