The federal government needs to change how it collects data on Native Americans, a new Brookings research report published March 30 says.

That’s because— under its current collection, aggregation, and publication method of race and ethnicity data— the government could be excluding more than three-quarters of Native Americans from official data sets, the report says.

“These practices may bias research, contribute to negative policy impacts, and perpetuate long-standing misunderstandings about Native American populations,” researchers Robert Maxim (Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe), Gabriel Sanchez, and Kimberly Huyser (Diné) wrote.

Currently, the Census Bureau collects race data based on the 1997 U.S. Office of Management and Budget (OMB) standards on race and ethnicity. The 1997 OMB standards define “American Indian or Alaska Native” as “A person having origins in any of the original peoples of North and South America (including Central America), and who maintains tribal affiliation or community attachment.” 

Never miss Indian Country’s biggest stories and breaking news. Sign up to get our reporting sent straight to your inbox every weekday morning. 

While racial data captured in the 2020 census shows that the vast majority of white Americans, Black Americans, and Asian Americans self-identify as one race alone, more than half of all Native American and Alaska Natives identify as mixed-race. Between 2010 and 2020, the number of people who identified as Native American alone or in combination with another race almost doubled from the previous census release in 2010, and the number of Americans classified as two or more races more than tripled.

“This is problematic because government agencies and non-governmental researchers often choose to aggregate all multiracial individuals into a single ‘two-or-more-races’ category,” the report said. “When that happens, it removes a majority of Native Americans and lumps them into a catch-all category with groups that have significantly different backgrounds and life experiences.”

 Additionally, the authors note that aggregating Native Americans—the only census-defined racial identity that is also a political identity— into a monolithic racial group can have problematic implications on tribal sovereignty. In the pending Supreme Court case Haaland v. Brackeen, opponents argue that it’s unconstitutional to give Native Americans adoption preferences for Native children based on their race, whereas defenders say that the preference comes from tribal citizenship to a nation, regardless of an individual’s racial background. 

“While federal government data collection has no direct bearing on how the Supreme Court will rule in the case, the broader treatment of Native Americans as a ‘race’—which is underscored in government data collection and reporting—may influence how non-Native people perceive or misunderstand Native American identity,” authors wrote.

The authors proposed short-term and long-term recommendations for the U.S. government to change its data collection practices when it comes to Native Americans. They suggested: 

  • Separating race and tribal citizenship in data collection by creating an additional census question to ask about Native American identity with a write-in for tribal affiliation. 
  • Encouraging federal government agencies to publish public data on American Indian and Alaska Native populations alone and in combination with other groups, in addition to single race data.

  •  Empowering tribes to collect and manage data on their own populations.

“Regardless of how the U.S. government chooses to proceed, it’s clear that the current practice of measuring Native Americans using mutually exclusive, single-race data is not working well,” the report said. “Moreover, the growing population of mixed-race Native Americans may foreshadow broader demographic trends in the country as a whole. Given that, it is time for both the federal government and non-governmental researchers to rethink how they measure Native American identity, as well as reconsider the broader use of mutually exclusive single-race categories upon which U.S. data publication has long relied.”

More Stories Like This

Native News Weekly (June 3, 2023): D.C. Briefs
House Passes Bipartisan Debt Ceiling Deal; How Native American Members of Congress Voted
History Made as First Navajo Appointed U.S. Federal Judge in California
California Bill Aims to Increase State Funding for Tribal Housing
Navajo Nation Leaders Recognized the Fallen on Memorial Day

Native News is free to read.

We hope you enjoyed the story you've just read. For the past dozen years, we’ve covered the most important news stories that are usually overlooked by other media. From the protests at Standing Rock and the rise of the American Indian Movement (AIM), to the ongoing epidemic of Murdered and Missing Indigenous People (MMIP) and the past-due reckoning related to assimilation, cultural genocide and Indian Boarding Schools.

Our news is free for everyone to read, but it is not free to produce. That’s why we’re asking you to make a donation to help support our efforts. Any contribution — big or small — helps.  Most readers donate between $10 and $25 to help us cover the costs of salaries, travel and maintaining our digital platforms. If you’re in a position to do so, we ask you to consider making a recurring donation of $12 per month to join the Founder's Circle. All donations help us remain a force for change in Indian Country and tell the stories that are so often ignored, erased or overlooked.

Donate to Native News Online today and support independent Indigenous journalism. Thank you. 

About The Author
Native News Online Staff
Author: Native News Online StaffEmail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Native News Online is one of the most-read publications covering Indian Country and the news that matters to American Indians, Alaska Natives and other Indigenous people. Reach out to us at [email protected].