The Gradually Improving Statistics of North Dakota’s American Indian Residents
American Indians has represented North Dakota’s largest racial minority since statehood. This remains true today, although the state has recently seen a significant increase in other racial minorities, mostly Blacks and Hispanics. The American Indian population was here well before the rapid growth of the state’s majority (non-Hispanic white) population.

Current census data recognizes just five races, of which American Indians and Alaska Natives are considered one race. Historically, this race has consistently had a higher rate of poverty, lower rates of employment and lower educational achievement levels than is typical for the state’s overall population.

While this remains true today, a review of various socioeconomic statistics indicates that over a long-term horizon, slow but steady improvements are happening for this population in our state. Hard work by many individuals appears to be paying off! Measurements such as level of educational attainment, the rate of poverty and unemployment are indicators of the quality of life for the American Indian residents residing in the state.

Improvements to these indicators become evident over a span of several decades when reviewing statistics from decennial census responses from Census 2000 and prior, as well as the more recent responses to the American Community Survey (ACS). The Census of 1980 was the first in which American Indians were identified by their own race group on detailed tables. In the Census of 1970 and a number of prior censuses, only three race groups were identified: White, Negros (Black) and “Some Other Race” with American Indians being lumped in with this last category.
Level of Educational Attainment
Probably the most significant change in census statistics is the change in educational achievement levels of North Dakota’s American Indian population. In 1980, only 48% of American Indians ages 25 and older in our state were estimated to have completed four years of high school, compared to 66% of the overall population in the state, a gap of 19%. The educational attainment rate for both American Indians and the population at large has continually increased in the state. A similar trend exists in reviewing the percentages nationwide.

The rate also was significantly lower than of American Indians nationally. By 2019, an estimated 85% of American Indians in the state had completed high school, which is still lower than the population at large (93%), but the gap had closed considerably to 8%. 
(Note: Census questionnaires prior to 1990 asked the respondent how many years of high school they had attended, not if they had graduated. The question was changed with Census 2000 to ask if they had a high school diploma.)
It is noteworthy that American Indians in North Dakota had an overall achievement rate below that found nationally for members of this race prior to Census 2000. In 1980, the high school graduation rate of American Indians in the state was 8% less than that found nationally. But by 2019, it was 5% higher than that found nationally. Between 1980 and 2009, the percentage of American Indians having completed high school appears to have increased by 37%, compared to 24% nationally. The increase also exceeds the change observed for the state, regardless of race, which experienced a change of 27% over this same timeframe.
(Note: Census questionnaires prior to 1990 asked the respondent how many years of college they had attended, not if they had graduated.)
Similar to the improvement in the rate of high school graduation, American Indians in North Dakota have seen a significant improvement in the percentage of bachelor's degree completions since the 1980s. Prior to Census 2000, North Dakota-based American Indians had a lower percentage of bachelor's degree completions than that found for American Indians nationally. American Indians had a lower percentage of completion at the time of Census 2000 and prior,  but have seen a growth in this percentage that exceeds that found at the national level.

By looking at the count of individuals having completed these degrees, the results look far more impressive than just looking at the percentage achievement level. The Census of 1970 did not break out American Indians as a single race of socioeconomic statistics, detailing only white and Black responses and lumping these results in the category “other populations,” the majority of which was likely American Indians in North Dakota. Only 103 members of this group were estimated to have completed four years of college.

In the Census of 1980, an estimated 366 American Indians had completed four years of college. By 1990, the estimate having completed bachelor's degrees was 909, nearly tripling the figure  of 10 years prior. The count continues to grow, reaching 1,678 in Census 2000, 2,473 with the 2009 ACS estimate and 3,425 with the 2019 ACS estimate. 
Decreasing Rate of Poverty
(Note: Data for 1980-2000 is from the Census longform. The data indicating 2009 and 2019 is from the 5-Year Tables of the American Community Survey ending in the year shown.)
As the level of educational achievement continues to climb, the rate of poverty decreases. The rate of poverty for American Indians found in the Census of 1980 was 40% in North Dakota, significantly higher than the 28% found nationwide for American Indians. The Census of 1990 found that the rate of poverty both nationally and in the state had grown to 31% and 50%, respectively (the reason for the increase between 1980 and 1990 is unclear, although the overall rate of poverty in the state increased as well during this timeframe).

After 1990, the rate appears to have declined significantly. From 1990 to 2019, the national rate for American Indians declined only by about 6%, while the rate found in North Dakota declined by 18%. Or, the percentage of American Indians in poverty was cut by a third as the population has grown. The change matches the direction of the rate of poverty for the overall population of the state during this timeframe, although the rate remains higher for American Indians throughout this interval.

Beginning at Census 2000, and each decade after, the rate of poverty among American Indians in the state shows a decline from the prior decade. The most recent five-year ACS data shows American Indian rate of poverty above that found nationally for American Indians, but much closer than has been previously estimated. Data on poverty for tribal areas is more difficult to obtain with data from the ACS, as 2009 is no longer available.

To get a sense of how the rate of poverty is changing in tribal areas of the state, data from the ACS five-year survey from 2014 was compared to the most recent data, that from the 2019 ACS 5-year survey. Comparing 2014 data to 2019 shows a decrease in poverty for American Indians from 41% to 32%; Fort Berthold decreased from 31% to 24%; Spirit Lake decreased from 54% to 51%, and Turtle Mountain Reservation's rate decreased from 41% to 32%. 
Increase of Income for American Indians
In the 2019 ACS estimate, American Indians in North Dakota earned, on average, an income of $17,662. This is lower than the per capita income of the population at large in the state at $36,062. It also is lower than the per capita level of income for the U.S., as well as American Indians nationwide, which was estimated at $20,844 for an average income.
While North Dakota’s American Indian per capita income remains below that of the U.S., North Dakotans at large and American Indians nationwide, the trend in income growth compared to each of these groups over time is encouraging. While North Dakota-based American Indians earned only 33% of the U.S. income in 1989 and 43% of North Dakotans at large, by 2019 it had climbed to 52% and 49% respectively.
Improvements to Levels of Employment/Unemployment
The percentage of employed American Indians ages 16 and over in North Dakota has grown to match the rate of employment found for American Indians nationwide, although the national percentage has seen some decline over time. Looking back to 1980, only 40% of these individuals were employed. Little progress appears to have been made by 1990 but climbed considerably between 1990 and 2009, reaching 52%.

While prior estimates indicate that American Indians in North Dakota have a lower rate of employment than American Indians found nationally, the rates now appear to match with North Dakota-based American Indians having caught up considerably with those nationally.
As of 2019, American Indians in North Dakota were not employed at the level of the population as a whole. Part of this is explained by the tendency of these individuals to be found in more rural settings where employment or labor force participation tends to be lower. It also is explained by a higher rate of unemployment (This seems obvious and not needed).  

As of 2018, working American Indians constituted just over 8% of the labor force in nearly every industry in the state. American Indian workers are found in large numbers in jobs like gaming, educational services, food service, support activities of mines, specialty trade contractors and nursing homes.

It should not be assumed that all is well with how American Indians in North Dakota live or earn a living. A 32% level of poverty remains unsatisfied (unacceptable?). Clearly, more work is needed for members of this race to reach a level of parity with the rest of the state’s residents. Yet progress has been made when one looks at the figures over the long term. Increased educational attainment, decreases in the rate of poverty and increases in the level of income point to an improvement in the quality of life for these residents of the state. Hard work by numerous individuals over time appears to be paying off gradually for American Indian residents of North Dakota.
(Sources:  Census 1970 Table T34,  Census 1980 Tables T32, T59, T100, T104, T17 and T45; Census 1990 Tables P58, T25, T34, T68, T102; Census 2000 Tables T40, T48, T69, T79, T190; ACS 2009 5-year Tables A14024C, A13004, A13001C, B15002, C15002C; ACS 2014 5-year Table S1701, ACS 2019 5-year Tables A14024C, B15002, C15002C, S1701, S2301 and Census Bureau’s Local Employment Dynamics Quarterly Workforce Indicators, 2018.)
Be Legendary – Be Counted
Thank you so much for showing up and being counted for Census 2020! North Dakota received a 65.2% self-response as a state, compared to the 68% received in the 2010 Census. Please check out the U.S. Federal Census website for more ways to continue educating others on the importance on responding in 2030. Results from Census 2020 will be posted to its website April 1, 2021. Check back with us for a breakdown of those results!
How Did YOUR Community Do in the 2020 Census?
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