Gathering data on Native people is tricky. New federal rules won’t help.

Savannah Maher Jul 5, 2024
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Changes to how data on race and ethnicity is collected in federal forms will impact the way American Indians and Alaska Natives show up in federal data. Win McNamee/Getty Images

Gathering data on Native people is tricky. New federal rules won’t help.

Savannah Maher Jul 5, 2024
Heard on:
Changes to how data on race and ethnicity is collected in federal forms will impact the way American Indians and Alaska Natives show up in federal data. Win McNamee/Getty Images
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American Indians and Alaska Natives are a small group relative to the U.S. population. They’re more likely to live in remote parts of the country and can be difficult to reach with traditional survey methods. That’s just scratching the surface of why it’s difficult to capture good data about Native people, according to Robert Maxim, a research fellow with the Brookings Institution. 

Soon after he started working for Brookings, he remembers getting a note from a higher up about the think tank’s employee demographic questionnaire. 

“He told me, ‘Hey Rob, I don’t see any Native Americans on our demographic data. Did you forget to fill out the form or something?’” Maxim said. 

Maxim is a citizen of the Mashpee Wampanoag. And he hadn’t forgotten. In response to the survey’s race question, he had checked two boxes: American Indian/Alaska Native and white. Which meant his response landed in the catch-all “two or more races” category and the survey results showed exactly zero Native employees working for Brookings. 

“That was when I kind of had the ‘aha’ moment. If this is happening at my employer, it’s very likely happening in data at every level,” Maxim said. 

Maxim, who leads Brookings Metro’s research on Native American communities, looked into it. Turns out, as many as 60% of people who check the American Indian/Alaska Native box in response to the “race” question on federal forms also check another box. 

And when they do, federal agencies typically lump them together with everyone else who checked more than one box, which renders a huge number of Native people invisible. 

“At the same time, [the federal government isn’t] providing enough resources to truly understand how they view their own identities,” he said. 

And many Native people view their identities as political, not strictly racial

“People can really be of any racial identity, and still be Indigenous,” Maxim said, because of their citizenship in a sovereign tribal nation. 

According to Maxim, new federal data collection rules won’t help. 

Earlier this year, the Office of Management and Budget released updated guidelines for collecting race and ethnicity data on federal forms and surveys. The headline was a new check box for Middle Eastern and North African Americans. Plus, a standalone question about Hispanic ethnicity will go away. Instead, “Hispanic or Latino” will for the first time be a response option alongside major racial categories in a new combined race and ethnicity question. 

But the changes will also impact the way American Indians and Alaska Natives show up in federal data, and could further obscure our understanding of economic conditions for Native people in this country.  

When it was a standalone question, Maxim said Native people were checking the Hispanic ethnicity box at higher rates than any other major racial group. Now that race and ethnicity data are captured by the same question, the answers will be grouped together too. 

“It’s going to disproportionately affect us,” Maxim said, in that even more data about Native people — everywhere from the U.S. Census to the monthly jobs report — will be buried in that catch-all “two or more races” category. 

In a statement, the Office of Management and Budget said it recognizes the complexity of race and ethnicity data for Native populations and encourages federal agencies to present as many combinations as possible in published reports — for example, a category for respondents who checked “American Indian/Alaska Native” alone or in combination with another race or ethnicity. But the OMB doesn’t require agencies to report data that way. 

The lack of a firm standard is a problem because of the federal government’s constitutionally protected trust and treaty obligations to tribal nations.

“Hey, you promised all these people care in a number of different arenas going forward for all time,” said Eric Henson with the Harvard Project on Indigenous Governance and Development. 

Tribal nations ceded millions of acres of land that now make up the United States in exchange for services like healthcare, education, housing, law enforcement and food assistance. But Henson said the rollout of federal money and resources is based on flawed data that sometimes undercounts Native populations. 

“If you don’t know how many Native people there are, where they are, their educational attainment levels, their healthcare outcomes,” Henson said, “every single data deficiency undermines your ability to actually provide the trust action you were supposed to.” 

Casey Lozar with the Minneapolis Federal Reserve’s Center for Indian Country Development (CICD) said data gaps can make it “difficult” for the federal government to meet its trust responsibilities. But often, useful information can be unearthed from federal datasets. 

“Frankly, it takes a lot of work,” Lozar said. “It takes capacity to access that data, to harmonize that data, and to shape it in a way where it can be easily used by by decision makers or researchers.” 

His team of economists and data scientists at the CICD turns raw, unpublished data on Native people into tools that are legible to  the public: like the CICD’s Native American Labor Market Dashboard or its its economic profiles of tribal communities

“We are working to close the data gaps that really impair high quality decision making at multiple levels of government that impact our Native relatives,” Lozar said. 

But that’s just one small team within the Minneapolis Fed whose work doesn’t immediately translate to more precise federal resource allocation. Eric Henson with the Harvard Project said this is a back-end solution to a problem that starts with poor data collection. 

“There’s no well-resourced, central entity in the United States that’s in charge of collecting information about Native people,” Henson said. “That lack of ownership is a fundamental problem.” 

Robert Maxim, the Brookings researcher, would first settle for a smaller change: a standalone question on federal forms about Indigenous identity. 

Sort of like the old question on Hispanic and Latino ethnicity, or the questions used to measure Indigenous populations in Canada, Australia and New Zealand: “Are you Native, regardless of your race?” 

Maxim said that question would better reflect how Native people see themselves.

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