I grew up in a generation that both romanticized and vilified Native Americans. Watching actors such as Jeff Chandler and Donna Reed assume Indian faces, I remained blissfully ignorant of centuries of true-life miseries. Back then, claiming Native American roots would have been as unthinkable as choosing to play an Indian in backyard gunfights.
During the years I traced my own roots, I knew nothing about American Indian genealogy. Since my family was from Northern European stock, I figured I had no need to cross the threshold into researching the first Americans. But all that changed a couple of years ago, after I discovered that my great-niece came from a mix of African- and Native American heritage.
Society’s view of American Indians has changed a lot since I was growing up, from movie roles to the role-playing in America’s backyards. For my great-niece — and millions of others — American Indian roots have become a source of pride. According to the 2000 census, the number of people who identified themselves solely as Indian and Alaska Native grew by 26 percent from 1990, to about 2.5 million. Add to that the option of declaring a multiracial identity and the number jumps to 4.1 million.
As curiosity about American Indian tribes has grown, so has the interest in tracing Native American roots. But exploring this heritage will take you into new territory, and away from familiar research habits. The federal census won’t 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 a realm of more than 550 federally recognized tribes whose members speak more than 250 languages.
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 such as the Dawes Rolls — a listing of more than 100,000 tribal members. Researching smaller, less-documented tribes may take you to the National Archives, tribal offices and historical societies. Your research skills will be challenged and your resourcefulness tested — but the rewards of finding your connections to this continent’s first people will make it worth the effort.
Here are five steps to help you get started:
1. Start with your family.
Like Alex Haley’s search for his African-American roots, your search for Native American origins may have been inspired by snippets of an oral tradition or family legend. Maybe you heard someone mention an “Indian princess” or perhaps it’s just a rumor of Indian blood. Whatever the case, the best place to begin your research is at home.
Because of past animosity toward Native Americans, many families hid Indian blood, and may still be uncomfortable disclosing old family stories about Indian ancestors. “It’s important to talk with your family as much as possible. Obtain as much information regarding your ancestors as you can,” advises Meg Hacker, director of archival operations at the National Archives, Southwest Region. “I would recommend sitting down and talking with your family. Ask questions: Why does your family believe they are Native American? Go through family papers, Bibles and letters, looking for birth, death and marriage records.”
Clues about Indian ancestry can surface from unexpected sources. A name you vaguely remember hearing as a child may be your first link to a shadowy past. An old tombstone may contain a reference to an “Indian” name or place.
Tony Mack McClure, author of Cherokee Proud (Chu-Nan-Nee Books), encourages researchers to listen carefully to every old story “regardless of how ridiculous it may seem,” and then to document every word. “A minuscule [piece] 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 — it’s the key to finding records, as well as discovering your ancestors’ culture and heritage. Look for that information buried in family records, vital statistics, letters or diaries. If you don’t find it there, you’ll need to expand your research into tribal histories and migration patterns.
2. Find your ancestor’s tribe.
To discover your ancestor’s tribe, you need to know enough about tribal history and migration to recognize an error in assumption, says Hacker. For example, if someone in your family tells you that your Native American connection is a Cherokee tribe living in Michigan, you’ll realize that scenario is impossible: The Cherokee migrated through many states, but Michigan wasn’t one of them.
If your family hails from present-day New Mexico, you can probably narrow your first search down to Southwest tribes such as the Navajo or Apache. If your ancestors lived in the area around Lake Michigan or Lake Superior, looking into Chippewa (Ojibwa) roots is 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 Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy (Ancestry, $49.95) contains a detailed map of “Indian Tribes, Reservations and Settlements in the United States,” printed in 1939. Consult the Atlas of the North American Indian (Checkmark Books) for maps that chronicle tribes’ movements over the centuries. And you’ll find two excellent tribal maps online: a pre-European contact map of North America <kstrom.net/isk/maps/cultmap.html> and an overview of Native American Tribes, Culture Areas and Linguistic Stocks <ilt.Columbia.edu/k12/naha/maps/nausa.html> (click on “Tribe Finder” to find links to tribal histories).
3. Learn tribal culture and history.
America’s stormy history with indigenous tribes spanned centuries and countless conflicts. Searching for Native American roots means honing your skills as a 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 American 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 it was “resettled.” For instance, over a 150-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 that the culture was matrilineal — descended through the female line. Children belonged to their mother’s clan or tribe. Similarly, in the Ojibwa tribe, women controlled their homes and the family’s property. Hopi women owned the property and their husbands worked to benefit the wife’s family.
You may also encounter surprises with naming patterns and kinship systems. At birth, Plains Indian babies were given names that had a connection with their clan. Later in life, however, those children often received another name that reflected their personalities or deeds. Europeans frequently gave yet another (Anglo) name to the American Indians they interacted with. 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 ancestor’s area. The genealogical periodicals that cover the region where your ancestor lived may contain sought-after information. One of the best indexes to these periodicals is the Periodical Source Index (PERSI) <acpl.lib.in.us/genealogy/persi.html> (searchable at genealogical libraries and by subscription to <Ancestry.com >). PERSI is a subject index that covers genealogy and local history periodicals since 1800; it contains more than 1.1 million index entries from nearly 6,000 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 such as those found in Wisdom-keepers: Meetings with Native American Spiritual Elders (Beyond Words Publishing). In this book, 18 elders from different tribes discuss the location of spiritual places, the names for native homelands, historical details and sketches of family life. Stories such as that of Hopi Thomas Banyacya can offer insight into your ancestors’ culture: The Hopi believe that Big Mountain on Black Mesa in Arizona is the center of the universe, and that the spiritual ceremonies performed on the mesa help determine the balance and harmony of nature. “We’re the first people here,” says Banyacya in Wisdomkeepers. “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. Tribal Indians weren’t counted in early federal censuses, however. In fact, census records from 1790 to 1850 included only Indians living in settled areas who were taxed and didn’t claim a tribal affiliation. Indians on reservations or those who lived a nomadic existence were not taxed, and therefore not counted.
The 1860 federal census added a category called “Indian (taxed).” From 1870 to 1910, the census had an “Indian” category, but it didn’t include reservation Indians until 1890. Most of that census was lost to fire, though, so 1900 is the first available census that lists most Native Americans.
Special counts were made of several tribes, with the best-known being the Dawes Commission Rolls, taken between 1898 and 1914. These rolls listed members of the Five Civilized Tribes. Cherokee researchers should also check the Guion Miller Rolls, taken in the early 20th century. This lists applicants for a federal fund to compensate families of Cherokee who lost land as a result of the Indian Removal Act, the 1830 law that relocated most of the Cherokee Nation to what’s now Oklahoma.
Once you’ve identified a tribe, your search will probably take you to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), where you’ll find records from the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). NARA’s collection includes special censuses, school and land records. You may also find your ancestor on annuity payrolls or land allotments. Annuities resulted from treaties or acts of Congress in which the government made annual payments to tribal members. Allotment records were created when the government allotted land to individual tribe members; these are arranged by tribe. They usually include applications, registers of allotees’ names, plat maps and improvements made to the land.
American Indians: A Select Catalog of National Archives Microfilm Publications (online at <www.nara.gov/publications/microfilm/amerindians/indians.htm> and in print) lists NARA’s various holdings, including the Records of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (Record Group 75). You’ll find a complete description of NARA’s Native American holdings in Guide to Records in the National Archives Relating to American Indians compiled by Edward E. Hill (National Archives and Records Administration) <www.nara.gov/publications/find.html#indian>. To order, send payment to National Archives Trust Fund, NWCC2, Dept. 2001, Box 100793, Atlanta, GA 30384.
Many BIA field records are now in regional offices of the National Archives. Each NARA branch has different BIA records; for example, records relating to the Kiowa Agency are in Fort Worth, Texas, the Zuni Agency in Denver, and the Potawatomi Agency in Kansas City, Mo. Depending on the location, you may be able to tap agency employee records, Indian index cards, vital statistics, sanitary and school records, individual history and marriage cards.
NARA’s Hacker encourages researchers to contact the National Archives regional office in the area where their tribe is located <www.nara.gov/nara/gotonara.html>. Write that office with as much information as you have (without reciting your whole family history), and the staff will try to point you to the available records.
Another option is to contact the Bureau of Indian Affairs to obtain the phone number and address of the tribal membership office. Next, contact the tribe to see if it has records of your ancestor. You can access a tribal leaders directory at <doi.gov/bia/areas/agency.html> (in HTML or PDF format) or by contacting the BIA at 1849 C St. NW, Washington, DC 20240.
If your Native American ancestor served with federal troops, NARA may have a record of his veteran’s benefits. The National Archives military records section has a separate alphabetical file for each American Indian veteran who served prior to 1870.
Because of the well-documented nature of the Five Civilized Tribes — so called because of their early assimilation to white culture — their records are among the easiest to find on the Internet. The NARA Archival Information Locator (NAIL) is a database of selected microfilm and archival holdings, including several on the Oklahoma tribes. To date, about 80 percent of the Dawes Commission Rolls are online in the NAIL database <www.nara.gov/nara/nail.html>.
To search for ancestors on the Dawes Rolls, go to the NAIL database and choose either a Standard or Expert search. Next, enter dawes in the first keyword box, then the person’s name in the second keyword box. Click on Submit Search. If the database contains information on that person, the Records Retrieved number will change from 0 to the number of Dawes Commission applications containing that name. Click on Display Results for a list of hits, then click Full to see details of a particular record.
Other Native American databases on NAIL:
? Descriptions of 64,177 Cherokee, Chickasaw, Creek and Seminole applications for enrollment to the Five Civilized Tribes between 1898 and 1914. More than 10,000 of these applications have digital copies attached.
? A 634-page digitized version of a Description of Final Rolls of the Citizens and Freedmen of the Five Civilized Tribes in Indian Territory. You’ll find names of people the Dawes Commission allowed on tribal rolls.
? A 635-page digitized Index to the Final Rolls of Citizens and Freedmen of the Five Civilized Tribes in Indian Territory.
? A 343-page index of Applications Submitted for the Eastern Cherokee Roll of 1909 (Guion Miller Roll).
? The 196-page digitized version of the Wallace Roll of Cherokee Freedmen in Indian Territory, 1890. Individuals listed were entitled to share with the Shawnee and Delaware in the per capita distribution of $75,000.
5. Utilize online resources
Besides NAIL, you have many other online resources to help you discover your Native American ancestry and heritage. As you’re searching for your American Indian roots, make use of these three Internet tools:
? 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 some of the nearly 60 mailing lists dedicated to Native American research at <rootsweb.com/˜jfuller/gen_mail_natam.html> and <lists. rootsweb.com/index/other/Ethnic-Native>. Typical list topics are the Choctaw who moved from Mississippi to Oklahoma, Native American ancestry in Michigan and general Indian research. If you’re just getting started, the NA-NEWBIES mailing list <www.accessgenealogy.com/native/nanewbies/> might be a good jumping-off place.
? Query boards — Millions of researchers are on the Internet, and many of them 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. You’ll find dozens of query boards (also called forums) where you can post free messages requesting assistance at NativeTech.org <nativetech.org/msgboard/#genealogy>.
GenForum’s American Indian bulletin board <genforum.genealogy.com/ai> is another popular forum. And check out the recently combined Native American message boards from FamilyHistory.com and Roots-Web, now at <boards.ancestry.com> under Topics. Once you’ve tracked down the general area where your ancestor lived, leave queries on the USGenWeb <www.usgenweb.org> county pages for that location.
? Publications — Many tribes, historical societies and individuals publish journals or newsletters about a specific tribe or about American Indian research in general. These journals may include transcripts of tribal rolls, research tips or firsthand historical accounts.
Also look for online newsletters such as Native American Ancestry Hunting <members.aol.com/NAAHKITTY>. For a $35 annual subscription fee, you’ll receive tips on searching, success stories, family histories, cultural information and links to tribal resources via e-mail. Publisher Laurie Beth Roman also maintains the free monthly NAAH Enquiries newsletter, in which you can post queries. To subscribe, send an e-mail to NAAHKITTY@ aol.com and in the subject field type “Add to NAAH ENQUIRIES mailing list.”
Native American Heritage Newsletter <naheritage.bigstep.com> is an e-zine from Manitou Publications. For a yearly fee, you’ll receive 10 issues with articles on Native American genealogy and history, notes on various tribes, Internet links, queries and more.
For links to more than 100 Native American publications, check out Native American Print Media Resources <alt.net/˜waltj/shea/nativep.html>.
Tracing your Native American ancestors may be one of the most challenging genealogy projects of your life — and one of the most rewarding. Through your quest to unearth your family’s tribal ties, you’re claiming kinship with a people who felt as connected to future 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. As a quote often attributed to Chief Seattle puts it, “The wind that gave our grandfather his first breath also receives his last sigh, and the wind must also give our children the spirit of life.” It’s up to you to keep your ancestors’ spirit alive by discovering their legacy.