Census: Navajo enrollment tops 300,000

By Bill Donovan
Special to the Times

WINDOW ROCK, July 7, 2011

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It's official. There are more than 300,000 enrolled members of the Navajo Nation.

The tribe's census office last week pegged tribal enrollment at 300,048, said Sherrick Roanhorse, chief of staff for President Ben Shelly.

Tribal officials have been saying for most of the past decade that the tribe's enrollment has been in the area of 300,000.

This still doesn't give the Navajos bragging rights as the largest Indian nation in the United States, however. That remains with the Cherokee.

In August 2010, the Cherokee Nation gave its enrollment as 288,749, not including the Eastern Band, which accounted for another 13,000 plus members, for a total of about 302,000.

It should be pointed out that the two tribes figure membership differently.

For Navajo Nation membership, a person must have one-quarter or more Navajo blood. The Cherokees require only that members be able to trace their ancestry back to someone listed on the Dawes Roll of 1907 - a membership list created by the Dawes Commission so the Cherokee reservation could be parceled out in individual allotments. The Cherokee tribe has no blood quantum requirement for membership.

The big question within the Navajo universe is how many tribal members live on the reservation and how many can be considered urban Navajos.

Roanhorse said the tribe will have a better grasp of that once the U.S. Census Office releases its 2010 population figures for the Navajo Reservation.

Those figures are expected soon. The U.S. Census Bureau has said it will release population figures for Arizona on July 17 and they will include an ethnic breakdown. New Mexico and Utah figures are expected to follow shortly thereafter.

The expectation is that federal census figures will show for the first time that more Navajos live off the reservation than on it. But even these figures, said Roanhorse, would be misleading because many Navajos who live in cities still have a presence on the reservation, coming back regularly to take care of family matters or to participate in ceremonies and family gatherings.

The new enrollment figure, however, also indicates that Navajo Nation officials have a daunting task to carry out plans to provide every tribal member with an identity card within the next 18 to 24 months.

The tribe has been talking about this for the past several years and is planning to embark on a program similar to the one established by the Pascua Yaqui, who have a small reservation southwest of Tucson.

Thanks to a 2009 memorandum of understanding with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Customs Office, the Pascua Yaqui ID card serves as a passport for tribal members crossing the border between the U.S. and Mexico, where most tribal members live.

Roanhorse said the Navajo tribal card would be used in the same way. Besides having information coded on a bar strip giving medical history and some personal background, the card will have enough data to allow its use as a passport to countries like Mexico and Canada.

Another advantage of the card, he said, is that it will enable the tribal government to learn whenever a tribal member gets in trouble with the law and may need tribal assistance, such as help finding a lawyer or contacting family members.

The tribe is now in the final stages of developing the card. When it is ready, it will be made available to tribal members at no cost.

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