If you believe you might be of American Indian descent and are eager to confirm it, prepare for what is likely to be a considerable and time-consuming challenge in genealogical research. Finding information about American Indian family members is similar in nature to any other personal genealogical research project, but knowledge of the various resources available specifically for tracing Native American ancestry, along with what clues to look for, is key.
Consider a DNA Test
Home DNA tests, which involve mailing a biological sample to a lab and obtaining a breakdown of your ethnic ancestry (for a fee) offer an easy way to determine whether you have American Indian heritage. If the results show no American Indian ancestry, you can redirect your research. If they show that you do have Native American DNA, you'll know your search has the potential to be fruitful.
Traditional Genealogical Research
A genealogical research project to confirm American Indian heritage begins like a traditional search. At every step, however, look specifically for indications of American Indian status. You would be fortunate to find documents that clearly state Native ethnicity, but clues might be found in other family relics and records. Consider whether your family lived in a specific geographic area during an era when that place was home to Native Americans, or if your family moved across the country in a pattern that coincided with the known movements of a tribe. Keep in mind that traditional names were often anglicized.
Start by going through your family's records and talking to particularly older family members who might have information pertinent to your search. Look for vital records (birth, death, marriage and divorce certificates), military records, photographs, newspaper clippings, family Bibles, letters and diaries. Move on to public records, both online at state and local government offices. Churches and schools often keep baptism and enrollment records. Libraries are useful sources for help with genealogical research, as are local historic and genealogical societies. A number of very thorough internet databases designed for genealogical research are available; some are free and some require a paid subscription. A key resource is the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), which offers access to its extensive databases online and at more than 30 records centers across the country.
Native American Records Research
If your research leads you to one or more family members who might be American Indian, narrow the focus of your search on that particular line. Use resources that will help you track down and document specific tribal affiliation. NARA has a large collection of American Indian records from 1774 to the mid-1990s, including census data, school records, land and property records, correspondence, financial documents and more. You can search the National Archives catalog online, although the more information you have to begin with, the easier the research will be. It helps considerably to know at least roughly where and when your potentially American Indian ancestor lived, along with a name, a maiden name, if applicable, and tribe.
Of particular interest are the Dawes Rolls, which are the base membership rolls for the Five Civilized Tribes in Oklahoma (Cherokee Nation, Chickasaw Nation, Choctaw Nation, Muscogee (Creek) Nation and Seminole Nation) recorded circa 1893 to 1907, and the Guion Miller Roll, recorded from 1906 to 1911. You can access both online at NARA.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) maintains limited information on some members of American Indian tribes. The BIA holds current, not historic rolls, and no supporting documentation. BIA regional offices and agencies might be able to assist with your research if you're looking for specific information or documents under their jurisdiction. You'll need to know at least the tribe and the name and date of birth of the family member you're researching.
Federally recognized tribes all maintain their own records on their past and present members. Contact a tribe you believe you have a familial affiliation with only after doing thorough research. You'll need to be able to sufficiently validate your claim before requesting access to their records, and even then might be denied.
If you only want to confirm your American Indian ancestry for personal reasons, and only want to document the proof for your own and your family's records, you can copy, print, screenshot and archive any records you wish to keep. Software and subscription-based services allow you to do this digitally and create a family tree, or you can compile paper records.
If you want to apply to enroll as a member of a tribe, look into the requirements for that specific tribe, as they vary. You will generally need to prove lineal descent from someone named on the tribe's base roll, that is, its original list of members. If you qualify, you'll need official records such as certified copies of birth certificates.
If you wish to obtain a Certified Degree of Indian Blood, you can obtain an application and instructions on the BIA's website.
- National Archives: Native American Heritage
- National Archives: Research Our Records
- National Archive: Native American Heritage: Researching an Individual or Family
- The Root: How Do I Legally Prove Native American Ancestry
- Bureau of Indian Affairs: Certificate of Degree of Indian or Alaska Native Blood Instructions
- Family History Daily: Do You Have Hidden Native American Ancestry? Here’s How to Find Out
Joanne Thomas has worked as a writer and editor for print and online publications since 2004. Her writing specialties include relationships, entertainment and food, and she has penned pieces about subjects from social media tools for Adobe to artists’ biographies for StubHub. Thomas has also written for such names as Disney, Hyundai, Michelob and USA Today, among others. She resides in California and holds a bachelor’s degree in politics from the University of Bristol, U.K.