FARMINGTON — Populations of American Indians and Alaska Natives are growing, both in numbers and in percentage of the total U.S. population.

Once comprising less than one-half of 1 percent of the total population, the two groups are expected to reach 2 percent by 2050, according to 2010 Census data.

The two populations increased by 1.1 million people or 26.7 percent since 2000, the data shows, as compared to a 9.7-percent growth in the overall population.

The nation's population of American Indians and Alaska Natives is 5.2 million, or about 1.7 percent of the total population. By 2050, the projected population is expected to be about 8.6 million, including those who are more than one race.

The data was released as individuals and communities across the country celebrated National American Indian and Alaska Native Heritage Month, an honor that comes every November.

"This month, we recognize the enduring contributions of Native Americans and their achievements that play an important role in the fabric of our nation," U.S. Congressman Ben Ray Luján said in a prepared statement. "New Mexico's history has been shaped by the influence of Native American culture and enriched by its deep-rooted traditions. While we celebrate Native American Heritage Month during November, in New Mexico, we are reminded of their accomplishments every day."

The commemoration began 95 years ago when the first American Indian Day was celebrated in New York. Red Fox James, a Blackfeet Indian, rode horseback across the country, getting endorsements from 24 governments to have a day to honor American Indians. That first day was celebrated the second Saturday in May 1916.

In 1990, President George H.W. Bush signed a joint congressional resolution designating November of that year as National American Indian Heritage Month.

Similar proclamations were issued every year since 1994, according to Bureau of Indian Affairs documents.

"What started at the turn of the century as an effort to gain a day of recognition for the significant contributions the first Americans made to the establishment and growth of the U.S., has resulted in a whole month being designated for that purpose," a declaration issued by the BIA states.

Census data specifically about the American Indian and Alaska Native populations was released months after general data came out. It details other growths or deficits as compared to the general population, including some data specific to local tribes like the Navajo and Ute.

For example, American Indians and Alaska Natives played an increased role in the country's economy.

Businesses owned by this group grew in number more than 237,000, generating $34.5 billion in annual revenue.

The largest number of firms owned by American Indians and Alaska natives — nearly 46,000 — is in California, and the top cities are New York, Los Angeles and Gallup. Nearly a third of these businesses are involved in construction, repair, maintenance and personal services, according to Census data.

"Tribes across our country do critical work to protect important resources and historical sites, as well as to maintain thriving economic bases on their tribal lands and for the regions as a whole," U.S. Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., said in a prepared statement. "As we celebrate Native American Heritage Month, we must remember the unique relationship and the trust responsibility that exists between our federal government and tribal nations. This is especially important when addressing issues that have hit Indian Country especially hard, such as unemployment, access to health care, education and housing, reliable law enforcement and access to justice. Upholding that trust is vital to respecting tribal sovereignty and protecting tribes' ability to determine what is in the best interest of their communities."

Census data also reveals the following trends regarding American Indians and Alaska Natives:

  • 28 percent of people age 5 and older speak a language other than English at home.

  • 73 percent of residents of the Navajo Nation age 5 and older speak a language other than English at home.

  • 77 percent of people have at least a high school diploma or GED; 41 percent of people have a bachelor's degree.

  • The median age of American Indians or Alaska Natives who are no other race is 29 years.

  • Median household income is $35,000.

  • 28.4 percent of individuals are living in poverty. The general population is at 15.3 percent.

  • 29 percent of individuals lack health insurance, as compared to 15.5 percent of the general population.

  • More than 156,000 American Indians or Alaska Natives are veterans of the U.S. armed forces.