Federal Decennial Census Data for Studying American Indians

a SSAI Working Paper

Arland Thornton and Linda Young-DeMarco. “Federal Decennial Census Data for Studying American Indians.” SSAI Working Paper 2021-01. March 2021.

This paper examines the federal decennial censuses as sources of information for studying the social and demographic attributes and changes in attributes of American Indians. We have three main purposes: first, to describe briefly the history of the decennial census program, with particular focus on the treatment of American Indians in that program; second, to consider the structure and content of the 1900-1940 decennial censuses, particularly as they relate to American Indians; and third, to provide discussion of the quality of the 1900-1940 census data collections. We conclude that the 1900-1940 decennial censuses provide an especially substantial body of information to study American Indian individuals, their society, and social change over a substantial and important period of time—the first four decades of the 20th century. Of particular value is the fact that the data are available in microdata files from IPUMS for both samples and complete-counts of the American Indian population, permitting extensive individual-level analyses. At the same time, we recognize that all data sources including censuses contain errors and present opportunities for misinterpretation. Given the issues that we discuss, such opportunities for error may be greater in using the 1900-1940 censuses for American Indians than the average research undertaking. Nevertheless, we are optimistic that if these data are analyzed and interpreted with great care, they provide many opportunities for increasing knowledge of American Indians, their society, and social change over these decades.

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