Demographers are still scratching their heads as to how the 2020 U.S. census indicated an 85% jump in people identifying as American Indian or Alaskan Native. With fertility rates for Indigenous peoples in the U.S. being among the lowest, there is seemingly little explanation for the phenomenon.

For UCLA’s Desi Small-Rodriguez, it’s less about the “why” and more about the “who.” Small-Rodriguez, an assistant professor of sociology and American Indian studies in the UCLA College, has made it her life’s work to increase Indigenous visibility through critical quantitative sociology. The Northern Cheyenne Indian and Chicana sees wide-ranging applications for her work that could lead to systemic change in how data collection efforts are organized and operated, resulting in better government decision-making and policy.

“The census is a tool of the settler colonial government. In fact, it’s the bedrock of the settler colonial government,”  Small-Rodriguez said in an interview that aired Nov. 16 on LAist 89.3-FM’s “AirTalk.” Listen to the full interview with host Larry Mantle (approx.1:23 mark).

“I’m more concerned with, ‘How do we meaningfully use the data that are collected. Who are these people? Are these real Indians? Who decides?’ These are questions that researchers, tribes and natives ourselves are thinking about,” Small-Rodgriguez said. “I’m in the mindset that there is power in numbers; I’d like us to get even closer to what might be an even more meaningful number of American Indians and Alaskan Indians.”

Watch Small-Rodriguez in this video, which was published on the UCLA American Indian Studies Centers YouTube channel: