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The growing American Indian population, 1960–1990: Beyond demography


Since 1960, the Native American population has exhibited explosive growth, increasing from 552,000 to 1,959,000, or 255 percent. The average annual growth rate of 4.3 percent, extending over a 30-year period, is demographically impossible without immigration – in fact, of the 1.4 million growth only 762,000 comes from natural increase, whereas 645,000 comes from non-demographic factors. This paper expands on previous work to illustrate with demographic techniques how such extraordinary growth was achieved through changing patterns of racial self-identification on the part of people with only partial or distant American Indian ancestry, coupled with relatively high fertility and improving mortality. It also provides some basic demographic background on the size, growth, and geographic structure of the American Indian population, while exploring both demographic and geographic underpinnings of the changing population. Data on race from the 1970, 1980, and 1990 Censuses are based on self-identification. A person choosing the American Indian racial response does not have to provide any substantiation or documentation. While this method aids overall census taking by permitting respondents to fill out their own census forms, self-identification adds a temporal component to the data because responses elicited from the same individual (or group of individuals) may change over time in reaction to social, political, or economic conditions or variations in question wording. New identities may emerge or old ones may disappear. This effect has had a noteworthy impact on data for American Indians. Analysts and other data users must be aware of underlying response patterns to interpret changes correctly.

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PASSEL, J.S. The growing American Indian population, 1960–1990: Beyond demography. Population Research and Policy Review 16, 11–31 (1997).

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  • Racial identity
  • Self-identification
  • Demographic analysis
  • Geographic distribution