Unique among racial and ethnic minority groups in the United States, American Indians and Alaska Natives have a distinct legal and political standing.15 Due to treaty obligations, tribal governments are essentially sovereign but dependent nations within the United States. In addition to the challenges associated with counting a population with demographic and family structures that differ from other groups in the nation, the legal standing of tribal governments creates basic logistical concerns for the census. Cooperation with tribal governments is necessary to generate accurate address listings and coordinate outreach activities and follow-up enumeration.
The accurate collection of information on native American ancestry is itself a complex topic—how well does the Census Bureau’s self-identification system square with legal status as American Indian (listing on tribal rolls) or cultural standards (e.g., participants in ongoing Indian society, whether living on American Indian reservations or not)? However, it is not one that is directly related to our charge; a previous National Research Council (2004a) report discusses race and ethnicity data collection in the census more generally.
Based on ethnographic observations from the 1990 and 2000 censuses, and extant demographic research, some of the issues that can complicate the meaning and measurement of residence among native Americans include the following:
Fundamental difference in “household” concept: Lujan (1990:10) observes that “the census schedule is founded on a western European image of how society is oriented” and its notions of residence are “based on the nuclear family household”; however, “most American Indian tribes and Alaska Native villages are based on the extended family concept and current residence patterns reflect this lifestyle.” American Indian “households” are likely to include more multigenerational kin and, consequently, larger and more extensive household rosters, as well as frequent mobility among the housing units on a reservation. Schwede (2003:xiv)
Indeed, though the historical review in Chapter 2 did not examine the topic in depth, American Indians have had a distinct standing in the census through most of American history. The Constitution directed that the population counts used for apportionment be calculated “excluding Indians not taxed.” As a result, American Indians were excluded in the 1790–1850 censuses. The 1860 census included coverage of “civilized Indians,” a definition based on land ownership. American Indians have been consistently counted in the census since 1890, though they were not included in apportionment counts from 1890 through 1940 (Lujan, 1990).