American Indian Ethnic Identity: An Analysis of Tribal Specification in the 1990 Census

Liebler, Carolyn
Working paper no. 1996-20


About two million people identified their race as American Indian by checking the box labeled “Indian (Amer.)” on the racial self-identification question on the 1990 U.S. Census, but only about 90 percent of these people filled in the adjacent space in which they were asked to name their tribe. Why did over 200,000 American Indians not respond to this question? In this paper, four reasons that an American Indian would not identify their tribal affiliation are examined: instrumentation errors, symbolic ethnic identity, situational ethnic identity, and unhyphenated/pan-Indian racial identity. Each explanation suggests one or more variables which may predict a respondent’s likelihood of reporting their tribe. Explanations for tribal non-response which focus on the socio-historical context and the logistics of the questionnaire are very convincing. Over three-quarters of those who did not specify their tribe are likely to have done so because of instrumentation errors: either they did not answer the question themselves or they did not find the question appropriate for their racial or ancestral heritage. The principal finding of this paper is that American Indians who do not specify their tribe are usually not people customarily regarded as American Indians. They have non-Indian ancestries, speak non-Indian non-English languages, live in cities in non-Indian states and no one else in their household is a tribally identified Indian either. Analysts wishing to delineate “real” American Indians from others should consider restricting their samples to American Indians who report their tribal affiliation. Also, researchers working to explain the puzzling increase of self-identified American Indians in recent censuses should consider instrumentation errors as a possible cause of this expansion of the American Indian population.