5 Ways to Research Your American Indian Heritage

By Nancy Shively Premium
Antique photos of American Indians.

Many families have handed-down stories about American Indian ancestors. For a family historian, discovering the truth behind these tales and tracking down that elusive native forebear can be a challenging prospect.

That’s due to several factors:

  • Native tribes didn’t keep written records until the arrival of European settlers.
  • Most surviving records were created only in the late 19th century or early 20th century. If your Indian ancestor enters your pedigree in the 1700s, it’ll be extremely difficult to find him.
  • Indians learned through bitter experience that the US government often didn’t have their best interests at heart. They were sometimes denied their heritage by the officials who created the records you need to search. 
  • Being Indian carried a social stigma in the dominant culture of the 19th and early 20th centuries. An Indian might not make an effort to note his heritage or might try to “pass” as a white person.
  • Not all Indians had an official tribal affiliation, making them less likely to appear in tribe records.
  • Records may be wrong or incomplete. An Indian may be listed as white or mulatto, and vice versa. Bureau of Indian Affairs agents may have skipped a remotely located group in enumerations.

You might have only the oral history passed down in your family to point you toward Indian ancestry. Or you might have more substantive information, such as the name of Great-Grandma’s tribe or even her name on a tribal enrollment. Wherever your starting point, our beginner’s guide to American Indian genealogy research will help you get going. 

1. Pedigree Chart

As with any research project, it helps to have a plan. Searching for an American Indian ancestor begins the same way as a search for any other ancestor. Starting with yourself, complete a pedigree chart going back to at least 1900 with help from census, vital and other records. It’s particularly helpful if you can trace your family back into the 1800s, but you’ll discover that American Indian records become scarce during this era. 

Talk to your family members. Does anyone have memorabilia or records offering insights about Indians in your family tree? Does the family claim descent from a particular tribe? If so, research the history of that tribe to verify that its locations over time match up with where your family lived and when they lived there.

Read: 5 Clues You May Have American Indian Ancestry

Old photo of the Iroquois Confederacy.
The powerful Iroquois Confederacy, whose influence extended from New York to Canada and the Ohio Valley. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

2. Heritage Clues 

Then, lacking a time machine or the services of Sherlock Holmes, look for these clues to suggest that you may have Indian ancestry:

  • Your family lived in a place and at a time when they might’ve come into contact with Indians. If you don’t know the tribal affiliation of your suspected Indian ancestor, it’s especially important to learn about the history of your ancestral places. Find out about local Indian nations and their migrations into and out of the area. The removal of tribes from their original homelands means records might be in several different locations.
  • There’s an I or In, indicating “Indian,” in the race column of a relative’s census records. Take special note of the 1900 and 1910 US censuses. Prior to 1900, few Indians are listed in the census. Indians living among the general population were identified as such beginning with the 1860 census, but it wasn’t until 1900 that Indians were enumerated both in the general population and on reservations. In that year and in 1910, separate Indian schedules for those living on reservations provide added information. (Indians living off reservations with non-Indian families were enumerated with those families.) Look for these schedules at the end of the census pages for the county, though sometimes they’re grouped together on last roll of microfilm for a state. 
  • Later censuses indicate Indians but not on separate schedules. The 1920 enumeration gives the degree of Indian blood. 
  • An ancestor lived in Indian Territory around 1900. Indian Territory was formed in 1834, lost half its land to Oklahoma Territory in 1890, and became part of Oklahoma (a name that’s Choctaw for “red people”) in 1907. The territory became the home of many tribes that were removed from the Eastern United States. 
  • You have a known blood relative listed on a tribal roll.
  • Your DNA test shows markers characteristic of Indian ancestry.

Before you begin researching, though, it’s helpful to identify your goal. Do you simply want to verify a link to the proud heritage of a Native American culture? Are you interested in pursuing tribal membership? If it’s the latter, keep that in mind that you’ll need documentation proving you’re a descendant of a known tribal member. Be extra sure to thoroughly cite the sources of information you find.

Read: Now What? Cherokee Ancestry

3. Dawes Rolls

Once you’ve completed the basic research and have a pedigree chart and some census records in hand, it’s time to dig a little deeper. Because many families believe their link to Indian ancestry is through one of the Five Civilized Tribes, in particular the Cherokee, it’s useful to know about the records of these tribes. 

The Five Civilized Tribes—Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Muscogee (Creek) and Seminole—are indigenous to the Southeast United States. European settlers’ demand for land pressured native populations out of their traditional homelands. With the passage of the Indian Removal Act in 1830, the government began a series of forced removals (see a timeline here). Among the most infamous is the Trail of Tears, a 1,200-mile forced march of about 16,500 Cherokee to Indian Territory from their homelands east of the Mississippi River. Up to 5,000 died of starvation or disease along the way. Different tribes were moved at different times (and some more than once), but all shared a tragedy of loss—of homes, culture and lives. To this day in some tribes, any relocation of ceremonial grounds must be to the East. Always and only toward the East, toward home.

A major genealogical resource for the Five Civilized Tribes is the Dawes Rolls, officially titled the Final Rolls of Citizens and Freedmen of the Five Civilized Tribes in Indian Territory. Between 1898 and 1907, the Dawes Commission identified and registered members of the Five Civilized Tribes to distribute reservation lands to individual tribal members and open remaining lands for settlement. Included in this process were the “freedmen,” former slaves of the tribes who, as stipulated by treaties after the Civil War, were considered tribal citizens. Following are the three main types of records in the Dawes rolls:  

  • Census cards, also known as enrollment cards, list each enrollee’s tribe, blood quantum (the percentage of “Indian blood” inherited from ancestors), name, age and sometimes family members. Each person on the card was assigned a tribal roll number.
  • Enrollment packets include transcriptions of interviews, application forms and other documentation of a person’s eligibility for tribal membership.
  • Land allotment packets document the land an enrollee received. They contain the enrollment number and name of the applicant, names of his extended family, the land’s location and legal description, and other documents.

Search an easy-to-use, free index of these records on the Oklahoma Historical Society (OHS) website or browse indexes on the National Archives website. One advantage to browsing the index is that you’ll be able to spot surname variants and misspellings. The census cards and enrollment packets are digitized and searchable on subscription sites and Fold3 (your public library may offer free access to these sites). also has the land allotment packets, as does the free FamilySearch. Follow these steps to search the Dawes Rolls. Some terms you may see used to describe enrollees include:

  • By blood: the person has some degree of Indian blood 
  • By marriage: a person, usually white, is married to an Indian applicant
  • Minor or newborn: a child born to the applicant after the initial application was made, but before the rolls were finalized in 1907
Antique photo of Potawatomie Indians.
Your Indian ancestor may have used both a traditional and an American name. Wis-Ki-Ge-Amatyuk, the Potawatomie ritual leader seated in the center of this photo, was also known as John Buckshot. This photo was taken in Michigan in 1906.  

The commission rejected nearly two-thirds of applicants for tribal membership, and these applications aren’t part of the Dawes rolls. An index to rejected cards is on National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) microfilm 7RA147. NARA’s research facility in Fort Worth, Texas, has this film, as well as indexes to rejected applications from several tribes. OHS has many of these indexes as well. To find copies you can rent from the Family History Library, run a keyword search of the FamilySearch online catalog for Dawes.

In addition to the Dawes Rolls, you’ll find two rolls for the Eastern Cherokee that also have valuable genealogical information, even if your ancestor’s application wasn’t ultimately approved. These are the Guion-Miller Roll (1906-1911), available on Fold3, and the Baker Roll (1924-1929), found on 

Not all Oklahoma Indians were members of the Five Civilized Tribes. Today, 38 federally recognized tribes have headquarters there. For other rolls, tribal censuses and more resources on Oklahoma Indians, see the Oklahoma Historical Society website.

4. Other Records

Tribal rolls provide a good way to establish your family’s Indian roots. But what if you can’t find your Indian ancestor among the Five Civilized Tribes? You have 562 other places to look. The federal government recognizes a total of 567 tribes, although these don’t necessarily align with traditional tribal groups. Research these types of records for Indian ancestors no matter their tribe: 

  • Indian Census Rolls: From 1885 to 1940, Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) agents were required to conduct annual censuses of individuals on the reservations they oversaw. The enumeration process wasn’t standardized and compliance wasn’t always a given; therefore, the information can vary by year and location. You can search these censuses on and Fold3, and browse them at the free Access Genealogy.
  • Tribal rolls or censuses: All tribes have a base roll (or rolls) used to determine eligibility for tribal membership. But other rolls or censuses were taken at various times and places, for various reasons. For example, Paiute on Nevada’s Walker River Valley reservation were enumerated from 1902 to 1906 (records are on, and Sioux (Dakota) were enumerated several times between 1849 and 1935 (the Minnesota Historical Society has microfilm). 

Many of these rolls are available on microfilm or online at sites such as, Fold3, FamilySearch and Access Genealogy. Also look for film from NARA, the Family History Library and state archives where a reservation is located. Search websites and online catalogs for the tribe name and roll or census. Ask at your library about borrowing film via interlibrary loan. 

BIA records: NARA has a comprehensive guide to BIA records. These records, arranged by state and agency, vary in content; most aren’t indexed or digitized (though below, we’ve noted some that are). Originals are housed at NARA facilities covering the areas where agencies were located. Three main types of records are:

  • Employment: Thousands of government employees were tasked with administrating Indian reservations and BIA agencies. In addition, the Civilian Conservation Corps of the 1930s and ’40s had an Indian Division.
  • School: The BIA operated “Indian schools” across the country. Find a listing, along with the affiliated agency for each school, on the National Archives. Records may include school censuses, student case files and group photos. You’ll find some of these records online at and Access Genealogy.
  • Allotments and Annuities: An allotment is a piece of land deeded to an individual Indian as tribal lands traditionally held in common were divided. Annuities are payments made to tribal members as stipulated in treaties. Related records document property and financial transactions. You can find some on; keyword-search the Card Catalog for allotment or annuity.

Military records: American Indians have been serving in the US military since the Revolutionary War. You can find them in many of the same service and pension records as the other soldiers in your family tree. But Indians did provide some unique services, creating additional records held at the NARA.

  • Code Talkers: The Navajo “code talkers,” who used their native language to encrypt military communications during World War II, are well known. During both world wars, Lakota, Cherokee, Choctaw and other Indians also served as code talkers.
  • Scouts: Sometime hired, sometimes enlisted in the Army, Indian scouts served in the American West from just after the Civil War until 1947.

5. DNA Testing

Genetic genealogy has provided ways to break down researchers’ long standing brick walls. But take care when testing with a goal to illuminate American Indian roots: your DNA might have markers that indicate Indian ancestry, but test results aren’t accepted as evidence for tribal membership because they can’t prove affiliation with a specific tribe. 

On autosomal DNA tests in particular (offered by Ancestry DNA, 23andMe and Family Tree DNA’s Family Finder), it’s unlikely that markers indicating American Indian roots will show up at all if your Indian ancestor is much farther back than five or so generations. If you do have American Indian genetic markers, it’s a clue to research further in paper records, use your percentage of American Indian DNA to estimate your relationship to an Indian ancestor, and search your DNA matches for cousins who share that ancestor. 

If your DNA test doesn’t reveal American Indian roots, this doesn’t necessarily disprove Indian ancestry—it’s possible the ancestor lived long ago enough that you didn’t inherit any of his or her DNA. For information on using DNA to trace American Indian or other ethnic roots, see The Family Tree Guide to DNA Testing and Genetic Genealogy by Blaine Bettinger.

Historical photo of Great Plains tribe members.
American Indian’s traditional dress varied by culture, although as tribes were relocated, members began to adopt other tribes’ and American settlers’ attire. Chiefs and warriors of some Great Plains tribes wore eagle feather warbonnets, like those in this 1925 image from the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Asking for Help

It’s often said that although many records are now available online, the vast majority still must be obtained on paper or in person. This is especially true of Indian records. Once you’ve exhausted the online resources and what’s available through your local library, turn to more-specialized archives and the archivists who work there. Meg Hacker, archival director of NARA at Fort Worth (home to many American Indian records), recommends reaching out to her staff. “We’re not genealogists,” she says, “but we are archivists and we can help you get to the records you need.”  

The archives is revamping its website to make finding the records easier. This page is a good place to start. You can ask research questions by email (, or phone (817-551-2051) and stay up to date with the archives on Facebook. Check out local resources in the area where you’re researching. Ask a local librarian or genealogical society about resources that might be helpful to you. 

Your American Indian ancestor may reveal him or herself when you least expect it. You can’t tell when some small piece of the puzzle will reveal itself and lead to brick walls falling down like dominos. In the meantime, your research is familiarizing you with resources and records that will enlighten your knowledge of your entire family tree. 

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A version of this article appears in the October/November 2016 issue of Family Tree Magazine.