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Why Native Americans Are The Exception To The Population Slowdown

The general consensus across the world is that human population growth is declining, and while the United Nations estimates there will be 9.7 billion people on Earth by 2050, this figure “comes against the backdrop of a slowing global fertility rate.” There is one demographic in the United States, though, where this parameter doesn’t seem to apply: Native Americans. 

Data released in September from the U.S. Census Bureau, collected during the 2020 census, detailed population makeups for more than 1,200 previously uncharted racial and ethnic groups. While populations of most ethnic groups were shrinking on par with the rest of the world, Native American and Indigenous groups saw their populations “skyrocket 85% over the past decade,” according to an analysis of the data by The Washington Post.

The data shows that the number of Americans claiming at least partial Indigenous heritage increased from 5.2 million to 9.7 million over the ten-year census period. This includes people who identify with either American Indian or Alaska Native populations. But when the rest of the United States — and the world — is grappling with a population bust on the horizon, why is census data showing the opposite for Native Americans?

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It’s not because of ‘good old-fashioned procreation’While the answer might seem obvious — Native Americans are having more babies than everyone else — their population spike “probably was not the result of good old-fashioned procreation,” Andrew Van Damn wrote for the Post. He noted that Native Americans “had the lowest fertility rate of any group measured last year, roughly tied with Asian Americans.”

Indeed, “birth rates among Native Americans don’t explain the massive rise in numbers,” Circe Sturm wrote for the Mississippi Free Press in 2021. The more likely answer is that people “who previously identified as white are now claiming to be Native American,” she added. 

This largely represents “a rejection of the centuries-long process of assimilation, when different racial and ethnic groups were pressured to adopt white norms of behavior,” Sturm reported. Brookings Institution researcher Robert Maxim corroborated this fact to the Post, saying that this multiracial spike “was the legacy of centuries of forced assimilation.” 

However, while this history “helps explain why Native Americans are more likely to have a mixed heritage,” Van Dam reported for the Post, “it doesn’t explain the giant increase in numbers in recent years.” That may have more to do with the U.S. Census Bureau itself. 

Issues with the census data Part of the disparity is that “data about Native Americans is unusually hard to parse,” Van Dam added for the Post, and “relies on each person’s own assessment of tribal affiliation, rather than tribal enrollment, and counts many more tribes than have official federal recognition.” This can result in a system that “leads to all sorts of wacky results.”

And Native American groups themselves may have trouble fully analyzing the data. That’s because the 2020 census data sets “are more limited and less accurate than they were in the previous census,” Mike Schneider and Morgan Lee reported for The Associated Press. This is because of “new privacy methods implemented by the U.S. Census Bureau in order to protect the confidentiality of participants,” the duo opined. 

One of these methods actually creates intentional data errors “by adding or subtracting people from the actual count in order to obscure the identity of any given participant in a particular area,” Schneider and Lee reported. However, experts have assured that the data remains largely accurate, with James Tucker, a voting rights attorney for the Native American Rights Fund, telling AP that the Census Bureau “took it to heart to make the data as accurate as possible while balancing that against the privacy concerns.”

University of Minnesota sociologist Carolyn Liebler agreed on the culprit, telling the Post, “it’s definitely the Census Bureau.” While people are identifying as partially Indigenous at higher rates, that’s not a new phenomenon, and the current population spike is due to “very important changes in the race question and especially in the way they coded the responses that they received,” Liebler added. 

While “a broad definition of Native America isn’t necessarily bad,” Van Dam wrote for the Post, the Census Bureau’s new guidelines mean that “the total of 9.7 million American Indians and Alaska Natives includes people who did not check that box on the census.”