Tracing your Native American ancestry can be challenging, especially if family stories are false. But don’t give up hope.
Begin with standard records, like census and vital statistics. Then, focus on local history sources and regional genealogical periodicals. Use PERSI (searchable at many libraries) to identify periodicals in your ancestral region that may have sought-after Indian information.
Know Your Tribes
Many people want to establish a connection to their Native American heritage to validate family stories that they heard since childhood or even after becoming adults. For others, it is a necessary first step in applying for tribal membership and obtaining the rights and benefits of being a tribe member.
Lean about your Native American ancestry through Ancestry’s DNA testing results, which may help to indicate whether or not you have a significant amount of Native American ancestry through its Y-DNA and mtDNA tests, which are passed down through both male and female lines and don’t disintegrate over time. However, Y-DNA and mtDNA cannot tell you which tribe your ancestors belonged to or when they lived.
To find out if your family’s ancestors were members of a particular tribe, try searching for them on the Indian Census Rolls from 1885 to 1940 (microfilm M1791, American Indian Censuses). You can also use other National Archives resources, such as this lesson guide that describes how to research Native American genealogy and explains the different types of records available for each tribe.
If you do have a confirmed connection to a tribe through family history, ask the tribe how you can obtain vital statistics records, such as birth and death certificates, that can be used in a chain of evidence to prove your ancestor’s relationship to that ancestor and eligibility for tribal membership. This can be a lengthy process.
Know Your Ancestors
If you have a Native American connection, your DNA test results can help you identify which lineage carries it. Then, you can find records of those ancestors. However, it’s not that simple. Most Americans with family lore of Native ancestry have just a small amount of Indigenous DNA. Even when they find their ancestors in one of the 562 Native American population groups, it’s not necessarily helpful to know which tribe they belong to.
Unless you can prove that your ancestor belonged to a particular tribe, there’s no guarantee the DNA test will provide that information. Fortunately, mtDNA and Y-DNA are more helpful in this regard than autosomal DNA because they don’t dilute over time. These tests can help determine whether your direct maternal or male ancestors belonged to a certain tribe.
It’s best to gather as much genealogy information about living and recently deceased relatives as possible before searching for tribal information on long-deceased family members. This can be done by researching in person at family history centers, libraries, and state and local historical societies. The National Archives has a web page that provides tips for conducting genealogy research, including advice about finding local tribal records.
Know Your Records
One of the most important things to remember when tracing Native American ancestry is that there is no single recordset you can rely on to find everything. Instead, you’ll need to use many sources — at least as many as you would with any other ethnic group — and cross-reference them.
Start with the records you have at home and those available online. For example, talk to older family members and look for family papers such as birth certificates, church confirmations, marriage applications or certificates, and death certificates. These can provide clues about the tribe and place of origin.
Also, look for state and county records, local histories, and family stories. Some of these resources are published in regional historical or genealogical periodicals, which you can search using the Periodical Source Index (PERSI)—available at most libraries and through subscription services like Ancestry.com. You might also be able to find information on the Internet in blogs, discussion forums, and public member trees.
Know Your Sources
As with any genealogical endeavor, a researcher should start with available records. Luckily, US government efforts to document Indian tribes since the 1880s have produced massive collections that, when combined with standard genealogical resources, make Native American research the most documented of any ethnic group in the United States.
Because many Native Americans were partially or fully “removed” to different locations in the US (and sometimes even to other countries), researchers will often have to hunt in multiple record types to locate ancestors, including federal censuses, state and county records, church records and tribal documents such as treaties, annuity and allotment records. Also, remember that ancestors may have used both traditional and English language names that were either anglicized or spelled differently in various records.
In addition to standard family history resources, regional libraries, and historical societies are often good bets for local resources on American Indian communities. In addition, the Periodical Source Index (PERSI) for genealogical and local history periodicals covers articles about Native American groups in more than 6,000 titles dating back to 1800 and is searchable at most genealogical libraries and by subscription to ancestry.com. Finally, a researcher should consider contacting a potential ancestor’s tribal office directly to see what resources are available and if they have an established genealogy program.