The 2020 census shows a 20% decrease in American Indians across Santa Clara County, perplexing city officials and fueling advocates’ concerns. 

For some, the decrease  – which amounts to over 800 individuals – is a surprise. But for those in the indigenous community, the drop raises questions of identity, not of departure. In fact, some believe the decrease is only happening on paper, and may be born from a struggle for recognition and identity.

“A lot of people who are American Indian feel a certain level of discomfort with identity, and that goes back to blood quantum levels,” said Gerardo Loera, the director of development and communications at the Indian Health Center of Santa Clara Valley. “People feel like they aren’t connected to the community, or they don’t have enough blood to count.”

Blood quantum level is a controversial – yet widely used – measure of “blood” requirements tied to tribal identity. These measurements date back to 1705, when the Colony of Virginia first enacted the Indian Blood Law as a way to define legally American Indian ancestry. By doing so, the colony established what many American Indians feel became a system to erase tribal identity and decrease those eligible for land allotments and other federal benefits. But for many tribes, the system stuck – and today, blood quantum is used to register people federally as members of tribes.

When it comes to the census, Loera said, blood quantum matters. Question number nine on the census form asks individuals to tick a box if they are American Indian or Alaska Native, and to print the name of their principal tribe. Without enough blood quantum to be enrolled as a tribal member, however, even those with significant American Indian ancestry may not feel entitled to tick that box.

“My family’s story – our oral history – is that we are connected to tribes in the Southwest,” Loera said. “But we weren’t enrolled members. I’m probably the first one… in two generations to reclaim our indigenous identity.”

Without his encouragement, Loera’s family would probably have registered as Hispanic, regardless of the fact that their family history began with a tribe in New Mexico.

“A lot of people feel that, depending on how much blood quantum they have, they don’t have a right to claim the connection to their tribal community,” Loera said. “These are systemic, racist systems that are in place to this day.”

In addition, many tribes across the nation are not recognized by the federal government. 

With many American Indians unable to register federally as members of their tribes, some may decide to leave the census question unanswered.

The Muwekma Ohlone Tribe, for example, has roots in counties across the Bay Area: San Francisco, San Mateo, most of Santa Clara, Alameda, and Contra Costa, along with portions of Napa, Santa Cruz, Solano and San Joaquin. But despite years of advocacy to confirm its origins, according to the government, it is not a recognized tribe.

“[The decrease] most definitely is related to issues of federal recognition and sovereignty,” said Charlene Nijmeh, chairwoman of the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe. “Muwekma Ohlone has been denied its rightful status as a federally recognized tribe since the 1930s, and because of that, we were not able to create a land-based community.”

Michael V. Wilcox, a senior lecturer at the center for comparative studies in race and ethnicity at Stanford University, has studied indigenous archaeology, colonization and violence, and the ethnohistory of Pueblo Indians, among other related topics. He said that many of his American Indian students are from two tribes, but because of blood quantum or federal recognition issues, they cannot qualify for citizenship in either one.

Though individuals like Loera feel the size of the American Indians community has remained static, others – in both Santa Clara County and outside of it – feel rising costs of living, combined with pandemic-related financial hardships, may have led people to leave the Bay Area.

“Overall, we saw a huge increase in the Native American population nationally because of combined efforts from state, regional, local and national partners to push people to respond to the census,” said Ahtza Dawn Chavez, the Executive Director of the NAVA Education Project in New Mexico. “But you also had the census happening during a pandemic – and anyone who suffers from inequality was at a disadvantage.”

Across the country, Chavez said, COVID-related migration from expensive urban areas to lower-cost rural areas has been well-documented. Santa Clara County, where the median cost of a house is double the state average, is indicative of that trend. With housing prices escalating while housing availability declines, many already-marginalized communities are moving out of the county.

Palo Alto, like most communities in Santa Clara County, has seen an influx of higher-income residents, ready and able to buy multi-million-dollar homes. Meanwhile, the available stock of affordable housing is tight, despite increasing demand. In Palo Alto, which is in the heart of Silicon Valley, Mayor Pat Burt estimates that the demand for low-income housing is at least four times the supply. 

American Indians across the United States have the highest poverty rate among all minority groups. In 2018, the poverty rate among indigenous peoples was over 25 percent,according to the National Community Reinvestment Coalition. And while federally-recognized tribes may receive housing assistance, others – like Santa Clara County’s Muwekma Ohlone Tribe – are ineligible for such support because they lack federal recognition. Because of that, some may have chosen to leave the area, Nijmeh wrote in an email

She added: “Many of our younger members are forced to move out of their 10,000-year-plus ancestral homeland because they can’t afford to live here anymore.”