Tuesday, June 15, 2021


Article Index


A. Indian Demographics and Political Identity

As of the 1990 census, there were approximately 2 million Indians in the United States (less than 1% of the American population) and approximately 7.1 million people of Indian ancestry. These numbers are somewhat unreliable because they were obtained through the census process, which relies upon self-identification rather than tribal enrollment figures. Nonetheless, they can serve as a workable foundation upon which to generally assess Indian racial and ethnic composition within the United States.

Not every person who identifies as having Indian ancestry identifies himself or herself as a member of the Indian “race.” There are many “ethnic” Indians who self-identify as being members of the Indian race with multiple ancestry, and others who self-identify as being Americans of Indian descent. In addition, there are the “core” Indians--people who identify as being persons of both the Indian race and of Indian ancestry. Being an ethnic Indian of Indian race or a core Indian, i.e., “Indians,” however, says nothing about one's status as a citizen of an Indian nation. It is estimated that only one-half to two-thirds of those self-identifying as Indians are actually tribal members.

The distinction between core Indians, ethnic Indians, and Indigenous citizens provides no direct evidence of the degree to which a person in any of these groups acknowledges or accepts American citizenship. It is possible, however, to draw a reasonable conclusion about which group might be most inclined to reject American citizenship. By definition, it can be safely assumed that all ethnic Indians who think of themselves only as Americans of Indian descent would fully accept their status as American citizens. This would exclude 5.1 million people from the potential pool of Indians who might reject American citizenship. Thus, Indians who reject American citizenship should fall within the category of being either a core Indian or an ethnic Indian with multiple ancestry. The number of Indians in these two categories is the population statistic set forth in the census--about 2 million people.

By definition, those Indians who reject American citizenship do so because they maintain strong allegiance to their Indigenous nation. Necessarily this would require that such an Indian be a citizen of an Indian nation. Adding in the fact that only one-half to two-thirds of Indians so categorized under the census are estimated to be citizens of an Indian nation, the maximum number of Indians who might reject American citizenship may only be 1 million people.

While this may seem to be a considerable number, this number is further reduced by the fact that the Indigenous people falling in this category have undergone over 100 years of colonizing efforts by the United States to transform their Indigenous identity. As a result, those Indians rejecting American citizenship should most likely fall into two categories--those Indians who never assimilated into American society and those Indians whose ancestors were assimilated but who have since undergone “ethnic renewal.” While the precise answer to this question would require empirical analysis, it is highly likely that the population of Indians rejecting American citizenship is a small percentage of the total Indian population.

There is little data regarding how Indians view themselves as citizens. Nonetheless, a recent survey of 1000 Indian college and high school students indicated that 96% identified themselves as members of their Indian nation, with slightly more than 50% identifying themselves as Americans, and 40% identifying themselves solely by their Indigenous nationality. On the basis of such statistics, it might be concluded that there is a strong resurgence among Native youth of exclusive notions of Indigenous citizenship. On the other hand, this same survey revealed that 70% of young adults and 60% of the youth affiliated with an American political party and that 72% of the Native youth polled said that Martin Luther King was their most admired leader because “his efforts proved to be beneficial to all minorities.” Overall, then, this survey reflects considerable ambivalence about the political identity of the Indians participating in the survey. Moreover, the relatively small size of the sample and the focus exclusively on Native youth makes the survey of limited use. Nonetheless, the survey is interesting and does suggest the difficulties associated with accurately assessing contemporary Indigenous political identity.