Interesting Facts and Information About the U.S. Indigenous Population

UTE INDIAN CHIEF AT UTE MOUNTAIN TRIBAL PARK IN COLORADO

 David W. Hamilton/The Image Bank/Getty Images

Due to longstanding cultural mythology and the fact that Indigenous peoples constitute one of the smallest racial groups in the United States, misinformation about this population abounds. Many Americans simply regard Indigenous peoples as caricatures that only come to mind when pilgrims, cowboys, or Columbus are the topics at hand.

Yet Indigenous peoples are three-dimensional and exist in the here and now. In recognition of National Native American Heritage Month, the U.S. Census Bureau has collected data about Indigenous peoples that reveal noteworthy trends taking place among this diverse racial group.

Almost Half of Indigenous Peoples Are Biracial

According to the 2010 U.S. Census, more than 5 million Indigenous people live in the United States, making up 1.7% of the population. While 2.9 million identify as solely Indigenous or Alaska Native, 2.3 million identify as multiracial, the Census Bureau reported. That's nearly half of the Indigenous population. Why do so many natives identify as biracial or multiracial? The reasons for the trend vary.

Some of these Indigenous people may come from interracial couples—one Indigenous parent and one of another race. They may also have non-Indigenous ancestry that dates back to generations past. On the flip side, many White and Black people claim to have Indigenous ancestry because race mixing has taken place in the U.S. for centuries.

There’s even a nickname for this phenomenon, “Cherokee Grandmother Syndrome.” It refers to people who report family legends that a distant ancestor such as their great-great-grandmother was an Indigenous person.

This isn’t to say that the White and Black people in question are mistaken about having Indigenous ancestry. When talk show host Oprah Winfrey had her DNA analyzed on the television show “African American Lives,” she was found to have a significant amount of Indigenous lineage.

Many people who claim Indigenous origin in the U.S. don’t know much, if anything, about their Indigenous ancestor, their culture, or customs. Yet they may be responsible for a boost in the Indigenous population if they claim this ancestry on the census.

“Reclaimers are perceived as preying upon the current trendiness of nativeness as well as perhaps embracing this heritage for economic, or perceived economic, gain,” Kathleen J. Fitzgerald writes in the book Beyond White Ethnicity. Examples include Margaret Seltzer (aka Margaret B. Jones) and Timothy Patrick Barrus (aka Nasdijj), a couple of the White writers who profited from writing memoirs in which they pretended to be Indigenous people.

Another reason for the high number of multiracial Indigenous peoples is the spike in the number of Latin American immigrants in the U.S. with Indigenous ancestry. The 2010 census found that Latinos are increasingly choosing to identify as Indigenous. Many Latinos have European, Indigenous and African ancestry. Those who are intimately connected to their Indigenous roots want such ancestry to be acknowledged.

Indigenous Population Is Growing

“When Indians go away, they don’t come back.' Last of the Mohicans,' last of the Winnebago, last of the Coeur d’Alene people…,” says a character in the film “Smoke Signals.” He alludes to the widely spread notion in U.S. society that Indigenous peoples are extinct.

Contrary to popular belief, Indigenous peoples did not all disappear when Europeans settled in the New World. Although the warfare and disease that Europeans spread upon arriving in the Americas did decimate entire communities, U.S. Indigenous groups are actually growing today.

The Indigenous population rose by 1.1 million, or 26.7%, between the 2000 and 2010 census. That’s much faster than the general population growth of 9.7% in the same period. By 2050, the Indigenous population is expected to increase by more than 3 million.

The Indigenous population is concentrated in 15 states, all of which have 100,000 or more people in this demographic: California, Oklahoma, Arizona, Texas, New York, New Mexico, Washington, North Carolina, Florida, Michigan, Alaska, Oregon, Colorado, Minnesota, and Illinois. While California has the largest number of Indigenous people, Alaska has the highest percentage of the population.

Given that the median age of the Indigenous population is 29, eight years younger than the general population, the Indigenous population is in a prime position to expand.

Eight Indigenous Tribes Have at Least 100,000 Members

Many Americans would draw a blank if asked to list a handful of the nation’s largest Indigenous tribes. The country is home to 565 federally recognized tribes and 334 reservations. The largest eight tribes range in size from 819,105 to 105,304, with the Cherokee, Navajo, Choctaw, Mexican-American Indians, Chippewa, Sioux, Apache, and Blackfeet topping the list.

A Significant Portion of Indigenous People Are Bilingual

It may be a surprise for you to learn that many Indigenous people speak more than one language. The Census Bureau has found that 28% of Indigenous people and Alaska Natives speak a language other than English at home. That’s higher than the U.S. average of 21%. Among the Navajo Nation, a whopping 73% of members are bilingual.

The fact that many Indigenous peoples today speak both English and a tribal language is, in part, due to the work of activists who have striven to keep Indigenous dialects alive. As recently as the 1900s, the U.S. government actively worked to stop Indigenous peoples from speaking their native languages. Government officials even sent Indigenous children to boarding schools where they were punished for speaking their languages.

As elders in some Indigenous communities died, fewer members could speak the language and pass it on. According to the National Geographic Society’s Enduring Voices Project, a language dies every two weeks. More than half of the world’s 7,000 languages will vanish by 2100, and many such languages have never been written down. To help preserve Indigenous languages and interests worldwide, the United Nations created a Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007.

Indigenous Peoples' Businesses Are Booming

Indigenous-owned businesses are on the rise. From 2002 to 2007, receipts for such businesses jumped by 28%. To boot, the total number of these businesses increased by 17.7% during the same time period.

With 45,629 Indigenous-owned businesses, California leads the nation, followed by Oklahoma and Texas. More than half of Indigenous businesses fall into the construction, repair, maintenance, personal, and laundry services categories.

Sources and Further Reading