Setting the path to discovering your native american roots

Like other ethnic and religious groups who have been subject to periods of immigration, war and displacement, Native American family history can be difficult to document and trace.  Throughout history, many Native Americans were forced to conceal their heritage in order to survive.  Because many attempted to blend in with the white population to avoid persecution, they have been sometimes documented as “white” in historical records.  There are some individuals with a parent or grandparent who belonged to an Indian tribe, but that ancestor passed on and the descendants were not exposed to the Indian culture.  More typically, there may be a family lore of Indian blood or one discovers a Native American ancestor while searching his genealogical history, but has no other information about this aspect of his family tree.

If you know the tribe your parents or grandparents belonged to, your task will certainly be easier.  Directories of tribal addresses are available online and many tribes maintain birth records in their enrollment departments.  Many tribes have programs to assist individuals in re-uniting with their Native American ancestors.  If you know the name of the tribe or reservation and still cannot locate any information, it is likely that the spelling is incorrect as many tribal names are in American Indian languages.  In this case, try alternate spellings or consult a tribal list to look for a similar name with a different spelling.

Government records, particularly those that name members as determined by a “base roll” (defined by the U.S. Department of the Interior as the original list of members designated in a tribal constitution), should be used to locate ancestors.  The Dawes Rolls is a commonly used base roll.  Certain tribes, such as the Cherokee Nation, require proof of direct descent from the Dawes Rolls to corroborate one’s Native American ancestry.  If you have identified the name of a Native American ancestor and are uncertain about what tribe he belonged to, determining where this ancestor lived may also help in establishing his tribal affiliations.  While there are over 500 federally recognized tribes in the United States, many have migrated to new areas or have occupied several different land territories, so this process may be challenging.  Obituaries and county historical records should also be consulted to locate tribal information.

Most of the records available for searching Native American ancestors were created by the U.S. Government when Indians filed claims against the United States.  As a result of the formation of the BIA in 1824, millions of federal records containing information about individual Native Americans and their tribes were generated over time.  The archives at The Bureau of Indian Affairs has one of the largest existing databases of records and histories of Native American tribes.  These archives maintain information on pay rolls, tribal census data, applications and enrollment cards, and vital records about Indians who lived on reservations from around 1830-1940.  Copies of many original documents may be viewed at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah and the National Archives Records Administration in Washington, D.C.

With a large number of Americans claiming at least one Indian ancestral line – up to 50% if your ancestors lived in certain states- there is considerable interest in Native American lineage.  Although resources are available, Native American genealogy is a particularly difficult undertaking, and professional services exist to assist in this process.



Louisa Kalish

Louisa Kalish is a lawyer and a freelance writer for online legal and general interest publications. She became interested in genealogy during a brief stint in pro bono family law. While not engaged in her writing and legal pursuits, she is an active volunteer in several charitable organizations and heads the parenting organization at her children's school. She resides in New Jersey with her husband and three children.

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