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More Marylanders now identify as Indigenous amid call for more accurate record keeping

The number of Marylanders identifying as American Indian or Alaska Native has more than doubled in the past decade, according to U.S. census records, a spike that some local leaders attribute to a grassroots effort among Indigenous communities to better document themselves in government records.

During the 2020 census, about 128,650 Marylanders self-identified as American Indian or Alaska Native alone or in combination with another race. That represents a 119% increase across the state compared with the 2010 census, during which 58,600 people were counted in the same category.

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The biggest increases were documented in places like Allegany, Carroll, Frederick, Washington and Talbot counties‚ while the largest populations were in Baltimore City and the counties of Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Montgomery and Prince George’s.

Marylanders who identified in part or totally as American Indian or Alaska Native make up about 2% of the state’s 6.1 million residents.

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Monday marks Indigenous Peoples Day in Baltimore and across the U.S., after Democratic President Joe Biden issued a proclamation last week to observe the holiday nationally for the first time.

On the federal level, it shares the date with Columbus Day, which honors explorer Christopher Columbus. But in Baltimore, the city has renamed Monday as Indigenous Peoples Day starting this year, citing Columbus’ record of enslaving and brutalizing native people during his journeys.

The rise in Indigenous people counted around Maryland follows a national trend where American Indian and Alaska Native populations, alone or in combination with another race, increased about 85% — from about 5.2 million people in 2010 to nearly 9.7 million in 2020, census records show.

Census decision-makers overhauled two questions for the 2020 count that may have affected the results. Based on research and community feedback over the past 10 years, people who identify as white or Black were given space to enter detailed identities. Census officials said the changes revealed that the U.S. population is much more multiracial and more diverse than was measured in the past.

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In Maryland, two Native American tribes have won state recognition since the 2010 census. The state formally recognized the Piscataways — which includes several tribal groups in the state, largely in Southern Maryland — in 2012, followed by the Accohannock tribe on the Eastern Shore in 2017. State recognition could allow Native American-owned businesses to qualify as minority business enterprises and improve their chances to win state contracts; it does not confer rights to property nor allow the tribes to operate casinos.

At the time the Piscataways were recognized, some members recalled how relatives had in the past declared their Native American heritage on forms only to have bureaucrats cross it out later.

And for some Indigenous people who belong to more than one race, identities can be “collapsed into others” on official documents, said Kerry Hawk Lessard, the executive director for Native American LifeLines in Baltimore, a nonprofit health services organization. Hawk Lessard has sometimes identified herself as both Shawnee and white, only to discover just the latter was recorded.

Hawk Lessard attributed the higher numbers of Marylanders identifying now as American Indian to a successful grassroots effort among Indigenous peoples across the country to document their identities in official records.

Hawk Lessard’s organization pushed participation in the 2020 census on social media and helped people to fill out their forms at outreach events, she said.

“The big push is to be counted so we get a better reflection of where we’re living and how we’re living, as well as access to things like insurance and education,” she said.

In the 1950s and ‘60s, members of the Lumbee Indian Tribe migrated to Baltimore’s Upper Fells Point and Washington Hill neighborhoods from North Carolina, forming a community in the heart of the city estimated at about 7,000 at its peak.

There’s a lack of reliable figures for the Baltimore Lumbee population over time, said Ashley Minner, a community-based visual artist, folklorist and assistant curator at Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in Washington.

That’s due in part to the U.S. government’s changing definitions of race, a lack of opportunities to identify as Lumbee or American Indian on government forms and the continuous movement of the Lumbee community between Baltimore, their tribal territory in North Carolina and other places, Minner said.

The former University of Maryland, Baltimore County professor spent years digging through archives and researching the footprint of Indigenous people in the city.

Minner, who is Lumbee, says that lack of information about Indigenous communities is reflected in Baltimore’s image today.

“We don’t see ourselves reflected,” she said. “We’re not included in popular narratives of the city.”

Inaccurate data collection makes it more difficult for Indigenous communities’ to formally define or acknowledge their members, Hawk Lessard said.

Some tribes may prefer lineal descent to determine tribal membership while others use “blood quantum,” a system that the federal government once used to limit tribal citizenship for Indigenous people. Blood quantum definitions can vary, but often base a person’s membership on the percentage of close relatives who identify as Native American alone.

“You’ll have someone whose children can’t enroll in tribe that they belong to,” Hawk Lessard said. “If we talk about decolonizing data, our ancestors weren’t necessarily using blood quantum. That child is not any less family to those other tribal members.” Decolonizing refers to undoing the ways in which data collection omits marginalized groups or reflects inaccurate, outdated or racist assumptions about people.

Minner wonders whether the census trends stem from some Marylanders increasingly self-identifying as native based on family lore, something younger generations embrace with pride but previous generations may have sought to conceal, or home DNA ancestry tests.

“American Indian identity is much more than that,” Minner said. “It’s cultural.” Having community ties, or building them later in life, helps anchor people to their Indigenous identities.

“We shouldn’t be reduced to boxes to check,” she said. “Race is a problem for everyone, but for American Indian peoples in particular, because it’s a construct that collapses hundreds of distinct nations into one catchall category.”

For some, those cultural ties may drive some American Indians and Alaska Natives to advocate for documenting their heritage. Officially identifying as Indigenous might provide an opportunity to reflect on values and ancestry, Hawk Lessard said.

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“When we think about the context of the hardships our ancestors experienced, to not identify with that is turning our backs on our legacy,” Hawk Lessard said. “We don’t want to forget them in a society that is all too eager to forget us or define us or reduce us to a stereotype.”

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Baltimore Sun editor Steve Earley and reporter Stephanie García contributed to this article.

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