BACKGROUND: The National Cancer Institute developed population-specific programs to better understand cancer as it occurs within underserved populations such as American Indians, Alaska Natives, Native Hawaiians, and American Samoans. METHODS: The data for American Samoans are derived from regional studies and from data collected from the Hawaii Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results (SEER) Registry. Native Hawaiian data are from the Hawaii SEER program and are limited to Native Hawaiians who live in that state. Alaska Native data are from the Lanier and Knutson 15-year summary of Alaska Native cancer data. American Indian data are from the New Mexico SEER program, which is generalizable to natives living in Arizona and New Mexico only and is relatively free of racial misclassification errors. RESULTS: An overview of age-adjusted cancer incidence and mortality rates among American Indians, Alaska Natives, Native Hawaiians, African Americans, and whites for 1977-1983 is provided. Five-year relative survival rates from cancer are from 1975-1984. Relative survival rates are provided for American Indians, Native Hawaiians, African Americans, and whites. CONCLUSIONS: Based on the limited data available, divergent cancer patterns appear to be present in these Native American populations. Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians consistently display elevated rates that are frequently camouflaged when data are collapsed into "other" racial categories.