South Dakota's Native American population grew by more than 15 percent in the past decade statewide, thanks to a high birth rate and the increasing migration of people back to their reservation homes, which some tribal officials suspect were undercounted.
The U.S. Census Bureau counted 71,817 Native Americans living in South Dakota in 2010, or 8.8 percent of the state's population. That's an increase of more than 9,500 people over 2000, but it is virtually unchanged as a percentage of the state's population in the past 10 years.
Overall, the 2010 Census shows South Dakota with a population of 814,180, an increase of 7.9 percent from 2000.
An official with the Oglala Sioux Tribe on the Pine Ridge Reservation, which encompasses all of Shannon County and parts of Jackson and Bennett counties, questioned Census numbers for Shannon County, which is 96 percent Native American and had 13,586 residents in 2010.
"I am totally skeptical of those numbers," said Myron Pourier, Fifth Member representative for OST.
Pourier estimates the population of the Pine Ridge Reservation at 40,000.
"I don't know about other reservations, but I know our reservation has quadrupled in size greatly," he said. "People are moving home; they want to be back on their own treaty lands."
Todd County, which comprises a large part of the Rosebud Sioux Reservation, had 9,612 residents, according to the 2010 Census, for a 6.7 percent increase. That growth seems low to Rose Cordier, the tribe's contact person for the 2010 Census. In a recent tribal census of Todd County communities, Cordier had an unofficial count of 9,626 tribal members alone. Todd County is 88 percent Native American. "So there is quite a variance. The increase seems low to me."
In Rapid City, Natives made up 12.4 percent of city residents in 2010, according to the Census Bureau. Ten years earlier, the city was 10 percent Native. Rapid City's Native population rose by 39 percent in that time to 8,416 individuals.
Andrew Iron Shell, a community organizer with the Western South Dakota Native American Organizing Project in Rapid City, said his organization is anxiously awaiting the new state demographics on Native Americans and will utilize them to highlight the "exact amount that South Dakota Indian Country brings to western South Dakota and Rapid City as a whole."
"These numbers are a social determinant to the quality of life of our urban, rural and reservation-based tribal members in South Dakota. Perhaps, no other population group in South Dakota feels the direct effect that these numbers will represent," Iron Shell said. Census numbers will affect everything from school funding - both on and off tribal lands - as well as potential voter redistricting and "how many federal dollars Uncle Sam will contribute to their treaty and trust obligations owed to Indian Country."
With federal and state budget cuts threatening funding to tribal nations, Iron Shell is hoping new Census numbers will help compensate for those cuts and "bring funding levels up to at least a bearable burden on those affected by a decrease in federal program allocation overall."
Neither Pourier nor Cordier had an explanation for what they say is undercounting on reservations.
"That's something we need to look into as a tribe," he said. "We were very active in getting that Census out. I'd like to see the actual numbers that went back to the Census," Pourier said. Cordier said the Census Bureau made a "great effort" on Rosebud, employing many more workers there than it had in the past.
Mike McCurry, Extension Service sociologist at South Dakota State University, said the new census proves the state is "getting significantly more Native Americans."
"That's really due to the youth of the population. If we go back 10 years, Pine Ridge had an average age of 20.6, and if we look in the middle of our state map with counties losing population, they are older. There, more than 20 percent of the population is over 65, and you can't expect to grow when your county is that old. Those aren't your peak child-bearing years anymore," McCurry said.
On the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation, Ziebach County's small population grew by more than 11 percent to 2,801 people, while Dewey County fell by 11 percent to 5,301. Both those counties are 75 percent Native American. Ziebach was recently named by the Census Bureau as the poorest county in the nation, as well as the county with the largest percentage of its young children living in poverty. The city of Eagle Butte more than doubled its population in 10 years, from 619 in 2000 to 1,318 last year.
Newly appointed state Tribal Relations Secretary J.R. LaPlante isn't surprised to see the state's reservation population rise.
"That's one of the areas of rural South Dakota that continues to have an increase in population," he said, indicating that the needs for housing, health care, education and welfare in those places will continue to increase, as well.
Contact Mary Garrigan at 394-8424 or email@example.com