American Indians on the rise

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

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.

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."

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.

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."

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