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What Makes Someone American Indian?


Who is Native American? It's a complicated question that has tripped up, among others, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren. The Democratic presidential hopeful recently apologized for identifying American Indian as her race more than 30 years ago. It was around that time that the U.S. census saw a surge of people identifying as American Indian. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang explains why.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: A demographic mystery began to unfold with the census of 1960. Over the following three decades, the number of people identifying their race as American Indian or Alaska Native more than tripled to almost 2 million people.

CAROLYN LIEBLER: It was tremendous, totally amazing. And the thing is it didn't happen to other groups.

WANG: Carolyn Liebler is a sociologist at the University of Minnesota who has studied this population boom.

LIEBLER: The increase was mostly people who were already adults. So it wasn't a bunch of births.

WANG: Liebler says the boom started when the Census Bureau began allowing people to report their race themselves instead of relying on the observations of census workers known as enumerators.

LIEBLER: They're not necessarily going to see a person who's American Indian as American Indian. And it was fairly rude, as kind of it is now, to ask someone what race they are. So the enumerator would just write it down.

WANG: Starting in 2000, people could pick more than one race for the census. That helped boost the count of Native Americans in 2010 to more than 5 million people or about 2 percent of the U.S. population. This continued rise in numbers is partly the legacy of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, according to UCLA anthropologist Russell Thornton, who's a member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma.

RUSSELL THORNTON: You saw, following the civil rights movement, signs that said Red Power. There's a militancy that developed - most notably, a group called the American Indian Movement.

WANG: In 1978, the American Indian Movement led what organizers called the Longest Walk.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: This is a very powerful spiritual march.


WANG: It was a five-month march from San Francisco to Washington, D.C., in protest against threats to tribal lands. Thornton says that kind of activism helped shift public perceptions.

THORNTON: People that didn't want to admit any Indian ancestry now thought it was kind of OK to be, quote, "Indian" - even fashionable.

WANG: We don't know whether Senator Elizabeth Warren's race has been listed as American Indian for the census. Her campaign has not responded to NPR's questions after multiple emails and phone calls. But she recently told reporters that registering as American Indian in 1986 for the State Bar of Texas was consistent with how she identified on other forms at the time.


ELIZABETH WARREN: It was based on my understanding from my family's stories. But family stories are not the same as tribal citizenship, and this is why I have apologized.

WANG: The U.S. census does not ask people who identify as Native American if they are also enrolled citizens of tribal nations. That's one reason why census numbers are higher than the number of people enrolled with tribal nations. Figuring out who is American Indian is complicated, says Desi Rodriguez-Lonebear, a social demographer and citizen of the Northern Cheyenne Nation.

DESI RODRIGUEZ-LONEBEAR: It has broken up families. It influences who individuals choose to partner with and have children with. It really permeates every part of our existence, in reality, as native peoples.

WANG: For some Native Americans, being American Indian means being an enrolled citizen of a tribal nation. Many nations only enroll people with a certain number of ancestors from their specific tribe. It's a controversial system, and some tribes are moving away from it. Rodriguez-Lonebear, who serves on an advisory committee for the Census Bureau, says researchers and policymakers should keep listening as American Indian identity continues to change.

RODRIGUEZ-LONEBEAR: They need to go and ask indigenous peoples, how do you want to be counted and classified?

WANG: That's a key question. Two trends are emerging among people who identify on the census as Native American. A growing share identifies with more than one racial group, and there's a growing share that does not affiliate with a specific tribe.

Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Hansi Lo Wang (he/him) is a national correspondent for NPR reporting on the people, power and money behind the U.S. census.