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50 Years Ago: Census raises questions about true Diné count

The U.S. Census Office has hired more than 30 workers, most of them Navajo, to help determine how many people are living on the Navajo Reservation on April 1, 1970.

And as they go about their job, everyone knows that whatever figure they come up with will likely be totally inaccurate. And the funny thing is, no one seems to care.

Navajo Tribal Chairman Raymond Nakai in March put out a statement asking all tribal members to cooperate with the census but he knows there is a segment of the Navajo population that will ignore his wishes and it appears that this is all right with him.

It won’t be until 1972 or 1973 when the census bureau releases its figures that the next chairman, Peter MacDonald, started complaining about the number and saying that the Navajo population has been severely undercounted, But by that time it will be too late.

If something should have been done, it should have occurred in 1970 and no one realized that a low count would cost the tribe millions of federal dollars that were distributed in the 1970s based on the figure that came out of the 1970 census.

Nakai should have known better because he had been complaining for several years about the figures that came out of the 1960 census. To understand the problem, one had to recognize that everyone had figures saying how big the membership of the tribe was in 1970.

Tribal officials were putting membership as somewhere between 105,000 and 110,000. The Bureau of Indian Affairs was saying about 80,384 and the census bureau had no idea because it didn’t ask people who filled out the form off the reservation what tribe they were a member of. They just listed them as Native American.

But even the tribal figures were just an estimate for various reasons. The first reason has to do with births on the reservation. Many births occurred at home and in most cases the family didn’t seek a census number for their baby until he or she was getting ready to go to school.

Another reason was that the tribal figure was based on enrollment numbers and while the tribe discounted all tribal members who had died, the tribal office wasn’t made aware in many cases when a Navajo moved to some place like Los Angeles or Chicago and died there so his or her name would be counted as living.

But it is also possible that these two factors accounted for roughly the same number so in that case, the 105,000 figure would be reasonably accurate. The first problem the census workers faced in 1960 was the remoteness of some of the chapters.

Take Navajo Mountain, for example. So many of the homes in the chapters were on barely seen roads and there were no satellite images available to tell the census workers how to find them.

The second problem was the distrust of many elderly Navajos of the federal government as a result of the stock reduction in the 1930s when the federal government confiscated tens of thousands of Navajo sheep and slaughtered them in an effort to reduce overgrazing. As a result, that generation grew up not believing anything a government official said. And their belief was that the census was just another attempt by federal officials to find out how many sheep the family had. Some chapters did what they could to help the census takers but most ignored them.

As a result the census missed counting thousands of Navajos. A couple of months after the results of the 1960 census were made public, George Hillary Jr. and Frank Essence wrote an analysis of the census findings for the autumn 1963 issue of the “Southwestern Journal of Anthropology” pointing out some of the cultural mistakes made by the census.

The biggest one apparently were statistics about the large number of older single women living on the reservation, more than twice the American average. Hillier and Essence said the census office failed to take into account the number of Navajo men who had two or more wives, According to them, polygamy was still being practiced among traditional leaders and medicinemen.

When census workers asked women who were second or third wives if they were married, they would claim to be single. “Navajo distrust of whites and their understanding of U.S. marriage regulations” would explain why this occurred, they said.

The census did come up with one fact that was probably right. The average Navajo family was a great deal larger than the average American family. In 1960, the average U.S. family consisted of 4.2 persons. The Navajo average was 7.2.

This was the main reason why the Navajo population growth grew so much from the 105,000 or so in 1970 to more than 300,000 today. Another thing the 1969 census found out was that Navajo men married, on the average, later in life. More than 40 percent of the men said they got married for the first time when they were middle aged.

Hillier and Essence came up with no reason for this but it still may be true today because census data collected since then indicates that Navajo men marry later in life than the average man off reservation. This may, however, no longer be true since studies indicated more men and women get married today in their late 20s and 30s because of the pressure to devote more time in their early years to getting ahead in their jobs.

It’s possible that figures in the 1960 census were caused by more Navajo men and women living together before deciding to get married. While the census takers made an effort to determine how many Navajos lived on the reservation in 1960, they didn’t make the same approach when conducting their census in the border communities, which had Navajo residents because they had jobs there. For example, Gallup had a population of just over 20,000 with 6,502 of the residents being listed as other than white or Negro.

So, in this case, Navajos were mixed in with the city’s Hispanic and Asian population. Another thing that was interesting in the 1960 census was the population totals for communities on the reservation.

It was no surprise that Shiprock, with a population of 7,615, was highest. But coming in second was Crownpoint with a population of 7,271. In third place was Chinle with a population of 6,279.

About The Author

Bill Donovan

Bill Donovan has been writing about the Navajo Nation government since 1971 and for the Navajo Times since 1976. He is currently semi-retired and is living in Torrance, California, and continues to report for the Navajo Times.


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