The United States government has made massive records available to researchers of Native American ancestry. A particular web page offers search features by tribe, including links to genealogy databases and resources.
Start with basic family history research, then zero in on sources specific to an ethnic group or geographic area. For example, if you suspect an ancestor may have been a member of one of the Five Civilized Tribes, research the Dawes Rolls.
Many families have stories that indicate they have a Native American ancestor. But what does it take to discover that ancestor? And where do you begin the research? The best place to start is with standard genealogy research, using family trees and records of known individuals. Exploring Native American genealogy involves tracing ancestral connections within indigenous communities, often requiring specialized research methods and cultural understanding to uncover familial histories and ties to tribal lineages.
Then, consider DNA testing. The type of test you should take depends on your ancestor’s lineage. There are autosomal tests, which examine your entire genetic makeup; mitochondrial (mtDNA) tests, which look at your mother’s direct ancestral lines; and Y-DNA tests, which can help pinpoint your father’s lineage.
A DNA test can also point you to resources more readily available in genealogical sources. For example, if your ancestor’s tribe was recognized by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and had enrollment offices that tracked its members, the tribe probably compiled records of its members. These might include tribal census lists, annuity rolls, or other documents proving your ancestor’s relationship to the tribe.
Other non-tribal records containing information about your ancestors’ Indian heritage include county government records, local and state historical societies collections, libraries, and newspapers. A web page with resources for conducting genealogical research and highlights books focusing on research methods and document collection. It also points out that it has extensive microfilm of Indian census and annuity rolls. It also has lesson guides, such as “Tracing Your AI/AN Ancestry,” which includes links to tribe-specific genealogy websites and other resources.
If you’re looking to discover Native American heritage through genealogy, there are many research methods that you can use. Many websites run family history projects, which are excellent places to begin your search. Autosomal DNA testing can also help connect with relatives who share Native American segments on their chromosomes. Remember that you each inherited one copy of each chromosome from your father and mother. Identifying those relatives who have the same Native American segment can help to pinpoint which line of your family tree the Native connection lies in.
Public libraries and local historical societies often have genealogy books and research guides to assist you in your search. Some websites offer two weeks of free access to their historical records collection and matching technology that connects you with new relatives.
However, many focus group participants were skeptical of the claim that meaningful ties to tribal communities can be established through DNA tests. These individuals emphasized the importance of an existing identity founded in culture, society, and history. As Blanchard and colleagues argue, this perspective highlights how the insinuation of genetic ancestry into the conversation of Native American identity threatens traditional notions of belonging, tribal citizenship, and sovereignty. In addition, it infringes upon the long-troubled history of US racial identity politics and the commodification of indigenous bodies and identities.
Many Americans have family stories that indicate at least some Native American ancestry. Some want to join a tribe and prove their heritage, while others want to verify these family stories and learn more about their ancestors. The best place to start is with standard genealogical sources such as birth, marriage, death records, and censuses. You can cross-reference these with known individuals in your family tree for clues to a Native American ancestor.
Suppose your ancestor belonged to the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, or Creek tribes, for example. In that case, you may need to research the tribal enrollment office or look into the tribe’s history to determine if it was removed from its traditional home and moved into other areas (for the Cherokee, this is known as the Trail of Tears). Also, consult regional libraries and historical societies or look up resources in the Periodical Source Index (PERSI) that cover the region where your ancestors lived.
At the federal level, you can search online records, such as census counts of American Indians or BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs) files, including heirship proceedings that may contain golden nuggets. You can find these on the online microfilm catalog by searching for a specific tribe or period. Also, research any Presbyterian, Episcopalian, or Catholic missionaries in the area, as they may have kept records of sacrament recipients, correspondence, and other information.
There are many guides, records collections, and specialized resources that can help you discover the truth behind that family story about a Native American ancestor. DNA testing is also functional, but it alone cannot determine what tribe or ancestral groups your genes point to. This is because Natives were admixed very early in history, and the randomness of inheritance means you may not inherit any of the measurable Native DNA your ancestors had.
Autosomal DNA tests can tell you whether you have measurable Indigenous ancestry, and if you do, what percentage of your DNA points to these ancestral origins. However, they cannot determine which tribal group or specific ancestor you descend from because no Federally recognized tribe accepts DNA evidence for membership purposes.
If you know that one or more of your ancestors are Native, then it is worthwhile to test your siblings (if they are alive) to see if their DNA shows the same Indigenous segments that yours does. You can then compare your results with those of your relatives using online sites and identify which of them share your Indigenous components in common with you. This can be particularly helpful if you have a family tree but no historical documentation to support your claims of having a Native ancestor.