The United States celebrates Native American Heritage Month every November, marking a time to commemorate the heritage, history, culture, and achievements of American Indian and Alaska Native people.
Finding your ancestors’ roots is challenging, but you can make it happen with persistence and determination. Whether you’re researching the ancestry of a grandmother or a great-grandfather, there are several ways to get started.
If you’re beginning your Native American research, it’s essential to know what tribes were in the United States when your ancestor lived there. This will help you determine which records are available and whether they interest you.
There’s a wealth of tribal history that can be helpful to the genealogist, including religious practices, family structures, culture, and language. For example, many American Indian tribes were forcibly removed from their traditional homelands and relocated to other parts of the country.
Using this information, you can trace your ancestors and identify the tribe they belonged to. This can help you locate records and understand the importance of stories about your ancestors’ lives.
This information is found in numerous sources, including newspapers, books, and journals. Some of these documents are available at the Library of Congress and other major research libraries, while others are only found in the specialized collections of local indigenous groups.
An excellent place to start is with the National Archives and its regional facilities. NARA maintains a guide to the scope and location of federal records, including those related to Native Americans.
BIA agency and reservation files are also worth investigating. Often, these records will include heirship case files. These may be full of interviews with people who knew the deceased and their family, giving you a great family picture.
Heirship Case Files
Whether your family has handed down a story about your great-great-grandmother’s tribe or you want to explore the rich history of Native American genealogy, you may be surprised at what you can discover through heirship case files. These records document who was to receive a deceased Indian’s land and were often used in court proceedings.
Heirship case files could be beneficial if your Native American ancestor were a member of a federally recognized tribe or band, as they generally include enrollment lists and annuity and allotment documents. Some of these documents are available online through FamilySearch, while others are held in the custody of your local tribal office or through NARA’s Indian Records Collection.
Another record that can provide valuable information is a tribal enrollment roll, the official census of an American Indian tribe. Tribes kept these rolls to track their members, including names of heads of families, dates of birth and death, sex, blood degree (degree of Native American blood), marital status, and land allotment details.
Depending on the tribe, you can search the enrollment roll personally at your local tribal office or by mail at NARA’s leading research facility in Washington, DC. NARA’s microfilm catalog on its website will help you locate roles about your ancestor and period.
Censuses are one of the oldest and most valuable records in family history. These records provide a snapshot of the US population on a particular date and are invaluable to genealogists. They can help you track how your family changed and reveal information about your ancestors that you won’t find anywhere else.
A census typically involves all householders completing census forms periodically, which are delivered and collected by an enumerator or census taker. The records list information about every person who lived in the dwelling at a particular time.
Each household was asked to answer a variety of questions that ranged from identifying the age and gender of each member to recording family members’ occupations, birthplaces, native languages, and much more. The questions changed each year to reflect current events and changes in the country.
As you search for your ancestors, extract the details on all census records. This includes removing the source information on each recorded image (and citing it in your family tree software). Please save a copy of the census record image outside your genealogy platform so you can easily access it anytime.
The wealth of ethnological descriptions and genealogical material available on the Internet is invaluable for researchers seeking to uncover their Native American roots. For instance, PERSI, a searchable subject index that covers more than 1.1 million genealogy and local history periodicals, is a great place to start. Another good source is the National Genealogical Society’s “Finding Your Native American Ancestors” web page, which offers various resources, including tribal and census records.
Newspaper accounts can be a valuable resource for Native American genealogists. They can provide information about obituaries, birth notices, marriage announcements, legal transactions, and local events. In addition, some newspapers have historical essays that can help students understand the community in which their ancestors lived.
For example, an article about the Navajo tribe in the May 22 issue of The Real American highlighted their fight to maintain their traditions and beliefs. Another article on the same problem described how one tribe used treaties to defend their land claim in Texas.
In both articles, the newspaper emphasized their belief that Native Americans were all one people and could work together to overcome life challenges. This approach was similar to Native Americans, who often considered themselves “real” or original people rather than simply an ethnic group within the United States.
Erin Plummer suggests that the Real American advanced a pan-Indian agenda by connecting and informing Indians nationally about tribal struggles. It also argued that Indians did not need to be United States citizens to be American, but they should still feel like nation members. In addition to promoting Native Americans as a single national community, The Real American encouraged using native symbols in everyday life and presented news about various tribes that showed similarities.