Dorene Wiese, president of the American Indian Association of Illinois and a member of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe, outside Ebenezer Lutheran Church in Andersonville that’s home to the association’s offices.

Dorene Wiese, president of the American Indian Association of Illinois and a member of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe, outside Ebenezer Lutheran Church in Andersonville that’s home to the association’s offices.

Pat Nabong / Sun-Times

More Chicago residents in 2020 Census identify as Native American

But Dorene Wiese, president of the American Indian Association of Illinois and a longtime Chicago resident, says it’s an undercount that could hurt Native American communities.

SHARE More Chicago residents in 2020 Census identify as Native American
SHARE More Chicago residents in 2020 Census identify as Native American
When Dorene Wiese read a report that listed Brighton Park as one of the Chicago neighborhoods with the most Native Americans, she knew it couldn’t be right.

It’s one of the reasons why Wiese, president of the American Indian Association of Illinois and a longtime Chicago resident, questions census and other data related to Native American communities.

She says that in Chicago, members of these communities are most concentrated in Irving Park, Portage Park and West Ridge.

Wiese said she thinks the U.S. Census’ count of Native Americans is inaccurate and is conducting her own research on the Native American population and community needs in Illinois.

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“This is, I believe, another way in which the federal government is trying to erase American Indian people from history, from data,” Wiese said. “They don’t want to be able to serve American Indians any longer to give us what they promised us.”

In the past 10 years, the Native American community in Chicago has grown to more than 34,000 residents — an increase of more than 21,000 people, according to a Chicago Sun-Times analysis of 2020 Census data.

The 34,543 includes people who marked American Indian as their racial category on the census while also selecting Hispanic/Latino as their ethnicity.

Dorene Wiese, president of the American Indian Association of Illinois and a member of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe, takes pictures of kids who are learning filmmaking in a program at AIAI at the Ebenezer Lutheran Church in Andersonville.

Dorene Wiese, president of the American Indian Association of Illinois and a member of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe, takes pictures of kids who are learning filmmaking in a program at AIAI at the Ebenezer Lutheran Church in Andersonville.

Pat Nabong / Sun-Times

The community areas in Chicago with the highest number of Native American residents included Belmont Cragin, South Lawndale, Gage Park, Brighton Park and West Lawn. These communities also have large Latino populations.

Belmont Cragin, located on the city’s Northwest Side, saw the biggest increase of more than 1,800 residents who identify as Native American and Alaska Native. In total, about 2,690 residents in this neighborhood identified as Native American in the 2020 Census.

The community was once mostly concentrated in and around Uptown. But that has changed as gentrification saw many in that area move away, said Clovia Malatare, a longtime Chicago area resident who is a member of the Oglala Lakota Nation.


In 2020, about 340 people in Uptown identified as Native American, a slight increase from 286 in 2010, according to the Sun-Times analysis of the census.

Nationally, the Census Bureau has acknowledged it undercounted Native Americans. Its “Post-Enumeration Survey” found that American Indians and Native Alaskans living on reservations were undercounted by 5.6%.

Wiese said she worries an inaccurate count of the Native American population could skew statistics on housing, education and poverty that could make it harder to get funding and other resources for the community.

She wants the Census Bureau to require people to list their tribal affiliation or descendancy to get a better understanding of how many Native Americans there are in different areas.

Wiese said the surveys she has conducted have found the majority of the people in Chicago are linked to the Ojibwe, Lakota, Choctaw and Navajo Nations — from the Midwest, the Great Plains and the Southwest.

The Census Bureau defines the racial category of American Indian or Alaska Native as someone “having origins in any of the original peoples of North and South America (including Central America), and who maintains tribal affiliation or community attachment.”The terminology American Indian dates back to the language that was used in treaties that were created in the 1770s between the U.S. government and sovereign tribal nations.

It’s one of five racial categories used by the Census Bureau. The federal agency has a separate question about Hispanic or Latino origin in addition to the race question.

Across the country, the census found increases in the number of Hispanic/Latino Native Americans, said Carolyn Liebler, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota. That could have been because of changes the bureau made in how it codes answers or because people changed how they identified.

“I think what’s happening is that people who were already there, who are already Latino, just changed how they respond to the question and decided to call themselves Indigenous instead of white,” Liebler said.

Since the 1960s, the number of people identifying racially as Native American has grown, and often people are changing how they identify their race on the different decennial counts, Liebler said. She’s done research on who identifies as Native American and has found there is a group that sometimes identify as Native American but other times choose another racial selection in that self-reporting.

“There’s just a group of people who feel like, ‘I’m both this and that,’” Liebler said.

She said some multiracial people she has interviewed have said how they were seen — either as white or Black — influenced what they selected in answering questions about their race.

Also, people sometimes become more comfortable with their identity after decades of assimilation programs that have ranged from boarding schools for Native American children to relocation programs that encourage people to move to cities, Liebler said.

Pamela Silas, associate director for community outreach and engagement for Northwestern University’s Center for Native American Indigenous Research, said people could become more emboldened over time about claiming their identity, in particular people from Indigenous backgrounds from Central America and South America.

Still, Silas said the Native American community overall doesn’t fully get measured because of the way the term Native American is racialized around ancestry, even though affiliation is more important in nations. She also points out what many nations called themselves now translates simply to people or humans.

Native American identity can be complicated, even controversial, with some using “blood quantum” — how much “Indian blood” a person has — as the determining factor, Silas said.

“But if they’re raised in that same community, with the language, with the teachings, with the community, it was never about blood quantum,” she said. “It was about your affiliation in this nation and whether or not that nation accepted you as a citizen.”

Diverging bar chart 2010 vs 2020

Contributing: Jesse Howe, Andy Boyle

Elvia Malagón’s reporting on social justice and income inequality is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.

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