Trace Your Native American Roots

by Frankie Davis | Jan 21, 2010

Frankie Davis

There are a countless number of Americans curious about their unproven Native American descent.  Many are daunted by the task of digging in deeper, and don't know where to start.  Here you'll learn practical tips to begin tracing your Native American heritage. If you want to learn more, many links to free websites are provided.  

There are several reasons that you might believe that you are part Native American. Here are a few:

  • Your living relatives are members of a tribe.
  • A family story or tradition has been passed down signifying your ancestors were Native American.
  • You have a photograph of an ancestor that looks Native American.
  • You have a Native American artifact that has been passed down.
  • You have done genealogical research and found that your ancestors are Native American.
  • You have taken a DNA test and the result indicates you are Native American.

Unless a family story or tradition can be proven, Native American heritage should not be considered fact. Because of the severe persecution that they endured, many Native Americans attempted to blend in with the white population and may even be documented as "white" in historical records. Therefore, it can be extremely difficult for a researcher to find any evidence of Native American ancestry in official records.

Start Your Search

  • Compile a family tree of all your ancestors. Be sure to document your sources thoroughly.
  • Interview family members. Ask them if they recall any stories of Native American ancestry.
  • Check surname message boards for each of your ancestors. Search using keyword terms such as Cherokee, Indian, or any other tribal name if applicable.

What Tribe Did Your Ancestor Belong To?

There are thousands of Native American tribes throughout the United States, Canada, and Mexico. Most of these tribes have ceased to exist as tribal entities--however there are over 500 federally recognized tribes still present in the United States. These tribes then consist of many different bands. For a list of federally recognized tribes click here.

First, identify an ancestor who you suspect to be of Native American decent. If you know where he or she lived this may help you determine which tribe he or she belonged to. Be aware, many tribes occupied several different areas and other tribes migrated to new areas over time. Most of the tribes in the United States ended up in what is today the eastern half of Oklahoma.

Two other excellent sources of information about Native American ancestors are obituaries and county historical records. These are often available online for a fee. Otherwise, check local newspapers, and public record offices.

Government Records

Federally recognized tribes have requirements for membership. These requirements normally include blood descent from a member of a "base roll". The U.S. Department of the Interior defines a base roll as: "the original list of members as designated in a tribal constitution or other document specifying enrollment criteria." The Dawes Rolls are examples of base rolls. Search an index of the Dawes Rolls for free here.

Be aware, there are hundreds of thousands of names on these rolls. If you find a name that matches an ancestor, don't automatically assume that you're related. This is especially true if your ancestor had a common name. Once you identify a person you think might be your ancestor, look up their Tribal Card to deduce more information about that individual.

The Cherokee Nation requires direct descent from the Dawes Rolls (this proves your degree of Native American blood or "blood quantum"). The Dawes rolls were established to integrate the Indians into white society by allocating each qualified applicant a 160 acre allotment. Some Native Americans declined to sign the rolls because they were distrustful of the United States government. Once you can prove your decent from the Dawes Rolls you may be issued a Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood (CDIB) by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Other records that might help with your search: the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) Department of the Interior has census records that deal with tribal members; most were created between 1885 and 1945. The BIA also maintained vital records, school enrollment records, and more.

If your ancestors are from the West Coast, there are the California Judgment Rolls of 1932, 1952, 1972. 1932 (other states have their own rolls).

Many copies of these original documents may be viewed at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, UT and at the National Archives Records Administration (NARA), in Washington, D.C.

Can I Be Enrolled?

You must qualify for tribal enrollment. Most tribes only have one or two people handling a massive number of enrollment applications. This means you must carefully prepare your application, and make sure to include all required elements. Most tribes require supporting evidence proving you are a direct descendant of a base roll member. This often means you must include a copy of birth and/or death certificates linking you to your ancestor.

There are many advantages to being enrolled in a federally recognized tribe. Scholarships and medical assistance for tribal members are common.

Hire A Professional

Native American research is extremely difficult because of the scarce information available. It can even be a challenge for professional genealogists. If you are interested in having a professional help you trace you Native American lineage, I would recommend only hiring someone who specializes in Native American research.

Other Resources

This article serves as a brief introduction for those who are interested in researching their Native American roots. Use the additional links below to continue your research:

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