WASHINGTON–The nation’s Alaska Native and American Indian population has increased by 26.7 percent since 2000, a rate that is nearly three times as large as the overall population growth rate, Census Bureau officials said Wednesday.

“In all likelihood, there are more indigenous people in the Americas now than there were in 1492,” said Kevin Gover, director of the American Indian Museum where the census data announcement was made. “We think about the meaning of that, the long story and history that took place between now and then, but recognize that Indian people in the United States and throughout the Americas and Hawaii are beginning to thrive again.”

Based on projections from current data, the Census Bureau predicted that the Alaska Native and American Indian population will hit 8.6 million by 2050.

The Office of Management and Budget defines American Indian or Alaska Native as a person with origins in any of the original peoples of North and South America and who maintains tribal or community affiliation.

Census Bureau Director Robert Groves said that people living in rural parts of Alaska were undercounted in previous years. This was due in part to the fact that the Alaskan hunting and fishing season conflicted with the time of year the census was taken. In 2010, the Census Bureau took this conflict into consideration and measured the state’s population at a different time of year than other parts of the U.S.

The census brief  was released on the same day that the House Subcommittee on Indian and Alaska Native Affairs held a hearing on two bills. Both pieces of legislation involve land disputes between the Bureau of Land Management and native peoples, one group in Alaska and one in California. The residents of the reservations are urging the Subcommittee to review the two bills as a way to push for even greater land expansion.

Malia Villegas of the National Congress of American Indians addresses the importance of census-taking. (Jaclyn Skurie/Medill)

The testimonies list infrastructure, housing, economic development and healthcare as the reasons for the push in land expansion.

According to Malia Villegas of the National Congress of American Indians, accurate data is crucial for the American Indian and Alaska Native population to negotiate U.S. legislation. By using census information, Native populations demonstrate tribal sovereignty, form solidarity with other cultural groups and access federal and state funding.

“Small differences in counts can make large differences for American Indian and Alaska Native communities,” Villegas said. “We do appreciate the Census Bureau’s continued commitment to addressing issues on account and data accuracy in context of significance for American Indians and the Alaska Native peoples.”