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Going home, improving communities

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According to various sources, Indian people in greater numbers are returning to their reservations and communities of origin. In the Western reservations, even within regions where overall U.S. populations are declining or where growth is minimal, Indian populations are burgeoning.

While critics point out that the 2000 Census significantly undercounted American Indians and Alaska Natives, perhaps missing as much as 5 or more percent altogether, across Indian country population growth is impressive. Impressive too is the growth in tribal and individual Indian-owned businesses, which jumped an eye-popping 84 percent, between 1992 and 1997, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. U.S. business growth average: 7 percent.

In population, nationally, the 2.6 million people identified as American Indian or Alaska Native by the 2000 Census evidenced a 26 percent increase for the decade of the 1990s. The number of people claiming partial Indian ancestry in multi-racial categories grew to total 1.5 million.

The Indian population surge was consistent throughout the country. Among Navajo, the newly counted membership of 173,631 people marked an explosive growth of 21 percent. The overall Indian population of Arizona grew by an astounding 25.7 percent. In California, the Indian and Alaska Native population grew from 242,000 to 333,000, while multiracial categories claiming partial Native ancestry added another 300,000 people to the count. Connecticut experienced an increase of 50 percent in its Indian population. And it goes on.

While some have wondered if the growth of people claiming partial Indian descent might be mostly due to the "wannabe syndrome," the best educated guess is that these figures in fact mostly represent partial descendents, "with legitimate nexus to their tribal affiliation," as asserted by JoAnn Chase, formerly of the National Congress of American Indians.

Cherokee scholar Russell Thornton writes that, considering the great decline in population by 1900 to approximately 250,000, Indian people could not have increased their rate of growth without marrying out of their particular racial community. Thus this has been a prominent process in the past century. Descendents of these circumstances are prominent among those who have been finding their way to their roots in recent years.

As Hopi sociologist Angela Gonzalez stated in speaking about Indian heritage at a recent Cornell University forum, "It is not about being 'part something,' but about being 'part of something.'"

One truth is that the growth of tribal casinos and other enterprise offers more jobs and potential economic gain close to home. The lack of economic opportunity has always been a major reason for relocation away from reservations. Now, in many places, a range of options has become available.

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Recent figures reported to 1997 count 197,300 American Indian-owned businesses in the U.S., with 88 percent (173,000) being sole proprietorships. The 5-year jump from 1992 was an astounding 84 percent; the five years since then represent a large growth trend. Twenty-seven percent of these businesses were owned by women in 1997.

Thousands of tribal enterprises and partnerships were also reported, however, only 2 percent (4,900) reported more than a million dollars in yearly receipts. Overall, the growing economic activity results in more and better elderly and youth programs; schools are improving, health care and housing become more available.

Most interestingly, in many communities where access to program funding has increased, the impetus to celebrate and support cultural programs in Native language and all manner of tribal arts projects is gaining strength.

The Indian population growth trend is most evident in the Northern Great Plains. In that region, for two decades at least, the non-Indian population has consistently experienced decline or very low rates of growth. By contrast, the Native population is growing at explosive rates.

South Dakota's Indian population, across nine reservations, grew by 23 percent, according to Census 2000. It includes many returnees. The return of people is hardly for economic benefit in this case. In the Kyle District of Pine Ridge Reservation, for example, in Shannon County with an 80 percent unemployment rate, the Native population nevertheless jumped by 26 percent in the 1990s.

The attraction of living in community with one's relations and cultural base, "being part of something," is another major piece of the population growth. There is something completely natural and Indigenous about returning to one's source. And, of course, the instinct to belong is completely human as well.

In this day and age, when so much uncertainty prevails, the impetus to go home is a part of security, of preparation for potentially much more difficult times. More fundamentally and on a more positive note, it fulfills our most pressing needs of social and cultural familiarity. Even today, in the midst of great social problems, when the Indian community culture works well, it has a most pleasant manner indeed.

The dream of "full circle" is a regular topic at Native American programs in colleges and universities these days. "Full Circle," a term coined by the late Mohawk educator, Ron LaFrance, is a universal instruction for young Indians leaving their communities and refers to returning home to one's people after college or after years of acquiring working professional skills in the world at large. According to surveys, large numbers of Native students, in fact, express the desire to return home after their years in college. It is also true that many Indian people have always opted to retire back home at their communities, even after long years "away."

There are many reasons and purposes for wanting to go home. For all the difficulties of integrating larger populations into the tribal base, it is a positive trend. The nations grow.