The Story of the 1950 Census P8 Indian Reservation Schedule

Today’s post is by Cody White, Archivist and Subject Matter Expert for Native American Related Records.

Special thanks to Claire Kluskens, Archivist and Subject Matter Expert for Census Records, and Rose Buchanan, Archivist at the National Archives in Washington, DC.

“Now Mrs. Begay, I want to ask you about the names of the people in your family. Is your husband known by any other name than Richard Begay?

Sometimes he is called Hosteen Nez.

Are you known by any other name than Marie Begay?

Yes, some people call me Atsi but usually I am called Cas Bah…

The script is two pages long, focusing on unique questions regarding additional names, tribal and clan affiliation, and languages spoken. The year was 1950, and Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) personnel as well as Native Americans living on reservations had been pressed into service on nearly 100 reservations nationwide to conduct a supplemental schedule to that year’s decennial census, the P8 Indian Reservation Schedule.

In April 2022, these schedules along with the rest of the 1950 decennial census, will be made publicly available via the National Archives’ 1950 census web page. While every Native American was enumerated on the Form P1 (1950 Census of Population and Housing) that was used across the entire United States, the Form P8 (Indian Reservation Schedule) was not conducted on every reservation. This is the story of those reservations who were covered but were not finalized until shortly before the census was taken.

A blank example of the Form P8 Indian Reservation Schedule. In April 2022, nearly 33,000 of these schedules from nearly 100 reservations across the lower 48 states will be released along with the general population schedules from the 1950 census.

The Federal Census on the Reservation, 1790-1940

Until the mid-nineteenth century, Native Americans were either not enumerated or not clearly noted as Native on the federal census. Article 1, section 2, of the Constitution excluded “Indians not taxed” from enumeration, and instructions for enumerators in the 1790 through 1850 censuses reiterated this. However, neither the Constitution nor the early instructions to enumerators defined “Indians not taxed,” leading to confusion about whether or how to count Natives in the mid-nineteenth century, when many tribes were living on newly created reservations and were thus considered to be wards of the government. In 1860, the Census Bureau estimated the overall Native population in the United States, and in 1870 Indian Agents were tasked with a more precise estimation for census tables. But it wasn’t until 1880 that the first, however limited, census enumerations were conducted on Native reservations.

This all changed in 1890 when the Census Act called for all Natives to be enumerated. There were many setbacks. For example, staff canvassing the Five Nations reported often needing two to three interpreters, and the massive list of questions for the Seminole in Florida had to be culled after the tribe held meetings about refusing to answer many. On the 27,000-square-mile Navajo Nation, local Indian Agent D. L. Shipley was tasked with enumerating the entire reservation alone, a herculean task that took him nearly a year to complete with predictably shaky results. Regardless, the 1890 census was generally reported as a success, and the Census Bureau produced a lavish report featuring photographs and maps along with the data. Unfortunately for historians and genealogists, that report is all that now exists; in a 1921 Commerce Building fire much of the census was lost, and the rest was erroneously destroyed a decade later, prior to the creation of the National Archives.

Special Native schedules were conducted again in 1900 and 1910, with the latter’s 14 questions focusing mostly on how well the government’s assimilation efforts were working. In what became a 20-year sort of cycle, special focus was again placed on capturing information about Native Americans in 1930, this time enumerators repurposing columns on the regular schedule to note blood quantum and tribe information.

data table for Native American stats, incl: population, school attendance, occupation
Excerpt from a circa-1947 Census Bureau report on data captured about Native Americans through regular and special census schedules

The Seeds of the 1950 P8 Schedule

The data must be flawed. When efforts were explicitly made to enumerate Natives—even within the confines of a general schedule, as was used in 1930—the numbers were as expected; in Oklahoma alone, nearly 92,000 Natives were counted in 1930. Ten years later during the 1940 census, no special attention was paid to enumerating Native Americans, and the total count of Oklahoma’s Native population plummeted to around 63,000. The issue in counting was even more acute on the massive, and largely rural, Navajo Nation. In 1930, enumerators stuck to the few established roads, sending riders on horseback out to make counts. In 1940, during the “trading post census,” enumerators relied on the many trading posts that dotted the land, capturing information when folks came and went. Even when enumerators could find people, issues still arose: differing names, no birth dates, and certain superstitions related to speaking names out loud were just a few that enumerators encountered. The BIA grew frustrated with the poor data gathered. In 1947, Acting Director of Tribal Relations D’Arcy McNickle even bluntly stated in a meeting with the Census Bureau that “an actual count of the Navajos had not been conducted since a round-up by Kit Carson.”

shows a group ppl trying to pull a truck out of mud after a washout
“Some of the difficulties of travel into the interior of the reservation. Wide creeks and washes are encountered quite frequently. Southern Navajo Agency, 1933.” (NAID 298588) This image shows in part how traversing the massive Navajo Nation, and thus trying to conduct a census there, could be a difficult endeavor.

Along with the Navajo specifically, the need for a better count of the Native population nationwide was noted again and again by the BIA in the years leading up to 1950. But unlike in 1930, when the regular census schedule was utilized to great effect in noting such populations, the BIA pressed for a special schedule in the upcoming decennial census—one that would feature very specific questions.

Another Purpose of the 1950 P8 Schedule?

Much of the real estate of the P8 schedule explores a particular theme: the “extent to which Indians are adapting the culture of the white population,” as the Census Bureau explained in its training material. Throughout the historical record, the BIA coyly noted that this supplemental schedule was needed for “planning purposes.” However, not every reservation was planned to be enumerated with the P8, which begs the question what sort of planning wouldn’t involve every reservation. For a possible explanation, one could look at the overall movement in the late 1940s toward termination. The federal government’s termination policy represented a dramatic shift from its former policy of self-determination for reservations, which was only set in place in the 1930s. Termination was an extreme act of assimilation that sought to end federal recognition of tribal nations; close the trusteeship over reservations (essentially dissolving them); and place all Natives under the legal sovereignty of each state they lived in. In 1947, William Zimmerman, associate commissioner of Indian Affairs, divided reservations into three lists according to their readiness to leave trust status. But as noted above, the agency had poor data on many of the reservations. Enter the P8 schedule.

It is actually the Census Bureau that best documents the link between the termination of tribal nations and the 1950 P8 schedule. In February 1950, the BIA suddenly claimed they could not guarantee the cost of the special schedule, which until that point it had been assumed they would cover. The Census Bureau thus picked up the tab, noting the BIA would still have to pay for any tabulation of the data after the census. To cover this unexpected cost, the Census Bureau wrote a memo to the Bureau of Budget for the funds. In the first paragraph, the Census Bureau wrote that the BIA needed the information that would be collected by the P8 schedule “in connection with their present program in aiding Indian citizens to become economically self-sustaining and in order to lessen or remove governmental supervision”—a textbook definition of the termination policy if there ever was one.

reason for extra schedule is "needed in connection with their present program of aiding Indian citizens to become economically self sufficient..."
On February 1, 1950, the Census Bureau informed the BIA that they would pay for the additional P8 schedule and shared this supporting statement submitted to the Bureau of Budget to cover the extra cost. The statement opens with the BIA’s reason for wanting the special schedule.

Planning the 1950 P8 Schedule

Both the Census Bureau and the BIA agreed that conforming enumeration districts (EDs) to reservation boundaries would ease the enumeration process. But this was not an entirely novel approach; in 1930, the two agencies had collaborated to split up areas when deciding where BIA staff would conduct the census and in some cases conformed EDs to BIA grazing districts. In August 1948, the BIA’s Division of Geography reported that they would produce 77 maps that would cover the reservations in question, for 150 hours of their draftsman’s time.

Excerpt from the Census Bureau’s list of reservations to be enumerated with the P8 schedule, and their associated enumeration district and grazing distinct or land management area, if applicable

That summer negotiations began in earnest over the additional cost of the schedule; a multipage iteration was estimated to total around 400,000 pages and, at ten cents a page, cost $40,000. The P8 schedule that was ultimately created fits onto one page, with ten questions and a block for housing structure data. Although the BIA initially hoped for nearly double the number of questions, many were slashed to save money, dropping the estimated cost to $15,000. Several questions regarding land use and animal husbandry were discarded, as were two for the Navajo Nation only regarding extended family and land co-ops. The BIA had wanted to ask about participation in social groups—“non-Indian” types, such as the PTA and 4-H—as a way to measure acculturation, but this was dropped. Questions regarding income earned, including one about arts and crafts with each type delineated, were also dropped. Asking about the number of handicapped family members was nixed. And lastly, one question specific to Alaska Natives regarding their original village was deleted. This was the only dropped question for which our records offer an explanation: by January 1950, when the list of questions was being workshopped, the census materials for the Territory of Alaska had already been sent north, so there was no time to include the territory in the P8 schedule. The final list of questions was formalized by the BIA on January 10, 1950, and forwarded to the Census Bureau for formatting and printing.

Conducting the 1950 P8 Schedule

Annotated draft of a memo from the Indian Affairs Commissioner to staff regarding participation in the 1950 census and the selection of enumerators

With the questions selected and the reservations noted for enumeration, everything kicked off nationwide in March 1950. The BIA selected the enumerators on each reservation as well the crew leaders to manage them. Care was taken to select those familiar with the reservation, the people, their customs, and their languages. Most importantly, the confidence of the tribal members was a high priority—staff were told to reiterate that the data would “not be used to deprive the Indians of their rights or property,” and it would all be held in strict confidence. Training on who to include on the P8 schedules was conducted. Non-Native spouses were to be noted on the P8, but any non-Native lodgers or servants were not to be. Under question four about whether the person went by any other names, the enumerator could not simply note “yes;” they had to list one, although any more than that were to be disregarded. Question nine about knowledge of other languages could include foreign languages in addition to tribal ones.

asking for 5000 P8 schedules, which have not yet been rec'd
With the questions only settled in January 1950, officials were cutting it close in printing the P8 schedule. On March 9, the forms were sent out, but only days earlier some Census field staff were asking DC for their status, as seen in this telegram.

That April the enumerators hit the ground running. They were paid one dollar an hour, plus five cents a mile if using their personal vehicle. If needing a horse, not an unlikely proposition given the expanse and poor infrastructure of many western reservations, enumerators had to simply rely on the local prevailing rate. BIA staff doing the enumeration could take paid leave while also getting paid by the Census Bureau, work after normal working hours, or take leave without pay. The issue of dual compensation was on the Comptroller General’s radar, as the Census Bureau noted; but it appears from the records that they went ahead regardless. Time was of the essence, and some BIA superintendents pushed to get done fast. On the Papago Reservation, the poor roads hampered initial efforts, leading the superintendent to shut down all agency operations and put all of his staff into an effort to enumerate the tribe before the wage workers left the reservation for work. This was an issue across western reservations in 1950 and in the decades since as concerns about undercounting persist as a result. Yet other issues piled up. BIA superintendents were confused whether smaller reservations in their jurisdiction should be enumerated using the P8 form; the BIA reiterated that if the reservations were not on the approved list, then no. On the Standing Rock Reservation, which straddles the Dakota borders, the instructions to only enumerate the North Dakota portion on the P8 elicited confusion, with Census headquarters clarifying that the South Dakota portion was to be omitted because it was primarily “non-Indian.” The United Pueblos Agency reported an overall objection to the ceremony attendance question, as well as the refusal of the Kewa Pueblo (then known as the Santo Domingo Pueblo) to answer the clan affiliation question. The Census headquarters advised simply skipping these questions, so we shall see when the schedules are released if the questions indeed went unanswered.

This letter was sent from the Census Bureau headquarters to New Mexico staff on March 28, concerning local Native objections to answering the ceremony and clan questions. With concerns the protests would “endanger” the census in those areas, the Census Bureau instructed staff to simply skip the question.

The Results

In September 1950, the Census Bureau noted that 32,115 P8 forms had been received to date at the Washington, DC, and Philadelphia offices combined, which hews close to the approximately 33,378 forms we hold today. Though not every reservation was enumerated with the P8 schedule, in 1973 Carmelita Ryan of the National Archives, in the Reference Information Paper Number 61 “Vital Statistics in the National Archives Relating to the American Indian,” estimated that 72.1% of all Native Americans were captured on the form. So, while not complete, what remains is an interesting snapshot of family units on reservations across the country, and this spring they will be fully open to browse and research for the first time.


All quotes, images, and statistics here come from Central Classified Files, File 16014-1949-034 (NAID 202807689), RG 75: Records of the Bureau of Indian Affairs; and 17th Decennial Census Reference Materials, Binder 37 – Indian Reservations (NAID 205683301), RG 29: Records of the Bureau of Census. Additional background information is courtesy of Ann L. Drees’ “The Enumeration of the Indian Population in the Censuses of the United States , 1790–1960,” a 1968 report prepared for the Bureau of the Census History Division, and James P. Collins’ “Native Americans in the Census, 1860–1890” in the Summer 2006 issue of the National Archives Prologue Magazine.

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