Navajos keep top spot among Arizona tribes

By Bob Christie
Phoenix, Arizona (AP) July 2011

New U.S. Census Bureau figures show the Navajo tribe remains by far Arizona’s largest, but it isn’t growing as fast other large tribes.

Smaller tribes like the Tohono-O’Odham in southern Arizona and the Apache had higher percentage increases, although the difference could be caused by fuller participation by those tribes this year.

The Census Bureau released a detailed breakdown of the state’s American Indian population on Thursday, showing that nearly 5 percent of the state’s population identified themselves as belonging to one tribe during last year’s count. In all, about 5.5 percent of Arizona’s 6,392,017 residents identified themselves as being part of at least one tribe.

The Navajo Nation’s population in Arizona grew 4 percent to 131,445 between the 2000 and 2010 census counts. The tribe also has large numbers of members in northwestern New Mexico and some in southern Utah.

The Apache tribe is the next largest in the state, with nearly 25,000 people identifying themselves as Apache alone. There are several Apache tribes in the state, two with very large reservations– the White Mountain and San Carlos Apache.

Central Arizona’s Pima tribe, which includes the Salt River-Pima Maricopa Community east of Scottsdale, has about 19,500. Census takers counted more than 16,800 people who say they were Tohono-O’Odham alone.

For the tribes, getting an accurate census count is important because government grants and other funding are often based on the counts. Getting there is a problem though, because of distrust of government, remote areas and other factors.

The Navajo Nation made a major effort in the 2000 census to change that, said Arbin Mitchell, the tribe’s division director for community development. He oversaw the Census Bureau’s reservation office in 2000 and was tribal liaison last year.

“In the 2000 count, for the very first time in the Nation, the Navajo Nation, we took the census count to heart,” Mitchell said. “Because we know that based on the count is what is distributed in the programs.

“Census is all about money and power – power meaning representation,” Mitchell said. 

Other tribes know that’s the case and worked hard this year to get the same sort of accurate count that the Navajos got in 2000.

The Intertribal Council of Arizona worked with tribes to try to improve participation in the census.

“I think it improves each census, and I think this census likewise is probably is an improvement in terms of participation by the tribes and by their members,” said John Lewis, the council’s executive director and a member of the Colorado River Indian Tribes.

“Traditionally we’ve had the largest percentage of undercount, but hopefully we’ll go down a little bit this time.”