American Indians grew by 40% in last decade Pride, economic eligibility cited for great surge

November 20, 1992|By McClatchy News Service

SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- More and more people are reclaiming their American Indian heritage, the U.S. Census has found.

Census figures show that American Indians have been one of the fastest-growing population groups in the country in the past decade.

Indians and authorities on the subject say part of the reason for the resurgence is newfound pride among Indians.

However, the increase also reflects a sadder reality: an attempt by some people to get an edge in difficult economic times by qualifying for federal programs aimed at Indians.

While the nation as a whole grew 10 percent in the 1980s, the number of persons identifying themselves as American Indians jumped nearly 40 percent to 1.9 million.

Nearly a quarter-million of them lived in California at the time the census was taken in 1990; that's up 20 percent in a decade. California is the second-largest Indian state, behind Oklahoma.

However, that increase did not keep up with California's population boom, and native Americans -- mainly American Indians, Eskimos and Aleuts -- now make up less than 1 percent of the total state population.

Nevertheless, people who may have shunned their American Indian heritage for years as embarrassing or irrelevant now are seeking it, say some Indian leaders.

"I get calls every day from people asking for help tracing their genealogy," says Vernon T. Johnson, executive director of the California Council of Tribal Governments in Redding. "They want to prove they are Indians so they can participate in some of the programs that trickle down to Indian people: health, home repair, education, scholarships.

"Pride has nothing to do with it when you have an empty stomach."

Ironically, Indian tribes in California have tightened their standards for recognizing people as Indians, and in some cases have closed enrollment into tribes altogether, Mr. Johnson says.

The Census Bureau figures released this week constituted the first national count of Indian tribes. A total of 542 tribes were identified.

The four largest -- Cherokee, Navajo, Chippewa and Sioux -- made up 39 percent of American Indians, according to the report.

Larry Myers, executive secretary of the Native American Heritage Commission in Sacramento, says detailing of tribal affiliation could improve provision of services to American Indians who have moved away from their tribal lands.

"The federal government and the Bureau of Indian Affairs have a trust responsibility to the Indians," Mr. Myers says. "And if they're off the reservation, maybe they need to know where they are."

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