by Jack D. Forbes

The United States is home to a very large number of Indigenous People, and that number is growing due to the recent migrations of Mixtec, Zapotec, Maya, and other Native Nations. But heretofore the census has not allowed persons of Indian ancestry from south of the US border to state their native heritage. That may change with the 2000 census. Now, all persons who are descended from the original inhabitants of North, Central and South America have the opportunity to mark the "American Indian" question on the United States Census for 2000. The U.S. Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has redefined "American Indian and Alaska Native" as being "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."

This means that all persons whose ancestry goes back to the nations who were living in the Americas before Columbus now have a chance to tell about their Original American origins. They can give the name of their principal native community or tribe, such as Kanjobal Maya, Garifuna, Mixtec, Yaqui, Aztec, Cree, or Mescalero Apache. Or they can name a specific pueblo (community or municipality), such as Acoma, Acteal or Tepoztlan. (The census uses only "tribe" to stand for all types of communities including pueblos, villages, nations, language groups, bands, rancherias, and colonies.)

Here is the way the census form may appear (in part):

  • [ ] WHITE
  • [ ] AMERICAN INDIAN OR ALASKA NATIVE- print name of enrolled or principal tribe:
  • __________________________________________

    Under the new rules, persons who come from Spanish-speaking countries or have a Latin American heritage can mark two places on the census relating to ethnicity. They can fill out the Hispanic/Spanish Origin/Latino question; and then they also can answer the "American Indian" question in the "Race" section if they have an attachment or connection to Aztecs, Mayas, or other indigenous people.

    If a person does not have indigenous American ancestry, then they can ignore "American Indian" by selecting "White" (which will identify them as "a person having origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East, or North Africa"). Of course, one can also check Black, Asian, or some other race, if that is appropriate.

    Mexican-Americans or Chicanos may mark both the Spanish and American Indian boxes if they so choose, and they can write in Mexica, Xicano or Azteca etcetera as their "tribe" under American Indian. But some information indicates that only the “Spanish” will be counted if one says”yes” to Spanish/Hispanic, in which case it is best to say “no” to the Spanish question and mark American Indian under “Race”.

    On the new census a person can mark more than one place within the "Race" question. A Puerto Rican, Dominican or Cuban, for example, who is of mixed African and American (indigenous) races may want to mark both the African and American Indian boxes, writing in Taino, Boricua, or Ciboney for one's tribe. Some persons of Mexican origin might wish to check both the White and American Indian boxes. Other Mexican-Americans may want to check only the American Indian box, since the Mexican people have so much more indigenous ancestry than they have of the European.

    African-Americans who are part-Native American can check both Black and American Indian, as can Garifuna people if they wish. But there is a chance that the Census Bureau will only count one as a “racially-mixed” person, not as Black and American Indian if one does that.

    Nonetheless, the 2000 census gives us all a chance to identify ourselves in the manner in which we wish to be known. It is especially important for the schools and for community service agencies that we be attentive to our different heritages, so that the schools and agencies can plan for the kinds of curricula and services needed for pupils and clients. We cannot persuade educators to include us in the textbooks and statewide tests unless they know that we exist. Our children may suffer if their heritages are left out.

    [Professor Jack D. Forbes, Powhatan-Delaware, a graduate of Eagle Rock High School, Glendale College, and USC, is the author of RED BLOOD, AFRICANS AND NATIVE AMERICANS, AZTECAS DEL NORTE and other books. He is professor emeritus of Native American Studies, University of California, Davis. ] Phone: (530) 752-3626/3237; Fax: (530) 752-7097