Aug 13, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Native American population jumps to largest size in modern history

Zuni women with Indian Pots on head march 98th Gallup Inter-tribal Indian Ceremonial, New Mexico.

Zuni Pueblo women march 98th Gallup Inter-tribal Indian Ceremonial in Gallup, N.M. Photo: Visions of America/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

The number of people who identify as Native American or Alaska Native alone grew by 27.1% to 3.7 million people over the last decade, according to the U.S. Census.

Why it matter: The spike in the number of people who solely identify as Native American or Alaska Native mirrors the steady rise of the population since 1890, when Indigenous people were nearly wiped out in the U.S.

  • The Native American population was reduced to fewer than 250,000 people before the 20th century, following decades of mass extermination, forced boarding schools and land theft.
  • But years of resistance and legal battles over tribal sovereignty and civil rights have allowed Indigenous populations to rebound to their largest size in modern U.S. history.

By the numbers: In 2020, the Native American and Alaska Native alone population accounted for 1.1% of all people living in the United States. That's a jump compared with 0.9% in 2010.

  • An additional 5.9 million people identified as Native American and Alaska Native and another race group in 2020, such as white or Black American.
  • Together, the Native American and Alaska Native alone or in-combination population comprised 9.7 million people in 2020. The combination population grew by 160% since 2010.

What they're saying: "The numbers really do reflect the diversity that we're seeing today in the real world and in Indian Country. So we're very pleased with it," said Yvette Roubideaux, a member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe and vice president for research and director of the policy research center at the National Congress of American Indians.

  • "But again, we think it may also be an undercount, due to the privacy measures and other challenges with the COVID-19 pandemic."

Details: At 15.2% (111,575 people), Alaska had the largest percentage of its population identifying as solely Native American or Alaska Native.

  • New Mexico was second, with 10% of its population (212,241 people) identifying as solely Native American.
  • California has the largest population in total numbers, with 631,061 Indigenous people.

Yes, but: Tribal communities and Native Americans are spread out throughout congressional districts, making it difficult for Indigenous people to gain political power by electing Native Americans to Congress.

  • New voting restrictions in states like Arizona also could make it more difficult for Navajo Nation members to vote, diluting their power even more.
  • The Republican-dominated Kansas Legislature is poised to redraw a district currently held by Democratic U.S. Rep. Sharice Davids, a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation and one of two Native American women in Congress, that would oust her from office.
  • The Democratic-led New Mexico redistricting body could also redraw the district held by Republican U.S. Rep. Yvette Herrell, a member of the Cherokee Nation, that could also boot her from Congress.
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