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Published December 25, 2010, 12:00 AM

Breaking down the Census: North Dakota’s tribes reflect population increase

Recent census figures show American Indians are the fastest-growing minority population in North Dakota.

Recent census figures show American Indians are the fastest-growing minority population in North Dakota.

The American Indian population here swelled by more than 15 percent – or 4,818 people – in the last decade.

While American Indians comprise the largest segment of North Dakota’s minority population, they still represent fewer than 6 percent of all residents statewide.

Yet the sizeable growth in the past 10 years indicates North Dakota’s American Indian population could be a factor in the statewide population’s higher total revealed in the 2010 U.S. Census this week.

“From a tribal sense and historically, you look at our tribes where we were back many decades ago … to where we’re at now: We’re the fastest-growing population in North Dakota, and I don’t see that changing,” said Scott Davis, executive director of the state’s Indian Affairs Commission.

North Dakota’s American Indian population mostly resides on the state’s four reservations:

  • Spirit Lake Reservation near Devils Lake.

  • Turtle Mountain Reservation in Belcourt, about 65 miles northwest of Devils Lake.

  • Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, south of Bismarck on the North Dakota-South Dakota border.

  • The Three Affiliated Tribes’ Fort Berthold Indian Reservation in New Town, about 55 miles east of Williston.

Leaders of the four tribes did not return calls from The Forum seeking comment Wednesday and Thursday.

U.S. Census Bureau population estimates repor 36,360 American Indians lived in North Dakota, as of July 2009 – but that amount could change once specific census counts are released in early 2011.

Although North Dakota saw growth, the American Indian populations nationwide and in Minnesota slightly dipped after decades of growth, according to the 2009 Census Bureau estimates.

The rising numbers in North Dakota are exciting and significant – especially for a population that was “almost exterminated” by war, disease and government policy, Davis said.

Census records show North Dakota had a fivefold increase in its American Indian population over the last century or so.

In 1900, fewer than 7,000 American Indians were counted in the state.

“It’s sustaining and strengthening our tribal identity,” Davis said of the growth. “We all really pride ourselves in who we are – our ties to our land, our language and our customs. I really believe diversity and ethnicity in North Dakota is a huge strength.”

North Dakota still lacks in diversity, though, compared to other states.

More than 91 percent of North Dakota’s population identifies themselves as white, according to the 2009 Census estimates. Blacks made up 1.2 percent of the population, and Asians and other minorities accounted for less than 1 percent.

Davis isn’t sure what’s causing the population surge among American Indians, but he does have a few ideas.

An emphasis on tribal ties could be one.

“We don’t migrate out of the state,” Davis said. “For the most part, we stay in North Dakota and stay close to home.”

It’s also common for American Indians to have big families, he said.

“Family is the first and foremost thing: our family, our clans, our relationships with each other,” Davis said. “Really, it’s just a norm among our people that we continue not to have that change compared to other populations.”

Rising populations for tribes – while positive – can also bring considerable strain on the communities, Davis said.

North Dakota reservations continue to battle problems with poverty, substandard housing conditions, prevalent crime and drug addiction.

“You look at us as a state: We’re No. 1 in a lot of categories, but you flip that coin, and a lot of our tribes are still struggling,” Davis said.

He said state and federal officials try to work with the tribal governments to “empower (American Indians) to be more self-sufficient and take ownership of their own lives.”

“I think we need more efforts to empower our youth and that population that’s coming about – empowering them with education and opportunities versus being dependent on welfare and other programs,” he said.


Readers can reach Forum reporter Kristen Daum at (701) 241-5541


American Indian population trends: 1910-2009
YearNationwidePct. of U.S. pop.North Dakota% of N.D. pop.Minn.% of Minn. pop.
2009*2,423,2940.836,2585.654,4461.0
20002,475,9560.931,4404.954.9671.1
19901,959,2340.825,9174.149,9091.1
19801,420,4000.620,1583.135,0160.9
1970827,2550.414,3692.323,1280.6
1960551,6690.311,7361.915,4960.5
1950343,4100.210,7661.712,5330.4
1940333,9690.310,1441.612,5280.4
1930332,3970.38,3871.211,0770.4
1920244,4370.26,2541.08,7610.4
1910265,6830.36,4861.19,0530.4
1900237,1960.36,9682.29,1820.5

*Population estimate only. Official Census count will be released in February and March.

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