WASHINGTON, D.C. - The number of people identifying themselves as American Indians and Alaska Natives increased to 2.5 million and if included with new mixed race categories grew to 4.1 million overall.
This marks a 26 percent increase, statistics released by the United States Census Bureau last week show.
The federal government has yet to come up with a final determination on how to adequately handle the newly released statistics regarding American Indian/ Alaska Native population. The task is now more difficult because of new multi-race categories added to racial identification boxes.
Preliminary figures show self-identified American Indians followed a 30-year trend demonstrating one of the highest rates of population growth of any ethnic group. There was an increase of about a half million people identifying themselves as only American Indian, and a 1.6 million person increase in those identifying themselves as American Indian and some other race.
One of the main reasons for the increase those identifying themselves as only American Indians was a concerted effort by the Census Bureau last year to work with tribal governments, for the first time. American Indians living in specific areas were hired by the bureau to do door-to-door counts on tribal lands.
The bureau also developed "culturally specific" television advertisements to appeal to American Indians. They often showed American Indians and contained a message about the importance of the census for gaining federal dollars for tribes.
The bureau decided to take action when it was revealed the 1990 census had undercounted American Indians by perhaps as much as 12.5 percent, the highest rate for any ethnic group.
The 1.6 million person increase for those of mixed race American Indian ancestry is due in large part to individuals who had formerly identified themselves as another race, mostly white, acknowledging American Indian ancestry. Various sources say that it is possible that more than 12 million Americans have at least a small amount of American Indian ancestry.
Mixed-blood, self-identified American Indians are largely regarded as having fueled the dramatic increase in the numbers of American Indians since 1960, when self-identification of race replaced older methods of door-to-door census takers identifying the race of the person at each individual residence.
The American Indian population in South Dakota rose to 62,283 in 2000, a 23 percent increase during the 1990s. American Indians, the state's largest minority group, now make up more than 8.2 percent of South Dakota's total population.
Matthew Snipp, a Stanford sociology professor and member of the Census Bureau's advisory committee on American Indians and Alaska Natives, says this practice led to serious undercounts of urban American Indians who were often mistaken for Hispanic or some other race when the census takers did visual identification.
When combined with an increase in social status in the 1960s for American Indians, there was a corresponding veritable explosion in the numbers of American Indians in urban areas over the following decades.
The problem is that the federal government is trying to figure out what to do with the statistics, deciding who really qualifies for federal dollars. Sources say this determination will most likely vary from federal agency to federal agency.
The National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) in Washington, D.C., sent a letter to the Office of Management and Budget which makes decisions based on the census- with its own recommendations on how to handle the problem.
Since American Indians were given a space for tribal affiliation, if a person notes they are American Indian and another race, yet also writes in the name of a federally recognized tribe, NCAI recommends they be recognized as just American Indians in terms of federal dollars.
If the space is left blank and the person resides on or very near a reservation, and has checked a mixed-race category, then NCAI also asked that they be recognized solely as American Indian.
"We feel that this is the only fair way in which to handle the issue," says Jack Jackson, director of governmental affairs at NCAI.
NCAI originally expressed reservations at the mixed-race category but Jackson says it has never opposed the category outright. Various sources say the problem for American Indians having a mixed-race category is trying to sort through the complex data returns and deciding how it affects federal and state agency counts.
Snipp notes problems associated with having so many possible combinations. Since 1997 Indians of Central and South American descent are also included as "American Indians" and if their possible combinations are overlaid with those of North American Indians there are 126 possible combinations.
Those combinations do not even account for individual tribes which, if included, could put the possible combinations much higher.
"Combinations in these kind of numbers are going to be impossible to manage. For example public universities in California have to keep these kinds of statistics. How can they manage?" Snipp asks.
Another problem is the undercounts - placed at about 12.5 percent in the 1990 census. The Census Bureau has long employed methods, known generally as "adjustments," to figure out how many people were undercounted.
Adjustments are seen by many as the only way to get a fairly accurate count of a population in predominantly minority communities where many people mistrust the federal government and do not fill out census forms.
Civil rights groups, including NCAI, support census adjustments, while conservative groups, including the Bush administration oppose. Some say this is because they believe adjustments in minority areas set up congressional district counts that favor the Democratic Party.
Larry Rosenthal, a partner in IETAN, a consulting group that works with tribes across the nation, says he finds it ironic that the people who most need the resources are the ones who are the most undercounted. He applauds the Census Bureau for taking steps this year to ensure that American Indians are being better counted, but still says he ultimately expects American Indians will suffer the largest undercount this year.
"If you had this kind of (undercount) problem in Westchester County, N.Y., or Greenwich, Conn., you'd see the federal government tripping over themselves to make sure that they got an accurate count."