So you want to do research on your Native American heritage? Cherokee? Chinook? Tlingit? The subject of Native American history and genealogy can be quite challenging.
The first humans crossed the Beringia Land Bridge…a very long time ago. The precise date remains in debate to this day, with the estimate for human habitation in the Americas running back around ten thousand years.
Naturally, tracing history back that far verges on impossible, but you can actually trace your family heritage at least to a specific tribe or location. So let’s take a look at how you can find the details on your Native American heritage.
Why research Native American family history?
Connecting or reconnecting with your Native American roots can be a long and intense process, but over time it will help you understand your history and your family’s place in it. People conduct genealogical research for all sorts of reasons, but one of the main ones is to create a sort of narrative stretching back through time itself, a sort of story that echoes through generations.
With Native American history, this story goes back a very long way and is often one of the most fascinating stories that can possibly be told. So while you’re wrapped up in this family search, don’t forget to stop every once in a while and find out who your ancestors actually were.
Not just what tribe they were in, but what they did as individual people. Did they stay in one place? Or did they migrate from place to place always hoping for something better on the other side of a river or mountain range?
History is full of twists and turns and this voyage of discovery can often be an exciting one which shapes you in a very personal way. Was your ancestor a U.S. Cavalry Scout? Or an Apache resistance fighter? Or maybe you’ll find relatives with stories that are less dramatic stories but nonetheless worth telling.
A general outline
Your very first step is to write down what you already know about your family. Who are your parents? Siblings? Grandparents? Cousins? When and where were they born?
Consider too what you would like to know. What are you hoping to get out of your genealogical research? What are your major goals?
Next, start talking with your living family members. Ask them if they are willing to sit down and have a conversation, preferably recorded, about their own lives, recollections, and understandings of family lore.
Oral history is often an incredibly valuable way of finding leads and interesting directions for your research. Plus, it’s an opportunity to bond with relatives and learn new things about them!
Then it’s time to begin your search for written records and documents. I’ll discuss the various kinds of records you’ll encounter below.
As you uncover new information, you’ll need some way of keeping things organized. There are many genealogical websites and software programs that allow you to build a family tree, store data, and create graphics.
Those are the basic steps of performing genealogical research. Now let’s get more in-depth!
Bear in mind that Native American tribes have historically moved around the continent, both willingly and unwillingly, so geographic records may be difficult to come by.
In Canada and the United States, many white citizens made a conscious effort to assimilate Native children forcibly into “mainstream” society. This often damaged native communities and further muddled the historical records.
Due to some sad quirks of history, there are only around 570 tribes currently recognized in the United States, even though there really are many more.
A recent example of this is the struggle of the North Carolina Lumbee Tribe to gain Federal acceptance and recognition of tribal sovereignty. Being Lumbee does endow you with a wonderful history, but it does not bestow government recognition. Because of the often fraught nature of Native American status and land claims, this subject can often be quite tricky to approach.
As with nearly any study of your genealogy, the best place for you to start your search is with your living family members. These parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles will have an in-depth knowledge of the family history within their own memories.
The details you gain by speaking with them will serve as an excellent place from which you can begin an in depth search for details on your past family narrative.
So begin your journey by seeing what your family knows about its own history. In all of these interviews, you will create a greater connection with your family, both living and passed. You’ll forge a family narrative through time.
And more specifically, you will also need to find out either a tribe or locality your Native American ancestors came from. This information is by far the most important for you as you make your detailed search into your family history. Without this information, it will be somewhere between difficult to impossible to pinpoint any useful details on your family.
Especially if you wish to enroll in a tribal register in the United States or Canada (details on that later), you need to know the tribe to which your family belongs.
Build a tentative family tree. Try to use family memory to locate your ancestor roughly within time and space. This family tree—recording relatives’ names, dates, places lived, and so on—will make your research much easier and more fruitful.
To be totally honest, if you haven’t yet completed a decent family tree, there isn’t much of a point in poring over records in the various online and print archives. There is simply too much raw data out there to be useful without context.
Once you’ve got this family tree at least part way finished, it’s time to find some records. So where should you look?
Online database sites like Ancestry, FamilySearch, and RootsWeb are popular with many people. They allow you to search through millions of records for your ancestors’ names. It’s worth browsing around these sites to see what they can offer you.
What to look for
Now for a very, very important point. In all of this research, you absolutely need to pin down a couple specific things: First, you need the names of specific ancestors you believe to be in a certain native tribe. Next, you need their location at a given time. This includes state and county.
Without this information, you really won’t be able to prove much of anything regarding actual Native ancestry. In order to try to enroll yourself in the tribe, the very minimum of information that you will need is name and place.
Now, luckily for you, these little bits of information should not be all that hard to find out, but linking them to a specific tribe can be hard in a world that often devalued Native people.
The U.S. Census is conducted every year and has fairly complete records of who lived where and when. Since these records are also public and quite easy to find, try this as a solid first step. However, be aware that much Census data is quite cursory and may well contain no mention at all of Native American roots.
This is especially true during the periods of forced assimilation of tribes, during which many people tried to hide their Native origins in order to escape persecution. Trying to appear as an ‘American’ was a goal of many people seeking broad public acceptance.
This was common among Natives as well as also among immigrants coming to the United States, who changed their own names in an attempt to hide German or Polish roots.
One perk of the U.S. Census is that it allows you to track individuals and families over both time and space. At a minimum, the Census should provide you with names and places put in the context of dates.
If your ancestors moved across the continent at some point, the Census can be a great way to track them down. Once you’ve done Census research, you’ll be ready for more detailed research next.
Other written records
Try looking into military service records, grave registration, court records, or marriages and deaths. This will further help you find your family members previously lost to the past.
Again, many of these records can be searched using the big online databases like Ancestry or FamilySearch, or through the National Archives.
Native American Nation Archives
So you’ve got this information down. Can you find the specific tribe? Was your ancestor on a reservation or near one? You can most likely pinpoint the tribe by location, but that is not a certain result.
If you do know the tribe, a great place to get further into your search is in the records of the tribe itself. Remember, most American Indian tribes are Nations, meaning that they keep their own government and municipal records. Try looking through these once you’ve identified the tribe your ancestors were members of.
As an example, you might consult the Cherokee Heritage Center Archives for information on Cherokee ancestors.
American Indian Archives, Oklahoma Historical Society
There are also the American Indian Archives, a part of Oklahoma Historical Society located in Oklahoma City. These records cover some 66 tribes (either native to the area or relocated there) and include over 3.5 million documents and 6000 volumes.
Archival holdings here include:
- The Litton Papers: 8 volumes transcribing newspaper articles and other texts of interest to the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee (Creek), and Seminole.
- Index to the Dawes Final Rolls: You can search this online if you suspect you had an ancestor living in Indian Territory between 1898 and 1906.
- Chilocco Indian School Records: This federal boarding school ran in Kay County from 1884 to 1980.
And for every source mentioned here there are dozens or even hundreds of local, regional, and municipal libraries and archives.
This may seem daunting, but remember that just because a record does not exist in the National Archives does not mean it does not exist at all. Continue your search in order of the most likely sources (also maybe the most convenient too). There really is a vast amount of information out there for you to find.
Bureau of Indian Affairs records
If your ancestor’s tribe was located near a Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) office, you can look through those Federal records, which may contain further useful details. Keep in mind that before 1947, the BIA was the Officer of Indian Affairs, so don’t get confused by name changes on older records.
Even better, a lot of BIA (and other government records) are stored in the National Archives, which makes them quite a bit more accessible than they were when they were scattered about the nation in paper-only copies.
Luckily, the National Archives has a website, which gives you access to many documents. Here, you’ll find a variety of records relevant to Native American genealogy, including BIA records, as well as census records, school records, employment records, and military service records.
Records in the Family History Library, Salt Lake City
You can also check out the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah, which contains microfilmed versions of many of these records.
Unfortunately, a lot of the older records remain non-digital, so access does often have to be in person. However, work is constantly underway to scan in new records.
Enrolling in a tribe
Many people become interested in Native American genealogy because they hope to enroll in a tribe. So, now that you’ve found your ancestors in history and learned the culture of the tribe with which you are associated, how does this process work?
Well, the exact enrollment process can vary depending on the tribe, but as a rule you need to contact the tribe itself. The U.S. Department of the Interior and the BIA are not likely to get involved in this process.
Some tribes have blood quantum rules; others do not. It’s up to the tribes themselves—again, remember that most of them are nations.
I know that may sound quite disheartening to some people, because there is no centralized way to enroll in a given tribe, but this does preserve the tribes’ independence and autonomy. So give the tribal office or courthouse a call or send them an email. Learn their specific enrollment rules and start the process from there.
You can find an American Indian Tribal Directory here, which will help you get in touch with the right people.
Now there are a few things I’ve seen out there on the internet that I’d like to dissuade you from.
There seem to be people who think that if they are technically 0.0001% Native American then they will be able to go to college for free. This is absolutely not true. Some scholarships do exist, but you cannot count on your Native ancestry helping you out financially.
Also, DNA testing alone is not going to get you enrolled into a tribe. Tribal blood quantum requirements often vary between one quarter (that’s a lot in a nation like America where people move and inter-marry so frequently!) and one sixteenth, which is one single great-grandparent. But there are often also requirements like actually keeping close ties to the tribe.
Moreover, just getting DNA tested cannot tell you your precise tribe on its own, which is why this article is so heavily focused on archive and database research. Good old-fashioned historical research is necessary to pinpoint exactly which tribe your family came from.
Many people have the impression that DNA by itself is enough when it really is not. That’s absolutely not meant to discourage you, but you really do need to have realistic expectations when you begin this search.
If it’s just about getting some kind of advantage, you may want to find a better and more productive way to spend your time. But if it’s about becoming a fully functional member of a living, breathing community with a history stretching back over generations, this is exactly the search for you.
As I’ve mentioned several times, finding your specific nation and tribe, if you don’t already know it, is a crucial part of your research. Once you know which Native American Nation is intertwined with your family’s past, you may want to consult a Nation-specific guide.
Each Nation may have its own archives, records, and procedure for registration. Here are just a few examples that might come in handy:
- Researching Your Choctaw Ancestry
- FamilySearch guide to Sioux genealogy
- FamilySearch guide to Nez Perce genealogy
FamilySearch in particular has a fairly extensive Wiki on American Indian genealogy with individual pages for dozens of tribes.
Doing research on your roots, your genealogy, often focuses on small family details to begin with, like basic curiosity about someone’s birthplace, but later blooms into a fully-fledged narrative of an entire extended family.
As you dig deeper and learn more about your family roots, you will be able to connect your long dead ancestors with a common story thread.
While you learn about your Native American heritage, try to build more than a simple family tree so that you can enroll in a tribe. Try to build up a family narrative, something that gives you a true emotional connection to those long past away.
Get out there and find your ancestors in the National Archives, in old tribal registries, in marriage and death records. Locate them in history and find out exactly who they were, what they did, and maybe even what they dreamed of doing.
Studying history is so much more than a simple and dry study of the past. It’s a study of us, of what it means to be a person living in any given moment. As you study your family and the tribe they belonged to, I hope you gain a more profound understanding of yourself.
Conducting genealogical research on your family is a fantastic way to form a personal narrative and thereby gain a greater understanding of our universe. Why do anything if not to tell a story? A character arc with a beginning, a middle, and an end?
We revel in these stories; in fact we still tell them thousands of years after the facts have faded into oblivion. In these stories, we find meaning.
Context is a pivotal aspect of…everything, especially people. To know where you came from, even if your search turns up no Native American heritage, is a vital aspect of knowing yourself.
That is not to say that the past dictates the future. Such an idea is dangerous and false. Rather, the past, if used right, should inform the future, give us insight into our actions and allow us to be better than we were before.