Giving Thanks to the Census: Insight into the American Indians and Alaska Natives

A brief history of how the Census Bureau reaches the underrepresented

Mon 21 November 2022 3 minutes

This week, many people across the United States take part in Thanksgiving, but this month is a much larger celebration: American Indian and Alaska Native Heritage Month. With roots in the early 20th century, this occasion highlights the contributions and cultural history, and raises awareness of Native Americans from coast to coast. Let's highlight their history with the Census.

For most of the 19th century, Indians were not present in the Census; it was starting with the 1850 survey that they rarely appeared, and even then it was via special censuses separate from the decennial survey. During some years, territorial censuses were done to try and account for Indian populations that were not considered for the national enumeration, and it wasn't until 1950 that they began to fade out the "Indian Reservation" schedule they used. Starting in 1970, the Census Bureau began to make immense strides in reaching American Indians as they were an example of demographics consistently undercounted within the population.

Then, starting in 1980, the Census began to mention American Indian and Alaska Native separately, though still within the same categorization. This differentiation comes from the differing histories that American Indians and Alaska Natives have - even though they can both fall under the classification of Indian or Native American. For example, Alaska Natives have a long history of referring to their groups as villages rather than tribes, and their recognition within the state of Alaska falls on a different timeline than American Indians on the continental United States. As such, the Census Bureau knows how consequential it can be to undercount, and so ensuring that as particular language as can be used is helpful in ensuring that everybody is represented.

(And though not American Indian related, the 1990 census was also the first survey to count Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander as separate from Asian.)

As for the holiday mentioned at the top of this article, it has its roots back in 1916 when a member of the Blackfeet Nation named Red Fox James sought approval from across the country to have a day in celebration of American Indians. This day in May would serve as American Indian Day for most of the next century until 1990 when under George H.W. Bush it turned the month of November into National American Indian Heritage Month, which quickly became American Indian and Alaska Native Month. Some might refer to it as Native American Heritage Month, but these terms are relatively interchangable.

In 2020, the American Indian and Alaska Native population was estimated to be around 3.7 million, and given the history that it has taken to get these citizens accounted for in the Census it can only speak to the importance of highlighting underrepresented groups and supporting their inclusion in the Census Bureau's enumeration.

For more info, you can check out the U.S. Census Bureau's page for American Indian and Alaska Native Heritage Month here.

Header image sourced with permission from yehuda ramadika.

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