The current issue of the magazine of the National Museum of the American Indian (NAMI) features a piece – “The Measure of Indians” – that summarizes a long and troubled relationship between American Indians and Indian tribes and the U.S. Census.
I found two valuable demographic insights in the article. One looks toward the past, the other toward the future.
Past – Historical Undercounting of Indians: The Census did not begin to count Indians until 1890 because until then most were citizens of their own nations rather than of the U.S. Even after Indians were included, undercounting – often due to government inattention or worse – was a serious problem that persists to the present day: In 2010, for example, the undercount for Indians living on reservations was estimated at 4.88%. Because the Census is used to allocate government resources, this undercounting has real consequences.
Future – Oversimplification of American Indian and Native Alaskan Identity: The current Census groups together as “American Indian or Alaska Native” members of well over 100 American Indian and at least a dozen Alaska Native tribes. Further, of the 5.2 million Americans who self-identified as American Indian or Alaska Native in 2010, almost half (2.2 million) identified themselves as also being of one or more other races. There is an inherent tension between the racial mindset that led to the creation of and is reflected in the current Census category and the complexity and texture of tribal history, intermarriage, and lived experience.