Skip to main content

Talli Nauman
Buffalo’s Fire Contributing Editor 

American Indian and Alaska Native population figures jumped in the U.S. Decennial Census report released in August – a report originally slated for release in April. The outcome quelled fears that pandemic protocol restrictions would doom Native America to be even more undercounted than in previous national surveys. 

Census authorities credited improved methodology for a 160-percent increase in people identifying as Indigenous. Their data reflects unprecedented tribal and community mobilization that helped overcome 2020’s heightened odds against inclusive results. From 2010 to 2020, the American Indian and Alaska Native in-combination population increased by 160 percent, according to a U.S. Census Bureau report and findings announced Aug. 12. That is a whopping rise of 9.7 million people. It brings the tally to 2.9 percent of the U.S. population – up from a previous 1.7 percent, or 5.2 million, recorded in the previous Decennial Census of 2010. The leap is more than a little bit due to novel question formulation in the more recent survey, explains Nicholas Jones, Race and Ethnicity Research and Outreach director for the Census Bureau. 

Specifically he notes “significant changes from 2010 Census for race and ethnicity question designs, data processing, and coding.” These changes help improve answers to the survey’s Question 7, “What is this person’s race?” 

For the first time ever, the checkbox for reporting American Indian and Alaska Native identities included examples. They were: “Navajo Nation, Blackfeet Tribe, Mayan, Aztec, Native Village of Barrow Inupiat Tribal Government, Nome Eskimo Community, etc.” Also for the first time, this checkbox category included a dedicated write-in area to submit such heritage specifics. As in the past, the survey item enabled each respondent to mark an “x” by more than one category. So, for example, an individual could answer Question 7 with White, Black, and American Indian, if desired. Also as in the past, individuals’ responses were based upon self-identification. 

Another self-identification point, Question 6 — “Is this person of Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin?” — did not concern race, rather origin. So, respondents could identify themselves as, for example, Hispanic and Native, census explainers instructed. 

In 2020, an additional 5.9 million people identified as American Indian and Alaska Native together with another race group, such as White or Black. Without that increase in reporting of Native multiracial inhabitants, the American Indian and Alaska Native population alone logged in at 3.7 million for the 2020 cycle. It accounted for 1.1 percent of all people living in the United States, compared with 0.9 percent, or 2.9 million, a decade ago. That’s a 27.1 percent bump, according to the Census Bureau’s calculations. 

The bureau has been asking and refining the race question since 1790, only adding the Hispanic origin question in 1970. “These data are required for federal, state, and tribal programs and are critical factors in the basic research behind numerous policies, particularly for civil rights,” it says. Analysts use the findings to evaluate policies, ensure equitable service to all racial groups, and monitor compliance. The U.S Constitution mandates the decennial survey along with legislative redistricting based on it. 

Dante Desiderio, the CEO of the National Congress of American Indians, the oldest and largest Native advocacy organization, said he is pleased the 2020 Census shows a surge in the Indigenous ranks. “We hope these data inform efforts to ensure that our schools teach more American Indian and Alaska Native history,” he added.

Native coalition effort to beat the odds against gathering representative information from Indian country. When the Covid-19 pandemic stalled census-taking just three days after its scheduled startup in March 2020, NCAI was among myriad groups and tribal governments that redoubled efforts to gather survey responses. 

Native people, especially on reservations and in Alaskan villages, have been historically underrepresented in the census. In 2010, the undercount was nearly 5 percent, more than double that of the next closest population group. In 1990, the survey left out an estimated 12.2 percent of reservation residents. About one in three Native people lives in a hard-to-count census tract, NCAI notes. In 2020, the Census Bureau proposed “count committees”, in which representatives of tribes and other government jurisdictions could partner to promote citizen participation. The Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians was a trendsetter. The tribe formed a 100-percent tribal-member squad, which sent enumerators door-to-door leaving census information bags. The tribal government backed the effort with $15,000 including explanatory broadcast and internet spots. 

When pandemic protocols all but precluded reservation travel in and out of many tribal nations, enumerators donned full protective gear to make their rounds. Turtle Mountain rewarded census responders with prizes. More than 250 vehicles arrived at one tribal event for the headcount. People who stopped by the tribe’s Sky Dancer Resort in Belcourt, N.D. to answer the survey were given cash-value cards. 

Tribal representatives explained the motivation during a forum for tribes in the 12-state Denver region of the Census Bureau. “We’ve lost out on tens and tens of millions of dollars in state and federal aid, which would have come to us if the census count would have been more accurate,” Choctaw Nation Chief Gary Batton’s executive communications officer said of the 2010 exercise. At the time of the forum, in July 2020, most of the Northern Great Plains tribes had a response rate that lagged at 15 to 25 percent compared to a national average of 63 percent. Five of the region’s tribes, including the Northern Cheyenne, remained to initiate census taker visits due to pandemic lockdown. 

Then, on Aug. 3, Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham announced the decision to end the national field response operation one month earlier than its Oct. 31 extended deadline. Native Organizers Alliance lobbied to maintain the period be extended due to pandemic delays. Alarm spread throughout Indian Country when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the decision on Oct. 13, and the director shut down the collection two weeks early. 

The NCAI, Native American Rights Fund, and the National Urban Indian Family Coalition condemned the Supreme Court’s action. They said it favored former President Donald Trump’s effort “to suppress the count of Indigenous peoples … and the sacred trust the federal government owes to tribal nations.” 

Yet, in the end, Dillingham announced a total response of more than 99 percent. “When Covid-19 turned everyone’s plans upside down, our partners rose to the occasion with creativity and perseverance,” he said. 

Buffalo's Fire logo

Talli Nauman is an editor at Buffalo’s Fire. To reach her, email buffalo.gal10(at)