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Counting Native Americans: Census Terminology and History (plus Cher)

THURSDAY, NOV 25, 2010

On Thanksgiving, Social Explorer is taking a look at the site of the first famous feast—Plymouth County, MA.  Here, as legend has it, pilgrims from England and local Wampanoag Indians first dined together in 1621. Whether “Civilized Indians,” “Half-breeds,” “American Indians” or absent, Social Explorer can give you insight into how the census counted and categorized Native Americans over the decades.

Historical demographic data reveal that Native Americans were not counted for the first 60 years of the census.  The constitutional language that mandates the census specifically excludes “Indians not taxed” from the count.  Over time, some Native Americans were also living in areas with settlers, and the census rules articulated how to count them

Indians not in tribal relations, whether full-bloods or half-breeds, who are found mingled with the white population, residing in white families, engaged as servants or laborers, or living in huts or wigwams on the outskirts of towns or settlements are to be regarded as a part of the ordinary population of the country for the constitutional purpose of the apportionment of Representatives among the States, and are to be embraced in the enumeration. 

Starting in 1860, the census collected data on Native Americans, but it did not always report it fully or consistently.  According to census data from 1860, there were 43,562 of these so-called “Civilized Indians” (plus 459 “Half-breeds”), accounting for 0.1 percent of the population.  (Ten years later, 24 “Civilized Indians” appear in the Plymouth County data.)  In 1960, the Census reported “Indians” separately again and found 142 in Plymouth County and 523,591 nationwide.  Just ten years later, the “Indian” race data disappeared from common census reports once again. While hidden in the census, Native American terminology hit the top of the billboard charts with the 1973 hit song “Half-breed.”   Cher sings "The Indians said I was white by law/The White Man always called me Indian Squaw."

Meanwhile, in 1970, the Census would have reported a woman struggling with "Half-breed" identity as either "White" or "Other." Did the Census Bureau’s 1970 omission of “Indian” inspire Cher’s “Half-breed”?  Did Cher’s song prompt the Census Bureau to reintroduce Native American race data? A few years after the song,  the Native American race category returned to the census under the new more detailed option of “American Indian/Eskimo/Aleut.”  With the addition of the ability to specify multiple races starting with the 2000 census, demographic information on Native American populations has become much more complete, with more detailed information on mixed-race individuals and tribe affiliations in the common census reports.  Now the "Half-breed" identity Cher sings about could be categorized as "White," "American Indian" and "Cherokee."

Social Explorer users can dig deeper into how Native Americans have been counted with the report tools.

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