Interesting Facts and Information About the Native American Population

Interesting Facts and Information About the Native American Population

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

Yet American Indians are three-dimensional people who exist in the here and now. In recognition of National Native American Heritage Month, the U.S. Census Bureau has collected data about American Indians that reveal noteworthy trends taking place among this diverse racial group. Get the facts about what makes Native Americans unique.

Almost Half of Native Americans Are Mixed-Race

According to the 2010 U.S. Census, more than five million Native Americans live in the United States, making up 1.7 percent of the population. While 2.9 million U.S. indigenous peoples identify as solely American Indian or Alaska Native, 2.3 million identified 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 Native Americans may be the product of interracial couples-one indigenous parent and one of another race. They may also have non-Native ancestry that dates back to generations past. On the flip side, many whites and blacks claim to have Native American 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 Native American.

This isn't to say that the whites and blacks in question are always lying or 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 Native American lineage.

Many people who claim American Indian origin don't know much, if anything, about their Native ancestor and are ignorant about Native cultures and customs. Yet they may be responsible for a boost in the indigenous population if they claim Native 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 Native American.

Another reason for the high number of multiracial Native Americans 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 Native American. Many Latinos have European, indigenous and African ancestry. Those who are intimately connected to their indigenous roots want such ancestry to be acknowledged.

The Native American 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 Native American film “Smoke Signals.” He alludes to the widely spread notion in U.S. society that indigenous peoples are extinct.

Contrary to popular belief, Native Americans 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 of American Indians, U.S. indigenous groups are actually growing today.

The Native American 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%. By 2050, the Native population is expected to increase by more than three million.

The Native American population is concentrated in 15 states, all of which have indigenous populations of 100,000 or more: 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 Native Americans, Alaska has the highest percentage of the population.

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

Eight Native American 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 Indian tribes and 334 American Indian 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 Native Americans Are Bilingual

Unless you live in Indian Country, it may be a surprise for you to learn that many Native Americans speak more than one language. The Census Bureau has found that 28% of American Indians 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 Native Americans 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 Native peoples from speaking in tribal languages. Government officials even sent indigenous children to boarding schools where they were punished for speaking tribal languages.

As elders in some indigenous communities died, fewer and fewer tribal members could speak the tribal 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.

Native American Businesses Are Booming

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

With 45,629 Native-owned businesses, California leads the nation in indigenous enterprises, 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

  • Fitzgerald, Kathleen J. "Beyond White Ethnicity." Lexington Books, 2007.
  • Hinton, Leanne, and Ken Hale. "The Green Book of Language Revitalization in Practice." Leiden: Brill, 2013.
  • "The American Indian and Alaska Native Population: 2010." 2010 Census Briefs. Washington DC: United States Census Bureau, January 2012.
  • "United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples." Department of Economic and Social Affairs: Indigenous Peoples. United Nations, 2007.

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