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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'

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Fortier, for example, produced a movie on American Indians that aired this year at the Sundance Film Festival, and he is working on another six-part documentary for PBS. "I'm hoping to better educate the public so that people can make their own informed decisions about the history of US treatment toward American Indians," he says.

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Last year, American Indians had more than 90 representatives at the Democratic National Convention - the first time ever for any representation at a presidential convention, De La Torre says.

This year, the Grammy Awards added a category for traditional native American music. In 2004, the National Museum of the American Indian is to move into new quarters in on the National Mall in Washington.

But what has fueled American Indians economically has also earned them much criticism. Since 1988 - the year the US government allowed casino gambling on reservations - 309 gaming operations have popped up. Gaming revenue has soared from $212 million in 1988 to nearly $10 billion in 2000.

Many Americans disapprove strongly, but American Indians counter that casino revenues have allowed them to accumulate capital for the first time, enabling them to fund better schools, hospitals, and other enterprises. The new revenue also entices those of Indian blood to enroll in the tribe - and receive a share of casino stipends - and encourages members to move back to reservations for the jobs and community.

The latest census also highlights the "millions of Americans who can trace at least one root of their family tree to an American Indian," says Matthew Snipp, a sociology professor at Stanford University and member of the Census Bureau's advisory committee on American Indians. In the past, those with any hint of Indian ancestry often identified themselves as of another race to escape discrimination. "Now, there is less discrimination, and Americans can choose more than one race to mark down," says Dr. Snipp.

But the new choice also raises questions about who has the right to claim Indian status. There are those like Ten-nia Thomas, a full-blood Seneca, who feels that being an American Indian has everything to do with blood and lineage, even for those who know nothing of their traditional culture.

Others, such as Amber Arrow, who traces her roots to several tribes, point to the vast numbers of American Indian children adopted out, or to lost paperwork that could have verified a lineage.

"It's just one big mish-mosh now, but as long as you have it in your heart and follow what your elders taught you, you're an Indian," she says.

In coming years, federal and state agencies will also have to wrestle with the daunting question of how to count mixed-race American Indians for purposes of distributing federal money and enforcing minority rights, from voting to the workplace.

Writing a fair funding formula based on the new census data will be difficult, says Jay Mosa, research director at the Minnesota Department of Economic Security.

He admits there's some frustration among his colleagues. But for the most part, experts and tribal officials say the new census options are an improvement, because they allow Americans to acknowledge a fuller, multiracial heritage. Speaking for many, Fortier says: "Once I discovered my American Indian family, I couldn't let go of it. Now it's a real important part of my life."