Tracking Down Your Native American Roots


native american genealogyAccording to the 2000 census, the number of people who identified themselves solely as Indian and Alaska Native grew by 26 percent since 1990, to about 2.5 million. Add to that the option of declaring a multiracial identity and the number of people claiming some Indian ancestry is far larger. And now with DNA pinpointing Native American origins, even more people are interested in tracking down their Native ancestry. For most researchers, finding a link to an American heritage that pre-dates Columbus is simply fascinating.

Tracing native roots will take you into new territory, and away from familiar research habits. No longer will the Federal census be the backbone of your investigation. And, although you may still find clues in land and military records, you’ll be delving into regional files, Federal “rolls”, and a culture still deeply rooted in oral tradition. Your quest will introduce you to over 550 federally recognized tribes whose members speak more than 250 languages. Here’s how to get started:

Five Steps to Finding Native American Origins

If your search takes you to one of the Five Civilized Tribes (Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek and Seminole), you’ll appreciate the availability of records like the Dawes Rolls—a listing of more than 100,000 people enrolled as tribal members. However, your dig into smaller, less well-documented tribes may take you to the National Archives, tribal offices, and historical societies. Your research skills will be challenged, and your resourcefulness tested. Whatever your goal in finding your Native American ancestors, here are five steps to get you started.

1. Start with your family

Like Alex Haley’s search for his African-American roots, your search may have been inspired by snippets of an oral tradition or family legend. You may have heard someone mention an “Indian princess” or perhaps just a rumor of Indian blood. Whatever the case, the best place to begin your research is at home.

Because of the animosity toward Native Americans in earlier centuries, many families hid native blood, and in fact may still be uncomfortable in disclosing old family stories about Indian ancestors. Go through family papers, Bibles and letters, looking for birth, death and marriage records. Many families are reluctant to mention Indian ancestry, so it’s important that you let them know why you’re beginning your search. Clues about Indian ancestry can surface from the most unexpected sources; a name you vaguely remember hearing as a child may be your first link to a shadowy past. Or, an old tombstone may contain a reference to a “Indian” name, or place. Tony Mack McClure, Ph.D., author of Cherokee Proud, encourages searchers to listen carefully to every old story “regardless of how ridiculous it may seem”, and then to document every word that was said. “A minuscule of information may seem unimportant at first, but could later prove to be the key that unlocks the mystery.”

The most important mystery, of course, is the name of your ancestor’s tribe. Hopefully, you’ll find that information buried in family records, vital statistics, letters, or diaries. If not, you’ll need to expand your research into tribal histories and migration patterns.

2. Find your ancestor’s tribe

To find your ancestor’s tribe, you need to know enough about tribal history and migration to recognize an error in assumption. For example, if someone in the family tells you that your native connection is a Cherokee tribe living in Michigan, you’ll realize the impossibility of the statement. The Cherokee migrated through many states, however Michigan was not one of them.

If your family hails from present-day New Mexico, your first search will probably be narrowed to Southwest tribes like the Navajo or Apache. If your ancestors lived in the area around Lake Michigan or Lake Superior, looking into Chippewa or Ojibwa roots are a logical first step. Begin your search for your ancestor’s tribe by locating the tribes that lived within the same area as your ancestor, and during the same period in time.

The book, The Source, A Guidebook of American Genealogy, contains a detailed map printed in 1939, of Indian Tribes, Reservations and Settlements in the United States. If you are online, there is an excellent tribal map of pre-European contact, North America <> .

3. Learn tribal culture and history

America’s stormy history with Native Americans spanned centuries and countless conflicts. Searching native roots means honing your skills as an historian. Without a basic understanding of tribal history, and its historical context within the larger perspective of American expansion, it will be far more difficult for you to dig out your roots. As a native researcher, you may become as adept at unraveling the ins and outs of the Grattan Massacre as a Civil War buff is at explaining the ramifications of Gettysburg.

In some cases you’ll need to know the migration patterns of a particular tribe, or the many areas in which they were “resettled”. For instance, over a one-hundred and fifty year time span, the Cherokee lived in the Carolinas, Georgia, Arkansas and Oklahoma. If your family belonged to one of the Iroquois linguistic groups, you’ll learn enough about the culture to know it was matrilineal—descended through the female line. Children were not recognized in the paternal line of descent. In the Ojibwa tribe, women controlled their homes and the family’s property and made all decisions within the home. Likewise, Hopi women owned the property and their husbands worked to benefit the wife’s family.

You may also encounter difficulties with naming patterns and kinship systems. Upon the birth of a Plains Indian baby, a name was given which had a connection with the child’s clan. However, later in life, the child often received another name which reflected personality or a deed. When Europeans interacted with tribes, Indians were frequently given yet another (Anglo) name. In the Wasco and Wishram tribes of the Interior Plateau, children received several new names during the course of their lives as they achieved higher rank or social position. Nicknames were also common. Regional libraries or historical societies are a good bet for tracking down information on the tribes in your area.

Oftentimes, the genealogical periodicals that cover the geographic area where your ancestor lived may contain sought-after information. One of the best indexes to these periodicals is the Periodical Source Index (PERSI). You’ll need a subscription to access. (Read more about PERSI here)  PERSI is a subject index covering genealogy and local history periodicals since 1800, and contains more than 1.1 million index entries from nearly six thousand titles. Using PERSI, you can find articles on subjects ranging from Ojibwa decorative quillwork to Seminole Negro-Indian Scouts, 1870-81.

Equally important are firsthand narratives like those found in books like Wisdomkeepers: Meetings with Native American Spiritual Elders (Beyond Words Publishing, Inc., 1990). In it, eighteen elders from different tribes discuss the location of spiritual places, the names for native homelands, historical details and sketches of family life.

Wisdomkeepers contain stories like that of Hopi Thomas Banyacya. The Hopi believe that Big Mountain on Black Mesa is the very center of the Universe, and that the spiritual ceremonies performed on the mesa help determine the balance and harmony of Nature itself. “We’re the first people here,” Banyacya said. “We’re the aborigines of this continent. We live here with the permission of Great Spirit.”

4. Know what records are available

Most genealogists depend on Federal and State census records to lay a basic foundation of research. However, tribal Indians were not included in early Federal censuses. In fact, census records from 1790-1850 included only Indians living in settled areas who were taxed and did not claim a tribal affiliation. Indians on reservations or who lived a nomadic existence were not taxed, and therefore not counted.

By the time of the 1860 Federal census, a category called “Indian (taxed)” was added. From 1870 to 1910, the category of “Indian” was included, but did not include reservation Indians until 1890. Because most of the 1890 census is unavailable, the first Federal census you can research which contains most Native Americans is the one done in 1900.

As noted above, special counts were made of several tribes, with the best known being the Dawes Commission Rolls. The rolls list alphabetically the names of members of the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Seminole and Creek tribes. Cherokee is one of the largest tribes, and one of the best documented. Other “rolls” for the Cherokee include the Guion Miller Roll which was taken in the early 20th Century for money due the Cherokee who lost land in the 1830s during the Indian Removal Act. This Act relocated most of the Cherokee nation to what is now Oklahoma.

Once you have identified a tribe, your search will probably take you to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) which contains records from the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). The NARA collection includes special censuses, school and land records.

Check out Fold.3 for military records. 

Native American Wills & Probate Records, 1911-1921

Additionally, you may find your ancestor on an annuity payrolls or land allotments. Annuities resulted from treaties or acts of Congress in which the government made annual payments to tribal members. Allotments records which were created when the government allotted land to individual tribe members and are arranged by tribe. Contents vary , but usually include applications, registers of names of allotees, plat maps and improvements made to the land. NARA’s American Indians A Select Catalog of National Archives Microfilm Publications <> lists their various holdings, including the Records of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (Record Group 75).

Many of the BIA field records are now in National Archive Regional Offices. The types of records vary, but may include agency employee records, individual Indian index cards, vital statistics, sanitary records, school records, individual history and marriage cards. You’ll find BIA field office records in several branches of the National Archives. For example, records relating to the Kiowa Agency are in Fort Worth, the Zuni Agency in Denver, and the Potawatomi Agency in Kansas City. The Fort Worth, Texas office of the National Archives holds most of the native records from the tribes who settled in Oklahoma.

Another option, once the tribe is known, is to contact the Bureau of Indian Affairs for the phone number and address of the tribal membership office. Next, contact the tribe to see if they have records of your ancestor. A tribal leaders directory can be accessed onlineIf your Indian ancestor fought with federal troops , there may be a record of his veteran benefits. The National Archives military records section has a separate alphabetical file for each Indian veteran who served prior to 1870.

Because of the well-documented nature of the Five Civilized Tribes

—so called because of their early adaptation to white culture—these records are among the easiest to find on the Internet. For an excellent background on the Dawes Rolls, read this article at the National Archives.  To search for Oklahoma ancestors on the Dawes Rolls, go to

5. Utilize online resources

Mailing Lists
Genealogy mailing lists are a quick and easy way for researchers to network with one another. When you join a mailing list, you’ll receive e-mail messages sent from other list members. Mailing lists pertain to specific topics, and everyone on the list shares similar research goals. . Once you’ve located your tribe, join in discussions at the nearly 60 mailing lists dedicated to Native American research.

Query Boards
Every genealogist knows the value of leaving an online query. Millions of researchers are on the Internet, and many of those routinely read queries. Query boards give you the chance to announce to the world the ancestor you’re seeking, the heritage you’re attempting to prove, or the brick wall you’ve hit. There are dozens of query boards (also called forums) where you can post free messages requesting assistance.

A Geneaogy Challenge

Tracing your Native-American ancestors may well be one of the most challenging genealogy projects of your life. However, it may also bring the reward of claiming kinship with a people who were as connected to unborn generations as to their own ancestors. In fact, a law of the Iroquois Confederacy required chiefs to consider the impact of their decisions on the next seven generations. “The wind that gave our grandfathers his first breath also receives his last sigh and the wind must also give our children the spirit of life.” Chief Seattle

Native American Tribes


Where: Canada on the north, Great Lakes on the west, Tennessee River to the south, and the Atlantic Ocean to the east.

Who: Tribes include Abenaki, Delaware, Huron, Kickapoo, Iroquois, Mohawk, Ottawa, Oneida, Shawnee, Tuscarora, Penobscot, Narraganset.


Where: Area bordered by Kentucky and Virginia on the north, Mississippi River to the west, Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic on the south and east.

Who: Five Civilized Tribes: Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, Seminole, plus Alabama, Natchez, Quapaw.

Great Basin, Interior Plateau, Northwest Coast

Where: Western half of Wyoming, Montana, Colorado; Washington, Oregon, Utah, Nevada, Idaho.

Who: Bannock, Klamath, Spokane, Paiute, Shoshone, Ute, Flathead, Kutenai, Nez Perce, Chinook, Clatsop, Haida.

Plains/Prairies and Woodlands

Where: Extended from Canada to near Mexico. Southern portions of Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba; eastern portions of Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, extreme eastern portion of New Mexico; North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Minnesota, Iowa, Kansas, Arkansas, Texas. Woodlands bounded by Lake Michigan and Lake Superior on the east, Mississippi on the west, parts of Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa.

Who: Arapaho, Arikara, Assiniboine, Blackfeet, Cheyenne, Comanche, Crow, Kansa, Kiowa, Mandan, Omaha, Osage, Pawnee, Sioux, Chippewa, Fox, Illinois, Menominee, Ojibwa, Sauk, Winnebago

Southwest and California

Where: Most of Arizona, New Mexico, part of western and southern Texas, California.

Who: Chumash, Miwok, Modoc, Cahuilla, Havasupai, Mojave, Navajo, Papago, Pima, Yaqui, Yavapai, Yuma, plus the Pueblo tribes of the Hopi, Laguna, Taos and Zuni.

Chumash Indians

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  1. I’m new to all this online sites so I’m not sure what I’m doing and my grandmother took a big secret to her grave that is hendering my real fathers blood father.

    1. Opal, Sadly that seems to be the case in many families. The best you can do is try to find siblings or aunts or uncles who might know the story. Or, possibly match someone via DNA. Nancy

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