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Who Counts? Identifying Native American Populations

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Spring 2015   


        Obstacles, Solutions, and Self-Determination in Indian Housing Policy
        Who Counts? Identifying Native American Populations
        Local Initiatives Promote Homeownership in Indian Country

Who Counts? Identifying Native American Populations


      • Logistical and cultural barriers can impede data collection in Indian Country.
      • Improvements in federal census methodology could improve the accuracy of federal data on American Indian and Alaska Native communities.
      • Participatory research, in which external investigators partner with tribal communities, is essential to produce data relevant to tribes’ unique needs.

A graph showing the growth of American Indian and Alaska Native Population in the United States from 1960 to 2010.
Sources: Tina Norris, Paula L. Vines, and Elizabeth M. Hoeffel. 2012. “The American Indian and Alaska Native Population: 2010,” U.S. Census Bureau ( Accessed 16 April 2015; Campbell Gibson and Kay Jung. 2002. “Historical Census Statistics on Population Totals By Race, 1790 to 1990, and By Hispanic Origin, 1970 to 1990, for the United States, Regions, Divisions, and States,” Working Paper Series #56, U.S. Census Bureau ( Accessed 16 April 2015.
Statisticians have long struggled to obtain accurate data on American Indian and Alaska Native (AIAN) populations.1 There are significant logistical barriers to measurement in Indian Country. In general, counting populations in sparsely populated rural areas is difficult and time intensive. Researchers also must consider the tribes’ unique cultural contexts, such as the complex and evolving nature of American Indian identity. These challenges hinder the development of evidence-based policy for these populations and also can have direct financial consequences for tribes. For example, HUD distributes about $650 million annually to more than 580 tribes through the Indian Housing Block Grant, largely based on proportional need as demonstrated from census data.

New developments in data collection activities, however, may provide better national and local data on AIAN populations. At a national level, the U.S. Census Bureau has implemented new practices to improve the accuracy of counts provided through the ongoing American Community Survey (ACS). At the local level, tribes have demonstrated that performing their own studies, often in partnership with research institutions, can enable key insights. For example, this article highlights an initiative in Minnesota, where tribes have partnered with researchers to perform high-quality studies of homelessness and near-homelessness. These studies led agencies to reconsider their approach to tribal housing and helped the tribes develop and evaluate their own homelessness plans. The studies also drove major investments in tribal housing; for every dollar spent on the studies, $28 of housing development occurred.

Prospective Improvement in Federal Data on American Indians

Data Challenges. For at least the past century, advocates and policymakers have recognized problems with AIAN population statistics. The 1928 Meriam Report — the first major survey of Indian Country in nearly a hundred years — illustrated the consequences of federal policy failures and sparked reforms. The Report’s author commented that “[t]he lack of adequate accurate statistics and records regarding the Indians and the work done in their behalf [had] constituted a real handicap” to the preparation of the report.2

Comparing AIAN counts across time is difficult. The meaning of “American Indian and Alaska Native” to census respondents has evolved, and the Census Bureau has changed its methodology. In each census since 1960, hundreds of thousands of people have joined the AIAN population count by changing how they identify themselves, not through birth or immigration (fig.1).3

In 1960, the census first relied on racial self-identification in some areas. In 1980, the Census Bureau began to allow self-identification in all areas surveyed, which may explain the large jump in the AIAN population count from 1970 to 1980. Today, the census uses a broad description for the “American Indian or Alaska Native” category, defining it to include any person “having origins in any of the original peoples of North and South American (including Central America) and who maintains tribal affiliation or community attachment.”4

The 2000 census is illustrative. Before 2000, census respondents could select only one race. From 2000 onward, respondents could select multiple races. In 2000, more than 4 million people checked the “American Indian or Alaska Native” box compared to about 2 million in 1990. At the same time, the count of respondents who selected only “American Indian or Alaska Native” in 2000 increased to about 2.5 million. According to Lieber and Ortyl, a million Americans reported a race other than American Indian in 1990 and subsequently added American Indian as an additional race or switched to only American Indian in 2000.5

These trends imply changing views of American Indian identity alongside other demographic trends. For example, young female Latino American Indians and American Indians with some college education were disproportionately likely to join the AIAN population in 2000.6 As ACS data on ethnicity reveal, the proportion of the AIAN population identifying as Hispanic has increased dramatically over the past 30 years. In 1990, 8.4 percent of people who selected only AIAN also identified as Hispanic. By 2010, that figure had risen to 23 percent.7 People who identify as both Hispanic and AIAN also tend to live in different areas than do those identifying as non-Hispanic AIAN; Hispanic AIANs are less likely to live in tribal areas or surrounding counties and are more likely to live in metropolitan areas.8

New research considering the 2000 and 2010 census also demonstrates that people who changed their race responses to add or drop AIAN identification differ demographically from those who consistently identified as AIAN. Those who consistently identified as AIAN were more likely to report that they were members of a tribe, lived in an American Indian area, were of American Indian ancestry, and lived in the West.9 Those who joined the AIAN population in 2010 and those who left were demographically similar; in fact, among Hispanic and multiple-race American Indians, “joiners” and “leavers” far outnumbered those who consistently identified themselves as AIAN.10 As a result, even comparisons of census counts that consider cross-sectional characteristics of respondents do not fully capture the turnover within the AIAN population from census to census.

Improvements to the American Community Survey. A decade ago, the Census Bureau began collecting data continuously through the American Community Survey, which supplements the long-standing decennial census. The Census Bureau developed the ACS to provide more current data, more efficient collection, and better census coverage.11 The ACS also enables the Census Bureau to add new data products — such as new or changed questions — every year rather than every 10 years.

The ACS primarily differs from the decennial census in that the ACS surveys only a sample of Americans, provides estimates every year, and captures a much broader range of data. In comparison, the decennial Census attempts to survey the entire population every 10 years and asks just a few questions: name, sex, age, date of birth, race, ethnicity, relationship, and housing tenure.12

Before implementing the ACS, the Census Bureau supplemented the decennial census by sending longer questionnaires to one-sixth of U.S. households. These long-form questionnaires asked for more detailed socioeconomic information than did the usual short-form questionnaire. The Census Bureau discontinued these long-form questionnaires with the introduction of the ACS, which now collects this supplementary information.

With the ACS, detailed demographic data are now available annually for some areas. As a result, the ACS can help researchers, policymakers, and advocates to better understand social trends and challenges in these communities.

For smaller communities, however, ACS data are available only in three- or five-year estimates. Many tribal communities’ data are provided as five-year estimates. The Census Bureau does not provide single-year data on these areas because the sample sizes are too small to provide accurate estimates with only a year’s data.13 Because surveying is expensive, reducing the ACS sample size is a necessary tradeoff for obtaining more detailed data more regularly. The sample sizes used in the ACS, however, have generated concerns about how accurately the ACS measures AIAN counts.

Concerns With ACS AIAN Counts. After the ACS was implemented, critics asserted that the data undercounted the AIAN population. Norm DeWeaver of the National Congress of American Indians wrote, for example, that the new data appeared to be “missing substantial numbers of people who identify as only American Indian or Alaska Native, particularly youth,” at both the national level and in local areas. DeWeaver also noted that the ACS’ sample size was much smaller than that of the old long-form census questionnaire. Initially, the ACS sampled three million households each year compared to a sample size of one-sixth of American households in the long-form census supplement.14 Using a smaller sample size could render the ACS less accurate. Patrick C. Cantwell of the Census Bureau asserts, however, that within the ACS’s sample size, the response rates in AIAN areas from 2005 to 2012 were “very good.”15 Higher response rates improve a survey’s accuracy.

A young couple holding their son is standing on the front porch of their new home.
The Johnson family is ready to move into their new home built by the Cook Inlet Housing Authority. Ken Graham Photography
Carol Chiago Lujan, a professor of American Indian Studies at Arizona State University, describes three common explanations for undercounts of AIAN populations.16 First, members of Indian populations often hold a relatively fluid view of residence and move frequently between on- and off-reservation housing.17 For example, as Jojola comments, Indians who live in urban areas often move between their urban neighborhoods and their reservations.18 Second, Lujan notes that American Indians may resist responding to the census because they distrust the government and fear losing government assistance. Third, there may be methodological issues with the data collection. The biggest problem, according to Lujan, is defining what it means to be “Indian.”19 As Snipp writes, “for some groups such as American Indians, racial and ethnic identity is an extremely complex phenomenon which has the potential to be highly variable.”20 Different views of identity lead to both large increases in population, as appeared in the 2000 census, and undercounts.

Beginning in 2011, the Census Bureau improved the ACS’ methodology by expanding the size of the sample and increasing followup in AIAN communities. The initial ACS sample increased from 3 million to 3.54 million addresses annually and increased the sampling rates for the smallest areas. The census also began to follow up every nonresponding, nonmailable address with a personal visit in areas with an estimated American Indian population greater than 10 percent, all Alaska Native Village areas, and all Hawaiian Home Lands. These improvements first appeared in the 2007–2011 data. But because many areas with significant AIAN populations are sparsely populated and receive only five-year ACS estimates, the full-impact of these changes will be apparent only after five full years of data collection, in the 2012–2016 estimates.21

Moving forward, a Census Bureau working group has recommended additional steps to improve ACS counts of small populations. Critically, the group advised that the Census Bureau should regularly consult with American Indian tribes and Alaska Natives about the ACS.22

Tribal Surveys: Surveying Homeless Populations in Indian Country

Surveys performed by tribal communities can provide vital data as a complement or an alternative to federal census data. These surveys also show the value of participatory research. When investigators work with communities as active partners, they are able to obtain data that are relevant to the communities’ needs and conscious of unique local contexts.23

In 2009, the Navajo Housing Authority conducted a comprehensive custom survey of housing needs in the Navajo Nation. The Housing Authority surveyed more than 31,000 individuals and partnered with a group of consulting firms to analyze the data.24 The subsequent needs assessment illuminated the Navajo Nation’s demographics, residents’ housing preferences, and factors that affect citizens’ housing needs. For example, the analysis included a customized affordability index to take into account unique local economic, fiscal, and cultural conditions. The assessment also made recommendations to respond to these findings, which included the identified need for 34,100 new housing units.

Beginning in 2012, five North and South Dakota tribes partnered with Big Water Consulting to perform the Dakota Housing Needs Assessment Pilot Project.25 The Project included a household survey to collect housing needs data, which the tribes could use to make independent census challenges under NAHASDA, as well as a homelessness count on four of the reservations. On the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming, the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho Tribes collaborated with the University of Wyoming on a 2010 study, WINDS III (Wind River Indian Needs Determination Study). WINDS III considers a number of topics, including labor force status and poverty. On the Nez Perce reservation in Idaho, tribal agencies have partnered to survey resident American Indians on employment conditions.26

In Minnesota, an ongoing partnership between tribal nations and researchers has achieved key findings regarding tribal homelessness and near-homelessness. The process by which the tribes and researchers have worked together and the results of their work demonstrate how participatory research can enable new insights and better policy.

Challenges in Homeless Data Collection in Indian Country. Measuring the extent of homelessness is an essential step toward combating it.27 In Indian Country, performing accurate surveys of homeless populations poses unique challenges, which has likely resulted in the systemic undercounting of tribal homelessness.28 For example, as in many rural areas, near-homelessness is common in Indian Country; many individuals double-up in overcrowded residences but may not consider themselves homeless.29 We know the need is substantial — national data indicate that American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian people are both at high risk for homelessness and account for a disproportionate share of the homeless population.30

Collecting data on rural homelessness is difficult. Surveying costs increase when population density is low. The very nature of rural homelessness also poses challenges. In rural areas, homelessness often is so deeply intertwined with poverty that the two issues are indistinguishable. The national Point-in-Time counts, which estimate national homelessness, do not include people who live in doubled-up households.31

A little boy and girl holding hands standing on a driveway with houses behind them.
Expanded and more accurate data on AIAN communities can better inform policy and outcomes. Ken Graham Photography
Homeless surveys in Indian Country face additional barriers. As the Housing Assistance Council comments, residents are often reluctant to participate in census surveys because they distrust the government or because they have been studied so frequently in the past.32 Moreover, conducting accurate homelessness surveys on Native American lands requires cultural competency, such as an understanding of sovereignty and the many historical and contemporary violations of sovereignty that form the current tribal context.

Best Practices in Survey Methods. Tribes and researchers in Minnesota have partnered successfully over the past decade to study tribal homelessness. In 2006, six Tribal Nations partnered with the Corporation for Supportive Housing, Wilder Research, and public agencies to perform the first survey investigating the scope and scale of homelessness and near-homelessness among American Indians on tribal lands.33 Tribal leaders and researchers formed the partnership after the state of Minnesota found that its Point-in-Time counts did not include tribal communities.34 Two more surveys followed, with the most recent survey conducted in 2012 and published in 2014.35

These studies have demonstrated best practices in survey methods for research on tribal homelessness as well as for participatory research more broadly. The Housing Assistance Council and the Corporation for Supportive Housing have developed an evidence-based toolkit, Conducting Homeless Counts on Native American Lands, which draws from the studies’ process.36

The Minnesota studies demonstrate the importance of strong relationships between tribes and researchers. In their work, researchers must respect and understand tribal sovereignty and the tribal context. Conducting Homeless Counts recommends that researchers conduct outreach to appropriate tribal leaders and staff, act as a liaison between tribal departments, and keep the tribal government and larger tribal community informed and engaged.37 According to Nicole MartinRogers and Ellen Shelton of Wilder Research, researchers should recognize that these processes take time and should account for that time and costs as they plan.38 As MartinRogers and Shelton also point out, these relationships are what allow the surveys to happen in the first place.39

Tribes and researchers should design the surveys collaboratively. Chairwoman Karen Diver of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, one of the six participating communities, emphasizes that tribal participation ensures that the surveys are culturally competent.40 Diver notes that the tribal leaders, including staff with direct service responsibilities, partnered directly with Wilder Research.41 Together, they built a study that addressed unique aspects of the tribal context, from the survey’s design to its implementation.42

The studies should respond to the tribes’ unique needs.43 In particular, MartinRogers and Shelton recommend that researchers adapt their definition of homelessness to capture the information that tribes need.44 The Minnesota studies include a count of doubled-up households, which typically would not be included under HUD’s definition of homelessness. Surveyors can collect the data in a way that also provides counts under the more restrictive definition of homelessness, such as for HUD’s Point-in-Time survey.45 The Minnesota studies captured data that were comparable to Wilder Research’s triennial statewide survey of homeless people and Point-in-Time counts.46

Tribes can overcome barriers to data collection by directly overseeing the implementation of the surveys. As MartinRogers and Shelton point out, tribes can leverage key insights and experience to effectively perform the surveys on the ground.47 The Fond du Lac Band, for example, implemented the survey through local health workers and volunteers from local universities.48 The Band intentionally did not use social workers, so that residents would not fear that their survey responses would be used for other purposes.49

The Impact of Data. In Minnesota, access to detailed and accurate homelessness data enabled the public and policymakers to better understand housing insecurity and homelessness on reservations. For example, the 2012 survey revealed that overcrowding in the surveyed communities had worsened since the 2006 survey. The surveys have positively influenced how public agencies interact with the tribes and have demonstrated that tribes themselves must lead solutions. After the initial survey was published, the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency realized the need to proactively involve tribes in decisionmaking and to include them in competitive funding opportunities.50 Diver comments that the surveys spurred the Agency to invest in its long-term institutional competency in tribal communities.51

The tribes have used the survey data, along with other information, to develop and evaluate their own plans to end homelessness.52 These plans are aligned with the Minnesota state and regional homelessness plans.53 Although the tribes signed memorandums of understanding that Wilder Research would only publish aggregated data for all six communities, each tribe also received its individualized data.54 For the tribes themselves, who had long worked together on housing issues, the survey presented the first opportunity to cross-collaborate to address the common needs of homeless people on Minnesota reservations.55

The surveys have helped the tribes to secure funding to address their demonstrated housing needs. After the initial survey was published, the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency prioritized tribal housing projects in its next three cycles.56 In the first three years after the 2006 study, the six participating tribes subsequently leveraged a total of $30 million for supportive housing. Each dollar spent on the study generated more than $28 in housing development.57


Expanded and more accurate data can inform better policy and better outcomes. Given the historical context, it is particularly critical to improve data concerning AIAN communities. Looking forward, improvements in the ACS could lead to a better understanding of tribal communities and their needs, driving more effective policy decisions and directing funding where it is needed most. The data can also help us understand changes in how people identify themselves. In Minnesota, the tribal homelessness and near-homelessness surveys have had a tremendous impact. The studies have fostered better local planning, new housing developments, and a greater commitment by policymakers to understand and respond to tribal needs. Investments in data, as well as in relationships with the communities concerned, can bring tremendous returns.


— Chase Sackett, HUD Staff


Related Information:

GIS Data Mapping

  1. Carolyn A. Lieber and Timothy Ortyl. 2013. “More Than a Million New American Indians in 2000: Who Are They?” U.S. Census Bureau.
  2. Lewis Meriam. 1928. “The Problem of Indian Adminis­tration,” Institute of Government Research.
  3. Lieber and Ortyl.
  4. U.S. Census Bureau. 2009. “A Compass for Understand­ing and Using American Community Survey Data: What Users of Data for American Indians and Alaska Natives Need to Know,” U.S. Department of Commerce.
  5. Lieber and Ortyl.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Kathryn L.S. Pettit, G. Thomas Kingsley, Jennifer Biess, Kassie Bertumen, Nancy Pindus, Chris Narducci, and Amos Buddle. 2014. “Continuity and Change: Demo­graphic, Socioeconomic, and Housing Conditions of American Indians and Alaska Natives,” U.S. Depart­ment of Housing and Urban Development.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Carolyn A. Lieber, Renuka Bhaskar, and Sonya Rastogi. 2014. “Dynamics of Race: Joining, Leaving, and Staying in the American Indian/Alaska Native Race Category between 2000 and 2010,” Center for Administrative Records Research and Applications Working Paper #2014-10, U.S. Census Bureau.
  10. Ibid.              
  11. U.S. Census Bureau. 2006. “Design and Methodology: American Community Survey,” Technical Paper 67.
  12. U.S. Census Bureau. “American Community Survey” (­graphic/american_community_survey.html). Accessed 16 January 2015.
  13. U.S. Census Bureau 2009.
  14. Norman DeWeaver. 2010. “The American Community Survey: Serious Implications for Indian Country,” Na­tional Congress of American Indians Policy Research Center.
  15. Michael D. Starsinic. 2014. “American Community Survey Response and Nonresponse Rates for American Indian and Alaska Native Geographic Areas,” U.S. Census Bureau.
  16. Carol Chiago Lujan. 2014. “American Indians and Alaska Natives Count,” American Indian Quarterly 38:3, 319–41; 408–9.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Theodore S. Jojola. 2001. “Profiling the Native American Community in Albuquerque: Assessing the Impacts of Census Undercounts and Adjustments,” U.S. Census Monitoring Board.
  19. Lujan.
  20. Matthew Snipp. 1989. “Who Are American Indians? Some Observations about the Perils and Pitfalls of Data for Race and Ethnicity,” Population Research and Policy Review 5, 237–52.
  21. U.S. Census Bureau. “2011 American Community Survey Improvements” ( Ac­cessed 13 November 2014.
  22. National Advisory Committee on Racial, Ethnic, and Other Populations. 2014. “Small Populations in the American Community Survey Working Group Report,” U.S. Census Bureau
  23. Sally M. Davis and Raymond Reid. 1999. “Practicing Participatory Research in American Indian Communi­ties,” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 69(suppl.), 755S–9S.
  24. RPI Consulting, Jones Payne Group, Native Home Capital, and Alternative Marketing Solutions. 2011. “Phase II Housing Needs Assessment and Demo­graphic Analysis” ( Accessed 13 April 2015.
  25. Big Water Consulting. “Dakota Housing Needs As­sessment” ( Accessed 13 April 2015.
  26. DeWeaver.
  27. See U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Develop­ment, Office of Policy Development and Research. 2012. “Using Data to Understand and End Homeless­ness,Evidence Matters (Summer), 11–6.
  28. Housing Assistance Council. 2013. “Conducting Homeless Counts on Native American Lands: A Toolkit” ( Accessed 13 April 2015.
  29. Sarah Gehrig, Nicole MartinRogers, and Ellen Shelton. 2014. “2012 Study: Homelessness and Near-Homelessness on Minnesota Indian Reservations”; See also Paula W. Dail, Mack C. Shelley, II, and Scott T. Fitzgerald. 2000. “Methodologies for Examining Homelessness and Their Application to a Mandated Statewide Study,” Policy Studies Journal 28:2, 421–44.
  30. United States Interagency Council on Homelessness. 2012. “Expert Panel on Homelessness among Ameri­can Indians, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians.”
  31. Eric Oberdorfer and Leslie Strauss. 2013. “Counting Better: A Step Toward Addressing Native American Homelessness,” Rooflines (21 January).
  32. Housing Assistance Council.
  33. Corporation for Supportive Housing. “Minnesota American Indian Homelessness Survey” (…). Accessed 7 November 2014.
  34. Interview with Karen Diver, chairwoman of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, 26 February 2015.
  35. Gehrig et al.
  36. Housing Assistance Council 2013.
  37. Ibid.
  38. Interview with Nicole MartinRogers and Ellen Shelton, Wilder Research, 20 November 2014.
  39. Ibid.
  40. Interview with Karen Diver.
  41. Ibid.
  42. Ibid.
  43. Ibid.
  44. Ibid.
  45. Ibid.
  46. Interview with Nicole MartinRogers and Ellen Shelton.
  47. Ibid.
  48. Interview with Karen Diver.
  49. Ibid.
  50. Interview with Karen Diver.
  51. Ibid.
  52. Interview with Nicole MartinRogers and Ellen Shelton.
  53. Ibid.
  54. Interview with Karen Diver.
  55. Ibid.
  56. Interview with Karen Diver.
  57. Interview with Nicole MartinRogers and Ellen Shelton.


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The contents of this article are the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development or the U.S. Government.