VALPARAISO | Most Hoosiers don't realize that nearly 42,000 of the state's residents are American Indians, said Brian Buchanan, chairman of the Indiana Native American Indian Affairs Commission.

The commission, which was appointed in 2006 by Gov. Mitch Daniels, held a town hall-style meeting Saturday at the First Christian Church in Valparaiso, one of many scheduled statewide this year. The group hopes to raise awareness of American Indians in Indiana and their social needs -- such as health, employment, education, civil rights and housing. It will make its first report to the governor next week.

"We have different needs than what society has provided in the past," said Buchanan, who is chief of Indiana's Miami Nation tribe.

A primary goal is simply to make the presence of American Indians known.

"People don't know we exist," said Buchanan, a Wabash resident. "There are gaps of educational knowledge about Native Americans."

He said approximately 3,000 American Indians reside in Northwest Indiana and about 6,000 in the state belong to one of three tribes: the Miami Nation, the Wea and the Upper Kispoko Band of the Shawnee Nation. Some members of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians, which is based in Michigan, also live in northern Indiana.

To belong to the Miami tribe, Buchanan said a person has to prove an ancestral connection, preferably through the mother's side of the family.

"Our criteria are very precise," he said.

Besides studying social and health problems, like the high incidence of diabetes and substance abuse among American Indians, the commission hopes to dispel stereotypes and correct misconceptions.

"I get awfully tired of being called 'chief' at my place of employment just because I'm an Indian," Buchanan said.

Linda Madagame, the commission's secretary, said educating about American Indians is important.

"We are small, but mighty," said Madagame, who also is the executive director of the American Indian Center of Indiana in Indianapolis. "We want to keep the culture alive and respected."