(June 2002) When it comes to conducting the U.S. census, a different approach is in order if American Indian people are to be counted.

In contrast to commonly held beliefs, the majority of American Indians live in urban areas. The Federal Relocation program initiated in the 1950s was the catalyst for their urbanization. Since that time, the population of Indian people living in cities has continued to increase as extended family members and friends have invited those on reservations to come to the city, where they are often hosted for extended periods while they settle in.

Non-Indians often comment that Indian people living in cities are invisible. This invisibility or perceived elusiveness is tied directly to urban Indian community characteristics, including a dispersed, rather than a residentially clustered, population and individual mobility. Understanding these characteristics is fundamental to making appropriate decisions for carrying out an accurate census enumeration.

Fluid Households

Some people stay with a rotating set of family and friends, either in one area or over an expansive region. The extent to which they are integrated into a particular household varies from those who are just "floating through" as "couch surfers," to those who become "sisters" or "brothers" and then are considered family members.

Findings from ethnographic research carried out in the San Francisco Bay area from March 2000 to September 2001 illustrate these fluid living arrangements (see box at end of article). One household in the study was a two-bedroom apartment rented by a woman, her aunt, and their children. In the course of a month, at least 38 people — a shifting set of other relatives, male friends, and their children — used this apartment. Some nights as many as 18 people stayed over, but never the same set of people for more than a few nights. This is many more than allowed by the apartment management, and certainly more — because of uncertainty as to who officially lived there — than would have been reported on the census form, if indeed it was ever filled out. This apartment was not located in researchers' attempts to match it with the census results, indicating that in all likelihood the census form was not turned in.

In another case, two single mothers who met at an Indian organization discovered that they were of the same tribe and that they had both been adopted as children. These two women became close friends and decided, along with their children, to share an apartment. Within a few months, their children began to refer to one another as brothers and sisters or as cousins. The women made extensive efforts to explore their relationship and discovered that they were distant cousins. They came to consider each other sisters and continued to share an apartment.

Parenting by Extended Families — and by Default

Children and youth frequently move among the households of extended family members, including grandparents. Their movements take them to other neighborhoods within the same city, to other cities, or "back home" to reservations. The relatives of these children may be undecided whether to list children who have lived with them for months on a census form, since this may not be their "official" home.

Another type of movement for children occurs if their parents become incapacitated, enter an alcohol treatment program, or are incarcerated. The Indian Child Welfare Act mandates that children be placed, if possible, in American Indian foster homes. Yet in many instances this is not possible, and Indian children are fostered or adopted "out" into non-Indian families. Besides contributing to mobility, this arrangement — especially foster care, which can be short-term — increases ambivalence in answering and correctly identifying children's race on the census.

Tribal Ties

Many Indians may think that, since they are listed on their tribal role, there is no need to answer the census when they are living or staying in the city. Many living in urban areas return for short or long periods to their home reservations to care for an ailing relative, to attend a funeral, or to assist during a family crisis. Many travel long distances and stay on the road for months at a time to participate in seasonal cultural activities such as pow-wows, the Sun Dance, or sports tournaments. Those who carry out spiritual, Native rights advocacy, or cultural work may travel constantly.

Institutional Homes

There are those who, during long periods of their lives, cycle in and out of health facilities, substance abuse treatment programs, and transitional living programs. In between, they alternate stays with family and friends in the city, stays on the streets, and trips "back home." These individuals may also be incarcerated, in which case jails and prisons become yet another type of "usual residence."

Census research results strongly point to the existence of undercounts of Indian people living in urban areas. The mobility research in the San Francisco Bay area showed that 14 of those who kept journals as a part of the project were definitely enumerated, while 13 were not matched with census results. This means that they may not have been enumerated and, indeed, to their knowledge they were not.

Successful enumeration of the most highly mobile portion of the urban Indian population most often took place at soup kitchens, at group quarters, or occasionally at apartments or homes. Those who commonly sleep in the home of friends and relatives but are not considered a part of the family were often overlooked in the census process, as were those sleeping on the street, in city parks, in short-term hotels or motels, or in vehicles. Some who frequently travel out of town were not enumerated. Those known to be residents of group quarters such as American Indian residential alcohol treatment centers and women's shelters were not enumerated or were erroneously enumerated.

Urban Indian communities are networks of relationships rather than geographic locations or neighborhoods. The fluid and flexible nature of the urban Indian community contributes to its resiliency and persistence, as well as to its invisibility from an outside perspective. Locating and working with the American Indian-administered organizations that are nodes in the Indian community network and that serve as the gathering places for Indian people in cities are keys to locating and enumerating Indian people.


Susan Lobo, a cultural anthropologist, is currently a visiting professor in American Indian Studies at the University of Arizona and has taught at the University of California at Berkeley and at Davis. She is also coordinator of the Community History Project at the Intertribal Friendship House in Oakland, California.


For More Information

Susan Lobo, Urban Voices: The Bay Area American Indian Community (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, forthcoming, summer 2002).


Ethnographic Research

This article summarizes some of the findings of an ethnographic research project carried out in the San Francisco Bay area from March 2000 through September 2001. Researchers studied 27 highly mobile American Indians who kept journals for six weeks, indicating where they spent their days, where they slept, and where they obtained food and other necessities. In addition to carrying out formal and informal interviews, researchers engaged in participant observation and took field notes during the normal flow of Indian community events and meetings, greatly extending the reach of the research.

The project was supported by a grant from the Statistical Research Division of the U.S. Census Bureau. The final report, American Indian Urban Mobility in the San Francisco Bay Area, is one of four comparative ethnographic studies of mobile populations available from the Census Bureau. Contact assistant division chief Manuel de la Puente, phone: 301/457-4997 or 301/457-2583.