Joining, Leaving, and Staying in the American Indian/Alaska Native Race Category Between 2000 and 2010


Conceptualizing and operationalizing American Indian populations is challenging. Each census for decades has seen the American Indian population increase substantially more than expected, with indirect and qualitative evidence that this is due to changes in individuals’ race responses. We apply uniquely suited (but not nationally representative) linked data from the 2000 and 2010 decennial censuses (N = 3.1 million) and the 2006–2010 American Community Survey (N = 188,131) to address three research questions. First, to what extent do American Indian people have different race responses across data sources? We find considerable race response change, especially among multiple-race and/or Hispanic American Indians. Second, how are people who change responses different from or similar to those who do not? We find three sets of American Indians: those who (1) had the same race and Hispanic responses in 2000 and 2010, (2) moved between single-race and multiple-race American Indian responses, and (3) added or dropped the American Indian response, thus joining or leaving the enumerated American Indian population. People in groups (1) and (2) were relatively likely to report a tribe, live in an American Indian area, report American Indian ancestry, and live in the West. Third, how are people who join a group different from or similar to those who leave it? Multivariate models show general similarity between joiners and leavers in group (1) and in group (2). Population turnover is hidden in cross-sectional comparisons; people joining each subpopulation of American Indians are similar in number and characteristics to those who leave it.

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Fig. 1
Fig. 2


  1. 1.

    We use “American Indian” to describe a person who reported “American Indian or Alaska Native” (AIAN) in the race question on the census form. Unless specified, we are referencing the entire group regardless of whether other races were also reported and regardless of Hispanic origins. Our study includes those reported as American Indian in the race question in the 2000 and/or the 2010 census. We do not assume that they always have or always will report American Indian (or be reported as this). We use the person’s time-specific race response to describe him/her. For instance, if someone reported American Indian in 2000 and white in 2010, we refer to him/her as non–American Indian in 2010.

  2. 2.

    We use “racial identification” and “race response” to mean the response given on the decennial census form. This is not necessarily the same as a person’s racial identity, although they are probably related.

  3. 3.

    We apply the terms “race” and “Hispanic origin” in congruence with the federal statistical definitions used to collect the data (Office of Management and Budget 1997). Each questionnaire used here included one question about Hispanic origin (one response allowed) and one question about race (multiple responses invited).

  4. 4.

    Population growth from identity change has been evident in other indigenous groups (e.g., Guimond et al. 2014; Kukutai and Didham 2009).

  5. 5.

    Responses might not be self-reports, although we simplify our prose by writing as though they are self-reports. Using case selection, we ensure that these are self-reports or reports by someone else in the household (probably the householder or his/her spouse; Sweet 1994), although enumerators visited some homes and could influence responses.

  6. 6.

    The census counted 4.1 million American Indians in 2000 (Grieco and Cassidy 2001) and 5.2 million in 2010 (Humes et al. 2011). For reasons described later herein, our linked data are not nationally representative.

  7. 7.

    Nation-building projects in Latin America often promoted ideologies about mestizaje or mestizo—racial and cultural mixture or fusion (Kearney 2000; Miller 2004; Telles and Bailey 2013).

  8. 8.

    Many Latin American countries recently legally recognized indigenous groups (Telles and Bailey 2013). There are about 400 indigenous groups in Latin America and the Caribbean (Montenegro and Stephens 2006), and more than 40 million of 500 million Latin Americans self-identify as indigenous (Telles and Bailey 2013). Many are bound to their indigenous heritage through language and political, social, and cultural ties (Gonzalez 1994; Montenegro and Stephens 2006). Although some live on (often remote) tribal lands or rural areas, an increasing share live in urban areas (Dahl and Jensen 2002; Del Popolo et al. 2007; Roldán Ortiga 2004). As a whole, they are relatively poor and have worse social and health outcomes (Kearney 2000; Psacharopoulos and Patrinos 1994).

  9. 9.

    Among American Indians whose only reported tribe was from South or Central America, 86 % reported Hispanic in the 2000 census, and 94 % did so in the 2010 census.

  10. 10.

    People who listed a tribe anywhere in the race question were coded as American Indian race in post-enumeration processing. Of 244,761 people reporting a Central or South American tribe in the 2010 census, only 38 % marked the “American Indian or Alaska Native” check box. Of the 3,195,538 who reported a North American tribe, 84 % marked the box. Our linked decennial sample has higher proportions who marked the check box: 46 % and 98 %, respectively.

  11. 11.

    The federal definition of American Indian or Alaska Native is “A person having origins in any of the original peoples of North and South America (including Central America), and who maintains tribal affiliation or community attachment” (Office of Management and Budget 1997:58,789).

  12. 12.

    The decision of whether to give a single-race response or to report multiple races is based on heritage and also on political and legal considerations, community connections, and other factors (see Liebler 2001; Robertson 2013).

  13. 13.

    Foreign-born individuals who have gone through the citizenship process have had considerable experience with the U.S. system and may have substantial understanding of U.S. social practices.

  14. 14.

    Relatedly, socioeconomic privilege could make a race response change from white to minority seem especially costless because the person is buffered from the harshest costs of color.

  15. 15.

    An estimated 1 % of links were to the wrong person (Layne et al. 2014).

  16. 16.

    The decennial data has not been through data perturbation. We ensure disclosure avoidance using disclosure review. The ACS data has undergone data perturbation, causing some response mismatch between the decennial and ACS data points.

  17. 17.

    We do not use ACS weights. Because they account for factors such as survey nonresponse and sampling strategies but do not adjust for record linkage and case selection, they would not make the data representative.

  18. 18.

    Alternate versions of all multivariate models with fewer independent variables but including people of all ages are available on request. Also, descriptive statistics for only people ages 25 and older are available on request.

  19. 19.

    A total of 1,365,025 people in our decennial linked data reported non-Hispanic, single-race American Indian in 2000 or 2010 (=1,045,627 + 1,042,724 – 723,326). Of these, 723,326 gave the same report both times. Thus, 723,326 / 1,365,025 = 53 % of people in S1 were stayers.

  20. 20.

    Stayers represented 13 % of the people in S2, 11 % of those in S3, 9 % of those in S4.

  21. 21.

    We use the ACS-decennial linked data in Fig. 2 and Tables 48. Throughout the article, we define joiners, stayers, and leavers using only information from the decennial censuses of 2000 and 2010. We take into account ACS race responses in our multivariate analyses.

  22. 22.

    A small proportion of ACS race response changes may be due to data perturbation and not the respondent.

  23. 23.

    People in rows 1–8 and 21–24 (American Indian in both censuses) can have a recorded “enrolled or principal tribe” in 2000 and/or in 2010, while those in rows 9–20 (American Indian in one census) can have a recorded tribe in only one census. We code any write-in response as a “tribe report.”

  24. 24.

    Relative risks (exp(β)) that are below 1.0 show a negative relationship. For example, in Table 5, those who were never married were significantly less likely to leave S1 than they were to stay in this subgroup (exp(β) = 0.75). Relative risks above 1.0 show the opposite: people who did not report a tribe in either census were more than five times as likely (exp(β) = 5.63) to be S1 leavers than to be S1 stayers.


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This article is released to inform interested parties of research and to encourage discussion. The views expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the U.S. Census Bureau. At various stages of this research, we have benefited from thoughtful comments from many people, including C. Matthew Snipp, Amy O’Hara, James Noon, Leticia Fernandez, Sharon Ennis, Julia Rivera Drew, Catherine Fitch, Liying Luo, Caren Arbeit, Susan Mason, J. Trent Alexander, Jenifer Bratter, and Mary Campbell. We also thank the American Indian and Indigenous Studies Workshop and the Inequality and Methods Workshop, both at the University of Minnesota, for sponsoring helpful discussions of this research. The University of Minnesota’s Minnesota Population Center provided important support for the first author through programs made possible by an NIH Center Grant (R24HD041023).

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Liebler, C.A., Bhaskar, R. & Porter (née Rastogi), S.R. Joining, Leaving, and Staying in the American Indian/Alaska Native Race Category Between 2000 and 2010. Demography 53, 507–540 (2016).

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  • American Indian
  • Census
  • Racial identification
  • Error of closure
  • Linked data