Census Provides Snapshots of Idaho’s Reservation Populations

In the early 1980s, two economic consultants presented information about the 1980 Census to professors and students in the economics department at the University of Idaho. They excitedly announced that the Nez Perce were one of the richest tribes in the United States with extremely low poverty and unemployment rates. The audience was stunned. That did not jive with what they knew. Then, someone asked the key question, “Did you use data for the tribe or the reservation?” The consultants said the reservation, which they thought was the same as the tribe. But they were wrong. While the Nez Perce Reservation had a population of roughly 17,800 in 1980, only about 1,500 residents were Native American.

The Dawes Act of 1887 led to a large number of white settlers buying land from tribal members throughout the West. As a consequence, Native Americans make up only 26 percent of the residents living on Idaho reservations. The following table shows the total and Native American  populations of Idaho’s five reservations, and that the Native American  population has been growing faster than the total population on the reservations.

The Coeur d’Alene Reservation covers 524 square miles in western Benewah County and southwestern Kootenai County. Data for the 450-square-mile Duck Valley reservation of the Shoshone-Paiute Tribe includes both its half in Idaho’s Elmore County and its other half in Nevada’s Elko County. The 815-square-mile Fort Hall Reservation of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes extends into parts of Bingham, Power, Bannock and Caribou counties. The Kootenai Reservation covers slightly more than four square miles near Bonners Ferry in Boundary County. The Nez Perce Tribe’s reservation is the largest in both population and area — covering 1,195 square miles in Nez Perce, Lewis, Idaho and Clearwater counties.

Many tribal members do not live on reservations; some live near the reservations but others live all around the world. For example, of the 3,735 people who identified themselves as Nez Perce Tribe in the 2010 Census, 1,451 lived on the reservation. Another 521 lived in other parts of Idaho. The remaining 1,763 lived in other parts of the U.S.

The tribal make-up of Native Americans on the reservation tends to be more diverse than most outsiders expect. Many reservation residents hail from other tribes. Of the 2,310 Native Americans living on the Nez Perce Reservation in 2010, 1,451 — about 63 percent — were members of the Nez Perce Tribe. Of the 859 Native Americans who are not members of the Nez Perce Tribe, some are married to or live with Nez Perce Tribe members. Sometimes a Nez Perce Tribe member may marry someone enrolled in another tribe, and half of their children will be enrolled in the Nez Perce Tribe and half in the other tribe. In addition, members of other tribes may move to the reservations to work for the Nez Perce Tribe. As the tribal government’s employment has risen above 1,000 in recent years, more and more people have found good job opportunities there.

A final caveat: The statistics for “Native Americans” shown here are only for those people who marked themselves as being of only one race — Native American and Alaska Native, but some tribal members and other people reported themselves as having more than one race.

Kathryn.Tacke@labor.idaho.gov, regional economist
Idaho Department of Labor
(208) 799-5000 ext. 3984

See related article about the 2020 Census and challenges caused by COVID-19.