Population Research and Policy Review 16: 95–114, 1997.
1997 Kluwer Academic Publishers. Printed in the Netherlands.
The demography of American Indian families
GARY D. SANDEFUR & CAROLYN A. LIEBLER
Institute for Research on Poverty, University of Wisconsin, Madison, Wisconsin, USA
Abstract. This paper uses data from the decennial censuses to examine family structure and
changes in family structure over time among American Indians. The information about the
national Indian population indicates that the trends in family structure among American Indians
are parallel in many respects to those in the general US population. That is, the percentage
of young American Indian women who have never married has increased over time, the
percentage of American Indian women who are divorced has increased over time, and the
percentage of American Indian children who reside with a single parent has increased as well.
The percentage of American Indian women who have never married and who are divorced and
the percentage of American Indian children who live with a single parent are higher than those
among the general population. The incidence of children livingwith single parents is especially
high on some reservations which also have high levels of poverty and unemployment. Family
patterns, however, vary considerably across reservations in ways that are not easily explained
by differences in other demographic characteristics. These variations may be due to cultural
and historical differences that are not captured in data collected in the censuses.
Key words: American Indians, Family, Marriage, Divorce, Single-parent families
This paper describes some key features of contemporary American Indian
families and changes in these features over time. A major theme of the
discussion is that a growing proportion of American Indian children reside
with only one parent. The prevalence of single-parent families is especially
pronounced on some reservations. These family patterns, combined with
depressed economic conditions, place many American Indian children at
To examine American Indian families, we rely primarily on data from
the US Bureau of the Census. These data show that American Indian chil-
dren are less likely to reside with two parents than are children in the total
US population. Also, American Indian women are less likely to ever marry
and more likely to be divorced than women in general. The trends in these
characteristics over time roughly follow trends in the overall US population.
The extent of single parenthood, never marrying, and divorce is higher on
some of the reservations than among other segments of the Indian population.