By Victoria Pelham
Cronkite News Service
WASHINGTON – The number of American Indians who claimed to be multiracial jumped sharply over the last decade, but not so much in Arizona, the Census Bureau reported Wednesday.
The bureau said the total number of American Indian or Alaska Natives grew from 4.1 million in 2000 to 5.2 million in 2010, a 27 percent increase. Of those, 2.3 million people, or 44 percent of the total, claimed to be Indian and at least one other race, the report said.
But Arizona saw relatively higher numbers of people claiming to be Indian only.
“There’s a common trend in the state of Arizona that is different from other states,” said Mellor Willie, executive director of the National American Indian Housing Council.
“That will definitely have an effect when you’re working with raw federal policy that has to meet the needs of all Indian people,” Willie said. “Tribes have to take that into consideration, especially the tribes in Arizona.”
The Census Bureau said the Navajo Nation, which has a significant presence in Arizona, had the largest number of single-race members of any tribal group in the country, with 287,000 of the tribe’s 332,129 people claiming to be single-race. That means just 13 percent of Navajo claim to be multiracial.
Nationally, four of the five reservations reporting the highest numbers of single-race members were in Arizona: the Navajo were followed by Fort Apache, San Carlos and Gila River tribes.
The Census also reported that 78 percent of all American Indians lived outside of tribal lands in 2010.
Simon Boyce, deputy director of the Navajo Nation Washington Office, said the tribe has seen a widespread move off the reservation. The tribal administration is trying to create more opportunities to keep people on the land.
That shift away from tribal lands is frightening for the Navajo, he said, which is why news of an overall population increase is welcome.
“I think you really need to be concerned about how many people are leaving the reservation and what that means not only for the Navajo – Navajo culture and Navajo identity – but also what it means for the surrounding areas,” Boyce said. “They’re becoming separated from their land, separated from their identity, and separated from their Navajo culture.”
Panelists who spoke Wednesday on the release of the data at the National Museum of the American Indian said the shifting number can have real impact.
Malia Vilegas, director of the Policy Resource Center for the National Congress of American Indians, said it could affect federal and state funding, which is based on population counts, as well as community planning and education.
“Small differences in counts can make large differences,” she said.
Willie said later that because so much of Arizona is tribal land, the Census data could shape federal and state funding and policy decisions, as well as policies of counties and municipalities on the border of tribal lands.
Colin Kippen, executive director of the National Indian Education Association, expressed concern about federal money that is distributed to states for Native American education. He said the money “gets washed” and does not reach the people it is intended for.
“Better data would really help us to highlight the fact that this … is occurring,” Kippen said.
The panel of advocates cautioned that the Census numbers should not be considered alone, but should be looked at along with censuses being developed by tribes and other information.
“This is only a snapshot,” Willie said of the Census figures.
Kippen said the numbers can continue to tell the “absolutely crucial … story of the Indian population, but tribes need to be careful with how they move forward from there.
“They have provided us with the tip of the iceberg,” Kippen said of the federal data.