American Indians in the Census

As any of my colleagues will tell you, I love census records more than just about anything else. There is something extremely fascinating for me, to see names and ages and birthplaces of entire neighborhoods, and to then track patterns and historical events through these long pages of handwritten entries.

Not everyone shares my enthusiasm, but if anything, you have to admit that there’s a lot of great information to make teachable moments for students.

American Indians have a unique history with census records. From 1790 to 1850, American Indians were not identified in the census. In 1850, for example, the three choices for “race” were white, black and mulatto. American Indians who appear in the census had to leave that space blank or choose from one of the three available.

In 1870, “I” for American Indian was included as a choice in the “race” column. For the 1900 and 1910 census years, American Indians are enumerated (or counted) on reservations and in the general population, with a separate Indian Population Schedule.

Separate enumerations were taken of particular tribes, including Pueblo Indians in New Mexico (1850-1870) and Shawnee (1857). A special census in 1880 enumerated American Indians living on reservations in Washington Territory, Dakota Territory and California.

State census records include information about local reservations. A 1911 allotment census of White Earth in northern Minnesota includes the individual’s name (either American Indian or European, depending on which the person identified with) and that individual’s blood quantum, or percentage of Indian blood. Ah-je-jank (also listed as Frank Smith) was 31/32 American Indian, while Aymaine (Emma Staples) was identified as 1/8 American Indian.

These sources tell clear stories about the place of American Indians in the United States. Their early absence could speak to their status as sovereign nations not counted alongside U.S. citizens, or it could mean deliberate exclusion. Separate Indian schedules speak to the “otherness” attached to Native peoples for a very long period in U.S. government record-keeping.

But they also leave room for discussion and thoughtful questioning. How governments choose to record information can reveal much about their place and time, and students can see that in census records.

Census records are being transcribed and cataloged online in large numbers, so teachers can find them much more easily than even a few years ago. Census Finder has a great list of Minnesota census records, and the U.S. Census Bureau has information related to American Indians in the records. These resources can feel daunting at first, but I can tell you that once you jump into them, you might find them as fascinating as I do.

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