The Identification of American Indians in the Federal Decennial Censuses

a SSAI Working Paper

Arland Thornton, Linda Young-DeMarco, and Lindsey Willow Smith. “The Identification of American Indians in the Federal Decennial Censuses.” SSAI Working Paper 2021-02. March 2021.

In this paper we examine the ways in which the federal decennial censuses have defined and identified who is an American Indian—and how those definitions have influenced the number of people identified as Native in the 1900-1940 censuses. Census documents indicate that during this period census enumerators were responsible for recording a person’s race, with very few instructions about how to do this. Using materials generated from and about the 1900-1940 censuses, we conclude that the definitions and procedures resulted in many people who descended from residents of what is now the United States in the year 1491 not being enumerated as American Indian in these censuses. This occurred because many people with such Native ancestry were either not enumerated or were recorded as being of a non-Native race—with this being particularly common among those who were the most assimilated into Euro-American society. Materials from the 1960-2010 censuses provide evidence consistent with this conclusion. Many people in the 1960-2010 era who identified themselves as American Indian would not have been so identified using the methodology of the 1900-1940 era. Similarly, many people who said they had Native ancestry in the latter period were not recorded as being of American Indian race in those censuses, and this was a likely occurrence in the former period as well. These observations suggest that those people enumerated in the 1900-1940 censuses and recorded as American Indian would have been weighted towards those most closely associated with Native communities—including American Indian reservations. The 1900-1940 censuses would also have included people as American Indian who were generally assimilated into Euro-American society but who had physical attributes signaling Native heritage to the enumerators—or had sufficient Native identity to signal that to the enumerators. It is likely that such selectivities would have been experienced fairly similarly across the 1900-1940 years.

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