More Than One Million New American Indians in 2000: Who Are They?


More than one million people reported their race as American Indian/Alaska Native (AIAN) in the 2000 U.S. census but did not do so in the 1990 census. We ask three questions. First, which subgroups had the greatest numerical growth? Second, which subgroups had the greatest proportional increase? And third, are the 2000 single-race AIANs and the 1990 AIANs the same set of people? We use full-count and high-density decennial census data; adjust for birth, death, and immigration; decompose on age, gender, Latino origin, education, and birth state; and compare the observed subgroup sizes in 2000 with the sizes expected based on 1990 counts. The largest numerical increases were among adolescent and middle-aged non-Latinos, non-Latino women, and adults with no college degree. Latinos, women, highly educated adults, and people born in Eastern states had the largest proportionate gains. The ability to report multiple races in 2000 and the new federal definition of “American Indian” may have especially affected these groups, although personal-identity changes are probably also involved. We find that thousands of new Latino AIANs reported only one race in 2000, but many 1990 AIANs reported multiple races in 2000. Thus, the 1990 AIANs and 2000 single-race AIANs are not always the same individuals.

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  1. 1.

    Anyone may mark the “American Indian or Alaska Native” box on the census form, but official enrollment in a federally recognized tribe is required for federal legal recognition as an American Indian. Tribal enrollment numbers are much lower than census counts: for example, 900,000 versus 1.37 million in 1980 (Thornton 1997:37) and 1.8 million versus 4.1 million in 2000 (Bureau of Indian Affairs 2001; Grieco and Cassidy 2001).

  2. 2.

    We see census answers as indicators of identification or attachment because they usually are self-reports or provided by someone in the home. For ease of exposition, we write as though they are self-reports.

  3. 3.

    Here, we are comparing U.S.-born populations in 1990 with U.S.-born populations ages 10 and older in 2000 (data from Ruggles et al. 2010). See Online Resource 1 for details.

  4. 4.

    Throughout, we use “Latino” to mean someone who answered “yes” to the census question “Is this person Spanish/Hispanic/Latino?”

  5. 5.

    Although intercensal estimates were lower (Perez and Hirschman 2009), 5.2 million people marked AIAN race in the 2010 census (Humes et al. 2011).

  6. 6.

    The open-ended ancestry question in 1990 and 2000 was, “What is this person’s ancestry or ethnic origin?” The first two responses were coded. People who report AIAN ancestry but not race usually report white race and are generally socioeconomically, culturally, and geographically distinct from racially identified AIANs (Liebler 2010a; Snipp 1989). Their number is growing; it was 8.9 million in 1990, 9.1 million in 2000, and 19.8 million in 2010 (data from Ruggles et al. 2010).

  7. 7.

    Census Bureau employees making population projections in the 1990s expected the AIAN population to reach 4.3 million in 2050 rather than in 2000 (McKenney and Bennett 1994).

  8. 8.

    About 16 % of AIANs in 1990 spoke an American Indian language; only 11 % of single-race and 0.5 % of multiple-race AIANs did so in 2000 (data from Ruggles et al. 2010).

  9. 9.

    Former non-Indians have been (re)claiming American Indian race for over a century (Census Office 1894:131), but the number of people doing so has increased over time (cf. Passel 1976; Passel and Berman 1986; Nagel 1996; Sturm 2011).

  10. 10.

    There are also many blacks with AIAN heritage who could be part of this increase (cf. Naylor 2008), although optional ethnicity has not been documented among blacks.

  11. 11.

    Some Latinos dislike the instruction to report an “enrolled or principle tribe” (cf. Berkowitz 2001; Crowley 2004), and definitions of race groups were not listed on the form. However, Census Bureau procedures follow contemporary federal guidelines when recoding write-in responses into federally defined race groups.

  12. 12.

    Birth state is probably reported consistently across censuses, whereas data on current location confounds response change with interstate migration. In 1990, 63 % of the U.S. population and 72 % of AIANs lived in their birth state. In 2000, those numbers declined to 61 % and 63 %, respectively (data from Ruggles et al. 2010).

  13. 13.

    This “old Indian region” (Eschbach 1993) includes states with many AIANs before the identity-related AIAN population boom. Its 10 states (Alaska, Arizona, Minnesota, Montana, North Carolina, North Dakota, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Dakota, and Wisconsin) held 77 % of AIANs in 1930.

  14. 14.

    To protect respondent confidentiality, the nonpublic data can be used only in a secure data enclave with explicit permission from the Census Bureau by researchers with federal security clearance. All results are reviewed and approved by the Census Bureau before dissemination. To further protect against disclosure risk, we present our results in rounded numbers.

  15. 15.

    The nonpublic data list two-race responses in 1990 and write-in responses in both years, some of which indicate American Indian as part of the response; we include these in our samples.

  16. 16.

    The deflation/inflation quotients were: 0.994 for non-Latino AIANs in 1990, 0.780 for Latino AIANs in 1990, 0.938 for non-Latino AIANs in 2000, and 1.072 for Latino AIANs in 2000.

  17. 17.

    The Census Bureau estimated an undercount rate of 4.5 % among AIANs in the 1990 census ( and a slight net overcount of AIANs in Census 2000 (1.16 % overcount off reservations and 0.3 % undercount on reservations) (U.S. Census Bureau 2009: Table 10-7). These estimates are based primarily on individual reinterviews but are complicated by changes in racial identification and enumerator intervention (Bentley et al. 2003; Schindler et al. 1992).

  18. 18.

    We use AIAN mortality rates. Because AIAN race is underreported on death certificates (Epstein et al. 1997), leading to artificially low mortality-rate estimates for AIANs, we may be overestimating the number of 1990 AIANs surviving to 2000. Eschbach and colleagues (1998) conducted a sensitivity test on this issue and found that it did not affect their results.

  19. 19.

    Estimates of the number of multiracial AIANs differ substantially between long-form and full-count data because of weights used with long-form data, which account for estimated nonresponse (Hefter and Gbur 2002). In the long-form data, 1,347,500 of 3,090,800 are multiracial AIANs (43.6 %). In the full-count data, 1,141,000 of 2,856,300 are multiracial AIANs (39.9 %).

  20. 20.

    We do not interpret high proportionate increases if the expected population was very small.

  21. 21.

    The positive numbers in column 6 add to about 76,000 in Table 1 but only about 56,000 in Table 2. This disparity is mainly due to large weights assigned to multiracial Latino American Indians in the long-form data.

  22. 22.

    In Latin America, many people claim a “mestizo” identity, which is conceptualized as a fusion of European, African, and indigenous heritages (Miller 2004).


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Acknowledgments and Disclaimer

This is a posthumous publication for Dr. Ortyl who died suddenly in 2013. His contributions to this article and sociology’s broader intellectual community were substantial. The research was conducted in the Minnesota Research Data Center, which receives funding from the National Science Foundation (SES-0851417 and ITR-0427889). Funding was provided by a Grant-in-Aid-of-Research from the College of Liberal Arts, University of Minnesota. We also gratefully acknowledge support from the Minnesota Population Center, which is funded by a center grant from the National Institutes of Health (R24-HD041023). This research was presented at the 2011 annual meetings of the Population Association of America and the Research Data Center Annual Research Conference, and was published by the U.S. Census Bureau as Center for Economic Studies Working Paper 13-02. For helpful comments, we thank J. Trent Alexander, Caren Arbeit, Julia Rivera Drew, Catherine Fitch, Liying Luo, Ann Meier, Sonya Rastogi, C. Matthew Snipp, John Robert Warren, and Meghan Zacher. Any opinions and conclusions expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the U. S. Census Bureau. All results have been reviewed to ensure that no confidential information is disclosed.

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Correspondence to Carolyn A. Liebler.

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Liebler, C.A., Ortyl, T. More Than One Million New American Indians in 2000: Who Are They?. Demography 51, 1101–1130 (2014).

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  • Race
  • American Indian
  • U.S. census
  • Research Data Center
  • Racial identification