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Understanding and interpreting Native incomes in IDDA

A note from the IDDA team on defining Native land and Native identity in and beyond the resource

November 13, 2023


Andrew Huff Senior Policy and Legal Advisor, Center for Indian Country Development
H Trostle Senior Policy Analyst, Center for Indian Country Development
Natalie Gubbay Research Associate, Institute
Illenin O. Kondo Senior Research Economist, Institute
image of a chart transposed with a young Native American woman
Jake MacDonald/Minneapolis Fed

Article Highlights

  • IDDA provides granular income data for individuals living in Native areas
  • Administrative data sources do not capture the fluidity and complexity of Native identity
  • Tribal enrollment and connection to family, culture, or land can influence whether individuals self-identify as Native
Understanding and interpreting Native incomes in IDDA

One of the guiding principles of the Income Distributions and Dynamics in America resource (IDDA) is to provide high-quality income data for detailed demographic groups—small populations that have not been well represented in existing data sources. That makes the IDDA statistics particularly well suited to study how incomes have evolved for Native groups and geographies. Reliable and granular income statistics for American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian communities have been hard to find in public survey data due to sample size limitations.

IDDA is constructed from over two decades of administrative tax records linked to demographic information collected by the U.S. Census Bureau. The near-universal scope of these records is what allows us to make available detailed information about diverse Native groups—for instance, Native workers aged 25–34 or American Indian or Alaska Native women in Montana. The core IDDA modules include nearly 800,000 federal- and state-level statistics describing incomes for individuals who identify as non-Hispanic American Indian or Alaska Native (AIAN) and who identify as non-Hispanic Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander (NHOPI). In addition, IDDA features over 70,000 statistics on income distributions, income mobility, and migration for both Native and non-Native populations living in Native areas defined by the Census Bureau. This broader definition of Native identity includes individuals who identify any of their races as American Indian, Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian, or other Pacific Islander, regardless of Hispanic ethnicity. Together, these IDDA statistics provide new insights into incomes along the distribution for Native groups and geographies.

While IDDA statistics describing Native incomes provide more granularity and breadth than existing data sources, they are still limited by the inability of administrative data to fully capture the fluid, rich, and complex nature of Native identities, lands, and nations in America.

Native identity in and beyond IDDA

Racial identity is a multifaceted issue, not only for researchers collecting data on the health or welfare of specific populations but also for individuals. Individuals who identify as Native—American Indian, Alaska Native, or Native Hawaiian—may think of themselves as a citizen of a self-governing political entity, a member of a Native community, a combination of multiple races or ethnicities, or a tribal descendant. Researchers from a wide variety of academic disciplines have engaged with the question of Native identity from many different angles. Some have sought answers in U.S. census data, while others have engaged with Native individuals directly. Native identity cannot be completely measured and examined through any single set of technical standards—Indigenous understandings of identity must also be explored.

Native identity cannot be completely measured and examined through any single set of technical standards—Indigenous understandings of identity must also be explored.

U.S. census data demonstrate the complexity of categorizing AIAN individuals. Beginning in 2000, the census allowed individuals to identify as only AIAN or as AIAN in combination with other racial categories. Research by Carolyn Liebler, Renuka Bhaskar, and Sonya R. Porter shows that AIAN responses to racial identity questions since 2000 can be classified in three groups: (1) individuals who stayed in the same category between the 2000 census and 2010 census, (2) individuals who shifted between single-race and multiracial AIAN responses, and (3) individuals who added or removed the AIAN response entirely. These responses indicate that for the individuals answering these census questions, there was more to AIAN identity than simple racial categorizations.

A person who identifies as Native is drawing on many facets of their lived experience. One aspect of AIAN identity can be tribal enrollment. Some tribes rely on a blood quantum (percentage of AIAN ancestry), while others rely on documented lineal descent to establish tribal citizenship. But enrollment as a citizen of a tribe is only one potential aspect of AIAN identity. Individuals may identify as AIAN because they are members of an AIAN family, community, or culture. Native Hawaiian identity is based on connection to community and to the land, rather than through political processes like the enrollment process of AIAN tribes. Some individuals may be Native in combination with another racial category and choose to identify solely with the other racial category.

Recognizing the complexity of racial self-identification is necessary to understanding the results of analyses based on census data. Analyses based on the census AIAN-alone category (that is, people who marked AIAN as a single race) yields results about a narrower category of people than analyses looking at the “AIAN in combination with other races” category (that is, people who marked “AIAN” plus one or more other categories). These considerations are worth keeping in mind when assessing research on American Indian and Alaska Native populations.

Native lands in and beyond IDDA

Indian Country. Native lands. Tribal areas. These are just a few of the many terms used to describe the homelands of Native peoples in the United States. These terms, in their broadest sense, mean anywhere that Native peoples have lived or continue to exist and thrive. Under federal law, the term “Indian country” with a lowercase “c” is defined and can be found in the federal code and in legal decisions. The primary statutory definition of Indian country is found in Title 18 of the United States Code at Section 1151. Under Section 1151, Indian country comprises (1) federally recognized Indian reservations, (2) certain Native communities that are located outside of federally recognized Indian reservations, and (3) parcels of land called “allotments.”

While this narrow definition of Indian country suffices for certain legal purposes (for example, guiding court determinations on civil or criminal jurisdiction), the geographies of Native peoples are much broader. The U.S. Census Bureau includes in its definition of “tribal areas” the standard Section 1151 categories as well as state-recognized Indian reservations, the lands of Alaska Native Corporations, and Native statistical areas.* Another category that is not included in the tribal areas defined by the Census Bureau, however, is the trust lands of Native Hawaiians. These land parcels, comprising about 200,000 acres, were set aside in trust in 1921 for Native Hawaiians to use as homesteads.

The array of Native land areas means that policymakers, researchers, attorneys, and others must be precise when referencing “Indian country,” “Native lands,” or “tribal areas.” The IDDA Native areas data include all tribal areas defined by the Census Bureau as well as Native Hawaiian trust lands, delineated as of 2017. For more details about the construction of the IDDA Native areas statistics, see the technical documentation and codebook.

Native and Indigenous understandings of people and place are imperfectly captured in statistics based on administrative sources, as the IDDA statistics are. For this reason, it is important to be specific, recognize nuance, and engage with existing scholarship when studying the economic lives and outcomes of Native peoples and places.


* The Census Bureau developed the “tribal statistical geographies” to collect information on Native peoples living in areas that do not fall into standard Indian country categories, including state-recognized tribes without a reservation, Alaska Native village areas, certain Oklahoma tribal areas, and federally recognized tribes without a reservation or trust land. These statistical areas are a vital tool for data collection and federal program administration.

Andrew Huff
Senior Policy and Legal Advisor, Center for Indian Country Development
Andrew Huff is the senior policy and legal advisor for the Minneapolis Fed's Center for Indian Country Development, where he provides guidance and analysis on laws, policies, and issues related to economic development in Native communities.
H Trostle
Senior Policy Analyst, Center for Indian Country Development

H Trostle is a senior policy analyst for the Minneapolis Fed’s Center for Indian Country Development (CICD), where their work draws connections between infrastructure and economic development on tribal lands. H’s areas of expertise include tribal broadband deployment and land-use planning.