Open Letter to Alaska: Alaska Natives Are Not 16% of Alaska’s Population

I remember relaxing on the couch and chatting, as my roommate was completing the 2020 Census form at our dining room table, the next room over.

It was a simple task for us, a slip of paper.

She entered her name, her ethnicity, my name and mine, which was clear as my mom is Native and my dad is White.

She knew I was Native and White. I know I am Native and White.

So, for my portion, she selected Native and White and sealed the envelope. And yet – I should have said something because it felt like so much else was being sealed with it.  

I should have given reason to pause. “Wait a second,” was all that I needed to express. Even if I didn’t have the words in the moment, it would have given me time to figure out what I was feeling, what I wanted, what was for the greater good, and to determine what was right.

To figure out what to say, and how I was going to explain.

How to tell someone that you wanted to push aside a known and truthful fact, and be represented as ‘Alaska Native Only.’

To tell someone it’s not to be “more Native,” than I was, but that I had my entire community in mind because I knew what Census data is for, and because I also knew what percentage was going to be used.

My roommate did nothing wrong.

I was afraid I was going to disappear.

__________

In two articles this last week, written for state and major national audiences, reporters cited Alaska Natives as being 16% of Alaska’s population.

A recent local report on COVID-19 used 16%; if that was what an authority was using, I would feel assured in using that percentage, too.

16% is the percentage of Alaska Native people who identify as “Alaska Native Alone.”

Perhaps there are reasons why a report would use 16% that I haven’t yet thought of; maybe 2010 data was, for some reason, used, or publication authors broadly haven’t seen the “Alaska Native Alone or in Combination,” category, which is meant to represent all Native people in Alaska and it’s an honest mistake. But I did.

Because that is where I find me.  And I count. 

I am proud to be Alaska Native, and I am proud to have received innumerable good lessons and love from my father’s side of the family, who is not Native. To say ‘16%’ discounts my participation in the Census, or anyone else who is Alaska Native and has other heritage.

According to the National Congress of American Indians Policy Research Center, “The AI/AN [American Indian/Alaska Native] Alone or in Combination data represents the increasing diversity of AI/ANs in the U.S. and provides a fuller representation of the AI/AN population in the United States.”

Alaska Native Alone or in Combination” cites Alaska Native people at 21.9%, essentially 22%. Over one in five Alaskans are Alaska Native. Voter advocates note that figure may be even higher as the Census has historically undercounted Alaska Native and American Indian people due to a variety of factors.

What is unnerving, is that when people are searching for a quick fact and trust the most recent existing publications citing 16%, that is the number that will be branded for our state, for the next ten years.

Ten years of being “only” 16% of the state, when we are 22%; again, over one in five Alaskans are Alaska Native.

Data can be used to reason, justify and rationalize a lot of things. You can make the case to not do certain things –  to not provide resources or funding, to not provide justice, to not extend time or attention or caring – when you are “only” 16%.

In our Alaska Native communities, it is a margin that we cannot afford.

As a state, we have a responsibility to be careful with data, and use the complete figure. May we never feel like we have to lie, about who we are again.

And whether I am, “Alaska Native Alone,” or “in Combination,” I am still a whole person.

In our conversations about our Alaska Native communities, I count.

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