The Native American Community of California – Public Policy Institute of California


November is Native American Heritage Month, which celebrates the long and rich history of Indigenous communities across the country. When Europeans arrived in the late 18th century, California’s native population was close to 300,000. But the population then plummeted during the 19th century due to a combination of deliberate violence by white settlers and the spread of foreign diseases. At the beginning of the 20th century, the native population was only a tiny part of what it was.

Partly because of this history, California’s native community is the smallest of all major racial and ethnic groups, with only 1.3% of Californians identifying as Native American alone or in combination with another race. (This category includes Alaskans, but excludes Hawaiians.) And although prior to European settlement, the native population of California made up 13% of the entire native population of North America , it is now disproportionate to many other US states. Several states west of the Mississippi have native communities well above 5% of their population.

Migration, intermarriage, and forced adoptions into non-Native families have contributed to unusually complex racial and ethnic identities in California’s Native community. In the last census, 70% of Native Americans also identify with another race. This “combined” rate far exceeds other racial groups like African Americans (16%), non-Hispanic whites (9%), or Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (13%). While the California Department of Finance estimates that the state’s native population has grown in recent decades, a substantial portion of that growth falls into this multiracial category.

Latino Californians further complicate this picture, since descendants of Mexican tribes as well as Central and South American tribes are sometimes defined as Native Americans in the census. If these Latino Native Americans are included, the multiracial and multiethnic share of the Native American population reaches almost 90%. Excluding Latinos, the vast majority of “combination” Native Californians identify as Native and White (88%), while far fewer combine Native American and African American (19%), or Native American and Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders (10%). .

The socio-economic outcomes of Native Americans are relatively poor and have not improved much over time. The results are close to those of Latinos and African Americans, and generally much lower than those of non-Hispanic whites or Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. About a third of Native Americans have incomes below 200% of the poverty level. That said, “combination” Native Americans have higher college graduation rates and income, and lower poverty rates, than those who identify as Native American alone. All Native Americans have relatively high home ownership rates and among the highest citizenship rates of any racial or ethnic group.

California Natives have lived in the state for tens of thousands of years and today are a vibrant part of the California community. But the legacy of persecution and exploitation has taken its toll on community numbers and well-being. While California has made efforts to support and partner with local tribes, there is still work to be done to uplift the native community and help right historical wrongs.

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