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Native American Genealogy:
Reconnecting With Your American Indian Heritage
Hardly a week goes by that I don't get email from somebody looking for information about Native Americans in their family
tree. It's good that so many people are thinking about their ancestry these days. Unfortunately I am not a genealogist, and
my ability to help you find your Native American family history is limited. Here is the general advice I have to offer,
though, along with a selection of good Native American Indian genealogy resources which may be helpful in your search.
There are basically four different groups of people interested in learning more about their Native American ancestors,
and my suggestions are different depending which of these groups you fall into:
1) You are already a tribal member or belong to
an American Indian community.
2) One or both of your parents were Indian but
you don't know who they were or what tribe you came from because of adoption, boarding school issues, or a
3) Your parent or grandparent belonged to an
Indian tribe, but you were not raised in their culture and now they have passed on.
4) Your grandparent was part Indian but
not a tribal member, or there is a family tradition that you have Indian blood, or you are researching your family's
genealogy and have just discovered an Indian ancestor you want to know more about.
1) You are already a tribal member or belong to an American Indian community.
Actually, if this was the case you probably wouldn't be looking for genealogy help from strangers from another tribe
in the first place, much less over the Internet. We keep our own family histories pretty well. However, if you are Indian
and you are looking for a relative who was removed from your community by a non-native parent or adoption, or
who disappeared at boarding school, please see the
Lost Bird information below. And, if you
have a specific personal question like "Do you know what ever happened to my great-aunt Bea Harjo? She married
a Cherokee guy and moved to Tahlequah in 1962 and we lost touch with her," then you might as well send me an
email. Maybe I know someone who could find out.
2) One or both of your parents were Indian but you don't know who they were or what
tribe you came from because of adoption, boarding school issues, or a custody battle.
First of all, you
are not alone. There is a shameful and very destructive history in both Canada and the United States of native children
being coercively removed from their families and peoples:
situations ranging from young mothers being bullied in the delivery room into giving up their babies, to parents being told
their children had died when they were at boarding school so that they could be adopted out to white families, to
forcible kidnappings fueled by a black-market adoption system, to, in the most distant past, US soldiers sparing Indian children
during massacres and bringing them home to raise as servants. Furthermore, many children who were orphaned or
legitimately given up for adoption were sent away from their tribe to white adoptive parents and their records destroyed.
Until recently there was no effort made to place Native American children with extended family or within the tribe, and
adoptions of Native children were usually closed, meaning many adoptees ended up with no way of knowing where
they had come from. If you were removed from
your native community for any of these reasons, do not despair. There are people there who remember you, and
want to hear from you again. And there are resources to help you, too. If you know which tribe you or your parent
originally belonged to, then by all means contact the tribe; many tribes have reunification programs, or
at least they may have birth records in their enrollment or census department that can help you find your birth
family again. Here is a
national directory of tribal addresses to
help you do that. There are also online resources and support groups for native adoptees, abductees, or other
Indians removed from their tribe as children (often collectively referred to as "lost birds" or "split feathers.")
Here is a link to a list of
Lost Bird resources
I have put together on the Open Directory project. There are many more resources than these available offline--
the majority of Native American programs and organizations do not have websites. One excellent organization
I know of is the Lost Bird Society, a Lakota center dedicated to reuniting native families that have been broken:
their address is Lost Bird Society, P.O. Box 952, Pine Ridge, South Dakota 57770. If they cannot help you, they
may at least be able to send you in a useful direction. Please do NOT bother these organizations and
support groups with questions about Indian heritage and ancestry in general-- these are resources
specifically aimed at native children who were removed from their tribe during their own lifetime. If you are
interested in the tribal genealogy of your more distant Native American or Metis ancestors, please see our
Native American Heritage
3) Your parent or grandparent belonged to an Indian tribe, but you were not raised in their
culture and now they have passed on.
Usually there are two difficulties facing mixed-blood Indians who find themselves in this situation:
determining exactly which tribe and band your parent/grandparent belonged to, and finding acceptance there.
If the first is easy, the second will probably be easy as well-- if your family's tribal affiliations were strong enough
that they have taught you exactly where you came from, it should not be hard to find them again, or to convince
them of who you are. If you know the name of your parent's tribe or reservation but are having an impossible time
finding it, you may just be spelling it wrong. Since many tribes have names in American Indian languages,
these words can be long and difficult for English speakers to remember. Send us an
email if you need some help with tribal names.
If your parent or grandparent was a tribal member, then most tribes will enroll you as a tribal member as well.
(There are a few exceptions, having to do with missing records, a crime committed, or an old law removing
a native woman's tribal status if she marries a white man in some parts of Canada.)
Note that tribal offices will only be able to look up records for you if your immediate relative was an enrolled
tribal member. If you are interested in the Indian heritage of your more distant ancestors, please see our
Native American Heritage section below.
If you're not sure which tribe your parent or grandparent belonged to, only that he was "Ojibway" or
"spoke some Sioux", then it will be harder for you. Some Indian nations are very large, and you will not have any
more success asking the Sisseton Sioux in North Dakota about a Santee Sioux man from Minnesota than you
would wandering around Fargo asking about some white man in Minneapolis. You need to try and figure out
which specific reservation your relative came from. Knowing the person's place of birth would help, as would
finding any documents related to the lives of his or her parents.
Failing that, you can at least narrow down your Native ancestry search by region using the
map on this page
("Sioux from somewhere in western North Dakota" will give you more to work with than just "Sioux.")
You may also want to check out our collection of
Native Genealogy Links.
Finally, if you live in Canada, and you identify with other mixed-blood Indians more than your parent or
grandparent's tribe, you also have the option of registering with the Canadian government as Metis. Many Metis
people in Canada belong to a specific mixed ethnicity, primarily French and Cree, with unique cultural traditions
including the creole language Michif.
However, anyone who is demonstrably of both native and European ancestry may register as Metis, and some
mixed-race Indians feel that this represents their true identity better than returning to their parent's tribe would.
There are many links to Metis groups in various Canadian provinces on our
Metis page. Hopefully that may be helpful to you as well.
4) Your grandparent was part Indian but did not belong to a tribe, or there is a family
tradition that you have Indian blood, or you are working on your family's genealogy and have just discovered
a Native American ancestor you want to know more about.
These questions make up the bulk of the genealogical queries we receive. Many young people are interested in
learning more about their roots these days, and in the process of researching their family trees, it is natural that
many of them will come across an American Indian ancestor, and wish to learn more about him or her. Others have
always been told there was Indian blood in their family and are curious to know whether this is
true and which tribe it may have been. Sadly, some other people have the misguided idea that if their
great-grandmother was a Blackfoot Indian this will somehow entitle them to claim money, scholarships,
special rights, or other benefits. If this is your hope, you might as well give up on it right now and go buy a
lottery ticket. Most American Indian reservations have very poor living conditions and do not have any extra money
to give to long-lost relatives. The US government does provide certain scholarships and assistance programs for American Indians,
but very few, and they are extremely strict about reserving those only for members of federally recognized tribes, not descendants.
As for tribal citizenship, the requirements for that vary from tribe to tribe, but unless your parent or grandparent
was actually a Native American tribal member (in which case see
above), the tribe will not
be able to "look you up" and see if you are a descendant of theirs-- tribes do not maintain country-wide ancestry databases,
only membership within their tribe. You will therefore need to do the rest of this work yourself.
Once you have all your genealogical information including your Native American ancestor's full name, presence on any Indian rolls,
and exact relationship to you, then you can contact the tribal enrollment office and inquire about
their citizenship laws.
Now, if you are still interested in your Native American ancestry despite all these obstacles, the good news is
there are many resources
available that can help you. First, if you know your ancestor's tribe, there may be resources aimed specifically
at descendants of that tribe. This would be the most useful for you, since different tribes were recorded on
different rolls and censuses. You can use our list of
Native American cultures to see whether we have
information on your tribe and whether there are any useful links in the 'Genealogy' section.
(On our Cherokee pages, for example, Laura has collected
an interesting online resource list for Cherokee genealogy.) If we do not have useful information there or you
aren't sure of your Native ancestor's tribe, here are some
online American Indian genealogy resources.
These sites should at least be able to get you started on your quest. If these resources are still not helpful or you
are feeling overwhelmed or confused by the information, you may want to consider buying the
Student's Guide to Native American Genealogy.
It is written for people with no special knowledge of genealogy at all, and is even good for kids.
This book can show you through the whole process of creating an American Indian family tree, tracing your ancestors, and
searching for Native American connections in rolls and census information. There's another genealogy book for
Cherokee descendants that I've heard good things about,
Finally, you could hire a professional genealogist. Here is the
Association of Professional Genealogists and you
can search for someone who specializes in American Indian genealogy characteristics in the area near you.
Once you have begun your research, you may come across an ancestor's name or place name in a Native American
language, and that is something we can help you with ourselves--send us an email
with the details and we will do our best to help you identify it.
I hope these suggestions help you in your search for your heritage. Good luck!
Here are some internet resources that may help you in researching your Native American ancestry:
Establishing American Indian or Alaska Native Ancestry: Official information on tribal membership from the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Native American Genealogy Helper: Articles by a professional genealogist on tracing your Native American roots.
Native American Genealogy Records: Research tools and online historical documents including the complete Dawes Rolls
and other Native American tribal census lists from the 1800's.
Directory of American Indian Tribes: Chart of federally recognized US tribes and locations.
First Nations Directory: Chart of federally recognized Canadian tribes and locations.
Native Tribes of the United States and Canada: Partial list including non-federally-recognized tribes and locations.
Roots Web Native American Genealogy Lists: Seventy mailing lists dedicated to tracing American Indian heritage.
Access Genealogy Records: Free Native American genealogy messageboards, searchable Indian rolls, historical photos, and maps.
Native American Heritage Month: Collection of resources about Indian culture and heritage from the Library of Congress.
Association of Professional Genealogists Directory: List of professionals specializing in Native American ancestry
(choose "American Indian genealogy" from the drop-down menu.)
Native American Genealogy: Native American family research links, including some related to individual tribes.
Cyndi's List: Links to more Indian geneology resources, including individual American Indian rolls.
Index of Native American Genealogy: Links to more resources on tracing native heritage, including the Indian census records.
Proving Native American Heritage on College Applications: We are frequently asked how to prove Indian heritage for college,
but there isn't one single answer-- it depends on the school. This article may be able to help you.
DNA Spectrum: Many people are interested in DNA testing to reveal more about their ethnicity. A DNA test cannot take
the place of genealogical research, and is not precise enough to tell you which of your ancestors was Native American or which
tribe they came from. However, these tests may be able to confirm your family history of having American Indian ancestors. There are
many of these ancestry testing companies, but DNA Spectrum is one that we've heard to be particularly reliable.
Native American Ancestor Identification: Send us a photograph and we'll put it up online and see if anyone can identify it for you!
(Affiliate links courtesy of Amazon.com)
Here are a few good books on the subject of Native American genealogy:
Students Guide to Native American Genealogy
Excellent how-to book for people who want to trace their American Indian ancestry.
Native American Genealogical Sourcebook
Extremely authoritative book for more advanced geneology-seekers.
Book for Cherokee descendants researching their native roots.
Tracing Ancestors Among the Five Civilized Tribes
Book about how to find Indian heritage from the Southeastern tribes.
Black Indian Genealogy Research
Book for African-Americans with Native American Indian heritage.
Native American DNA: Tribal Belonging and the False Promise of Genetic Science
Interesting book by a Dakota scholar on the problems with DNA as a measure of Native identity.
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