Meaning of census roll numbers and the concept of tribal enrollment

The roll numbers recorded for individuals in early Indian census rolls changed over time. It is clear that by 1930, there was an accepted concept of “enrollment” being employed, even though there were no official membership enrollment lists existing for many tribes.

What did the “Roll Number” Signify?
The number in the earliest censuses was a consecutive number that could change from one year to the next for the same person.

Although agents had been asked as early as 1914 to tell the roll number on the previous roll especially in the case of alterations, they were specifically asked in 1929 to indicate what number the person was on the previous roll.

It seemed that 1929 became the benchmark number in some cases, and the person continued to be defined by that number on future rolls.

Instructions for the 1931 census said: “List alphabetically, and number names on roll consecutively, with no duplicate numbers….” That set of numbers was followed by the column indicating the number on the previous roll. In most cases, the “ID number” was that: the consecutive number on the 1929 roll.

There was a new Consecutive Number each year, and an Identifying Number from a base roll, and an Allotment Number, if the allotting had been done.

Using Flandreau as an example, in year 1929 the “allot-and-id numbers” (in unnumbered column 6) given are identification numbers starting from 1 to 317 end, and these ID numbers correspond exactly to the column for the present order on the list.

So, the ID number was derived from the order on the list in 1929, and was carried over to subsequent years. In 1930, the ID number was that 1929 consecutive order number.

The Concept of Tribal Enrollment

It is clear that by 1930, there was an accepted concept of “enrollment” being employed, even though there were no official membership enrollment lists existing for many tribes.

A few tribes had been involved in government supervised enrollment lists, usually relating to legal questions in which the federal government owed the tribe moneys as determined by the courts.

In that case, the federal government had a vested interest in determining who was a legitimate member, to whom money was owed, and who was not.

Apart from those special cases, the Superintendents and Agents had been occupied for years with the allotment process, identifying those who were eligible to receive an allotment, and they had been involved yearly in the distribution of goods and money and checking the eligible names off an annuity roll.

Many tribes had accepted Annuity Roll numbers, and Allotment Roll numbers. At the discretion of the Superintendent, those that did not could have an assigned Identifying Number.

So, the concept of eligibility for services was apparently equated to a status of enrollment even if there were no actual enrollment list. The questions of eligibility were tied to allotment lists, annuity rolls, and prior census rolls.

The landscape changed again in 1934 upon passage of the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 (48 Stat. 984), also known as the Wheeler-Howard Act.

Under this Act, tribes were encouraged to specifically set up a constitution that gave recognized criteria for determining membership and enrollment.

A quick survey of Indian Tribal Constitutions on the Internet shows that a number actually did adopt the BIA census as the base roll for membership. For example:

SECTION 1. The membership of the Oglala Sioux Tribe shall consist as follows:

(a) All persons whose names appear on the official census roll of the Oglala Sioux Tribe of the Pine Ridge Reservation as of April 1, 1935, provided, that correction may be made in the said rolls within five years from the adoption and approval of this constitution by the tribal council subject to the approval of the Secretary of Interior.

(b) All children born to any member of the tribe who is a resident of the reservation at the time of the birth of said children.

Instructions on the Degree of Blood

Degree of blood was not required on the early rolls. When it was included, for a short period, blood quantities were artificially compressed into only three categories that may have led to confusion in later years when more specific categories were required.

The 1930 Indian census did not allow more than three distinctions to be made in amount of blood because the census was to be tabulated using mechanical reading device.

Circular 2676 (1930) said the new census form, Form 5-128,”must be filled out in absolute conformity to instructions on reverse.

This ruling is necessary because a mechanical device has been installed in the Office for tabulating the data…. Thus for degree of blood then symbols “F” for full blood; “¼+” for one-fourth or more Indian blood; and “-¼” for less than one-fourth. No substitution of more detailed information is permissible in any column.”

Later, in 1933, the agents were told to use the categories “F”, “3/4”, “½”, “1/4”, and “1/8.” Still later, they were urged to be exact if possible. Thus, if someone used the 1930 blood quantum information in retrospect it could lead to mistakes, since it is not possible to start from an artificially compressed category and then accurately return with greater detail.

Accuracy of the Indian Census Rolls

What can be said in retrospect about the accuracy of the Indian Censuses? Even with the instructions, agents were sometimes confused as to whether they should list the names of people who were away.

If the agent had the prerson’s address, and knew the person was still maintaining ties with the family, he would probably consider the person as still under his jurisdiction, and count him in the census.

But if a person had been away for several years, the agent was supposed to remove him from the roll. He was supposed to tell the reason the person was removed and get approval from the Commissioner.

The Commissioner instructed the agents to remove those names from the roll of people who had died, or who had been away for years. He was very annoyed at the agents for failing to be accurate. His constant harping suggests there were continuing inaccuracies.

In the end, the Indian Census Rolls may or may not be considered a list of all those people who were officially considered “enrolled.”

Some tribes did adopt them as a base roll. But, it is also clear that the numbers had varying meaning.

Very likely one could, at least by the mid 1930s, equate the presence of a name on a roll as indicating sustained presence in the tribal jurisdiction of that Agent with a status of membership understood.

As early as 1914, the Commissioner started asking that the numbers on the roll should indicate the number of the person on the roll the year before.

That indicates that although the roll was freshly numbered each year, with minor variations gradually occurring due to births and deaths, it was nevertheless reflective of a continuous group of people. This is the way most rolls look, until the 1930 changes.

Conclusions and Interpretations

To conclude this discussion, let us consider the following scenario: How could a person who was on the Flandreau Indian Census rolls in the 1920s and 1930s also have had children listed in a Massachusetts “city directory” at the same time?

There are several possibilities. Theoretically, if the children were living with him in his household on the reservation, they should have been counted as members of his family on the BIA Indian census.

This is also true if the children were away attending school, but otherwise lived with him.

If he was separated from his wife and the mother took the children to Massachusetts, they would be part of the mother’s household and would not be counted on the reservation census with the father.

If the mother was not an enrolled member of that tribe or reservation and lived away with her children, she would not be counted, nor the children, in the agent’s count for the census of that reservation for that year.

If the mother was a member of a different tribe or reservation, the children might have been counted on that other reservation’s census.

Agents were instructed to list people who lived on the reservation but were not members of that tribe. But they were not counted in the total census count.

The point was that a person should not be counted twice, and the agent had to include some information that would help resolve the issue.

The agent was supposed to indicate person’s tribe and which jurisdiction. The agent would usually give the general address of people who were away.

When the census was submitted, it would be easier to figure out if someone had been left off of a census or erroneously included on another one.

The Commissioner of Indian Affairs was less concerned about factual names as he was concerned that the total number be accurate.

That is not to say that the exact identity of persons was not important; it was. The Commissioner noted that the censuses would be useful in making annuity rolls, and in determining issues of inheritance, so he wanted them to be correct.