Uncovering Your Native American Roots – How to Begin

find Native American ancestry

Oral history interviews can be valuable for researching Native American ancestry. Ask siblings, parents, aunts, and uncles what they have heard about their families’ Indian connections.

Start with federal records such as land, school, and BIA records. You also can find pay dirt at state and local archives, historical societies, and libraries.

Oral Histories

Oral histories are a vital part of any family history. They’re a primary source and an essential tool to uncover your Native American roots.

The oral tradition is the foundation of Native culture. Through stories, elders pass down tribal history, customs, and practices to younger generations. These narratives also entertain, cultivate the tribe’s verbal language and teach life lessons, such as love, leadership, and respect for the natural world.

If your ancestor was a member of a recognized tribe, you might be able to find records from the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). The BIA created the Final Rolls of the Five Civilized Tribes—or Dawes Rolls—in 1898 to determine enrollment and land allotments for members. You can search these records at NARA’s regional facilities. Look for a list of national record groups on NARA’s website, and study its guide for researching American Indians to learn which collections house which records.

You’ll also want to focus on your ancestor’s social life and cultural history. Many American Indians who assimilated into general society—marrying someone of another ethnicity, for example—may not be listed in BIA records. However, they might appear in historical newspapers or census documents.

Genealogical Records

Many resources are available to those who want to find Native American ancestry. At the state and local levels, look for birth, marriage, death, and property records in town, city, and county clerk offices, libraries, and historical societies. State and local newspaper archives and microfilm are also essential sources of information. At the federal level, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) has a variety of records, including the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) census records.

Other genealogy and family history resources include church records, cemetery records, personal journals, letters, diaries and scrapbooks, personal papers, and school transcripts. Historical and ethnological series of publications, such as the Smithsonian Institution’s 20-volume Handbook of North American Indians, are also helpful for research. Look for them at large libraries or online.

At the tribal level, check with the tribe from which you are descended to learn about its genealogy and enrollment procedures. You can also find helpful information in the Department of Interior’s Guide to Tracing Your American Indian Ancestry. The web page highlights links to sites that provide genealogy information on various tribes and contains a link to additional genealogical resources, such as professional researchers and chat groups. There are also topical links that provide details about specific areas of inquiry, such as tribal associations and the locations of their offices.

Land Records

Aside from oral histories and genealogical records, land records may provide important clues about your Native American ancestors. These can include deeds, surveys, and other land ownership or transfer documents. They can also provide information on tribal membership and relations with the United States government. For example, land records may mention when members of the Five Civilized Tribes—Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole—were forcibly removed from their traditional homeland in the Southeast to Indian Territory (Oklahoma today) along the Trail of Tears.

You can locate land records at state, county, and local archives and libraries. Some documents are available online, while others require a personal trip to the archive. When searching for land records, use a map to locate where your ancestors lived.

Another valuable resource for tracing Native American roots is tribal enrollment records. These are often the most helpful for individuals seeking to prove their descent from a particular tribe or nation. The Department of the Interior oversees about 310 reservations, each with a unique history and culture. You can research these through books and articles, or you can visit the reservation and experience firsthand the culture and traditions of your ancestors. AccessGenealogy offers an excellent resource for finding books and articles on Native American research, including a list of tribal enrollments by state.

Tribal Records

Tribal records can provide a wealth of information on family relations and history. The US government recognizes more than 500 tribes with unique cultures and histories. For example, the Iroquois linguistic group’s matrilineal system meant children belonged to their mother’s clan or tribe. This means that finding ancestors in tribal records can be a little trickier than in other types of family history research.

If you have an ancestor who may be associated with one of the Five Civilized Tribes (Choctaw, Cherokee, Muscogee Creek, and Seminole), check out the Dawes Rolls were created to determine who would receive land allotments in 1898. The National Archives has a free tutorial that will guide you through using this resource.

You’ll also want to explore local, regional, and state archives and historical society libraries for information. For example, the Oklahoma Historical Society maintains a vast collection of records for many tribes that were forcibly removed to what’s now Oklahoma. You can search for a particular tribe on this web page, including contact information for volunteer researchers and links to online resources. Likewise, it would help if you investigated genealogical periodicals from the regions where your ancestors lived; they can often contain sought-after information about tribes and their members. The PERSI index to genealogical and local history periodicals—available at most libraries and subscription sites—can help you pinpoint titles that may be relevant.