Unlocking Your Ancestral History

Unlocking Your Ancestral History

If you’re curious about your Native American ancestry, there are several ways to begin your research. But before you get started, understand that no single record will tell you everything about your ancestor. Start by building your family tree methodically backward from yourself, one generation at a time. That will give you a foundation to build upon as you move forward with your research.

Start With Yourself

Family lore often includes hand-down stories about Native American ancestors. Those tales can be very compelling, but sometimes the truth is more complex than you may think. To find out if you have any Native American heritage, it is important to begin with your research. Begin by building a personal pedigree chart identifying your parents, grandparents and more distant ancestors and writing down their names, dates and places of birth and death, as well as other vital statistics. Once you have a solid database of your ancestors, it is time to look for records and documents confirming your tribal affiliations. This can be done in several ways using the Tribal Affiliation database. Another approach to researching tribal affiliations is to use genealogical and historical periodicals, especially those that focus on the area where your ancestors lived. These can be found in regional libraries and historical societies or by subscription.

Identify Your Tribes

The history of America’s indigenous tribes spanned centuries and many conflicts. They were massacred, removed from their lands, and forced into assimilation. Today, there are around 5 million Native Americans in the United States, most of them living on reservations. But some people have a certain amount of American Indian blood but are not enrolled in any tribes. These are the individuals we commonly refer to as “Indians.”

To identify your tribal ancestors, it is important to determine where they lived and what they did there. You can do this by talking to their family members and friends or looking at documents such as certificates, obituaries, birth, marriage and death records, or diaries. You can also look for census information; exceptional schedules called “Inquiries Relating to Indians,” which enumerators recorded for the 1900 and 1910 censuses. These enumerations include information about the degree of Indian blood of each family member.

Identify Your Ancestors

If you have American Indian ancestors, it can be challenging to trace them and their descendants. Fortunately, there are several ways to identify them and the tribes they belonged to. Depending on how recent your Native American ancestors were, you can use DNA testing and validated paper records to identify them. You can also contact the federal government and see if it holds records for your Native American ancestors. The United States currently recognizes 562 Indian tribes, each with a unique history, culture, customs and family structures. Some tribes are self-governing and live on reservations; others are not. You may find your ancestors in county records, local histories, historical society collections and newspapers. You can also search for microfilm at the Family History Library (FHL). Your ancestors are your ancestral relatives–the people who lived before you, your parents and grandparents. You’re their descendant–their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Start your tree by creating a timeline, tracing your ancestors backward from you to your parents and grandparents. This makes it easier to locate blank spots on your tree and to fill in the details you need to know about each individual. If your ancestors lived in the past, they would likely have vital statistics (birth, marriage and death) available. These records can help you to build a solid foundation for your research.

Find Records

Native American genealogy can be challenging. Records can be difficult to locate; many are only available through subscription databases. However, some resources may help you identify your ancestor and uncover information about their lives. You can also ask for guidance from your local historical society or library. These organizations often have smaller collections that pertain to your ancestors’ location. Another way to discover your ancestors’ lives is by searching through tribal enrollment records. These can be found at various libraries or on tribal Web sites. The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) records may yield heirship cases that can tell you about your ancestors’ families and their earlier generations. These documents were created by BIA officers who interviewed individuals about their families and the family members of deceased tribesmen. If you are still looking for your ancestor in an online BIA database, try searching NARA’s microfilm archives for records that the agency received between 1824 and 1881. NARA has copies of these documents at its main research facility in Washington, DC and the Family History Library. Once you have determined which tribe your ancestor belonged to, you can contact that tribe to learn about its resources. These can include tribal histories, oral histories and enrollment office records of tribal members.

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