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American Indians on the rise

Their numbers more than doubled in a decade; here's why 'it's cool to be Indian'

By Sara SteindorfStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 6, 2001



Prejudice against American Indians in the early 1960s kept his father from ever mentioning - even to his family - what tribe they were from. But when James Fortier's own son was born in 1993, he vowed it was time to break the silence. So the San Francisco filmmaker not only searched out his Ojibway relatives, but became a member of the tribe - and in 2000 identified himself for the first time on the United States Census as part American Indian.

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Stories like Mr. Fortier's were repeated again and again in the 2000 Census, which for the first time allowed people to mark down more than one race.

Some 4.1 million Americans said they were at least part American Indian, more than double the 1990 figure, and 2.5 million identified themselves only as American Indian, a 26 percent increase. Both alone and in combination with another race, American Indian figures "are rising beyond anything that can be explained by birthrate," says Gabrielle Tayac, a sociologist at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of the American Indian.

Experts and tribal officials cite several reasons for the jump: Soaring casino revenues and benefits from affirmative action and minority status, enticing more tribal enrollees; a growing interest in genealogy, spurred largely by the Internet; and an erosion of the American Indian stigma.

"It's cool to be an American Indian now," says Cherokee spokesman Mike Miller, who has watched his tribe more than double to 230,000 members over the past decade, rivaling the Navajos as the country's largest tribe.

"Wanting to identify with our heritage, people have gone back to their roots to find some kind of Cherokee ancestry to qualify for membership," he says, adding wryly that his tribe has no casinos.

There's no official figure available, however, for the increase in membership of all 561 federally recognized tribes, leaving the census as the most accurate count. And while a person's bloodline may be too thin for tribal enrollment, it is no barrier to self-identification.

"It's the increase since the 1990 count that is so striking," says Dr. Tayac.

For decades, it was embarrassing and shameful to be considered American Indian, says Joely De La Torre, a professor of American Indian studies at San Francisco State University. American Indians avoided US Census forms, largely because of their historical mistrust of federal officials who expropriated their land. But in the late 1960s and early 1970s, civil rights and Indian pride movements prompted many to embrace their roots for the first time, she says.

More recently, sociologists refer to the effect of Indians portrayed in a nobler light by popular culture. Movies such as "Dances With Wolves," with Kevin Costner (1990), and Disney's "Pocahontas" (1995) cause more people to acknowledge their ancestry, the theory goes.

And Indians have "received more respect from society as they become more professionally and economically developed," says Dr. De La Torre, who is writing a book titled "American Indians: Political Power in the New Millennium."

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