Published on October 24, 2013 by Amy
A source of tremendous personal pride, American Indian ancestry is touted (sometimes falsely) by nearly every citizen of this nation. Fortunately, American Indians are among the best-documented cultural groups in the United States, making it possible to prove direct ties to one of more than 500 tribal nations. Just be aware that American Indian genealogy can, at first, involve a lot of guesswork. Which are the best resources? Where should one begin?
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Bureau of Indian Affairs: Established in 1824, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) was the onetime repository for a variety of historical records. However, many of these records now belong to the National Archives. Still, you can contact regional BIA offices and request what information they may still have on file. Be prepared to provide as much information as you can about your ancestors’ tribal affiliations.
U.S. Federal Census: Not to be confused with Indian reservation census lists, the U.S. Federal Census began incorporating American Indian communities in 1860. “Transitional” censuses (most dating from 1880 to 1890) are among the most valuable censuses available. They included Indian names alongside corresponding “American” names as well as information ranging from native languages to American Indian “blood degree.”
Dawes Commission Index: The Dawes Act of 1893 reapportioned land belonging to the “Five Civilized Tribes”— Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw and Seminole. Members of each tribe could apply for a portion of this land after submitting proof of tribal enrollment. The Dawes Commission listed the names of those who enrolled between 1896 and 1914.
The Hudson’s Bay Company: Founded by British-Scotch fur traders in 1670, Canada’s Hudson’s Bay company preserved records for local Indian marriages and baptisms along with journals obtained from traveling fur traders (who spent a great deal of time with American and Canadian tribes). More detailed than your average government records, these documents are now housed at the Hudson’s Bay Archives in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada.
The National Archives: With its main office located in Washington D.C., the National Archives is easily the nation’s largest repository for American Indian genealogical records. Their records encompass a variety of topics ranging from Indian trade, reservation censuses, treaties, land claims and education.
Naming patterns: When federal enumerators began counting American Indian populations, traditional names were replaced by “made-up” surnames (usually adapted from nicknames, e.g. “Pete,” “Nash” and “Henry”). Many families still carry these surnames today, though it’s possible to trace original Indian identities through the transitional censuses of the nineteenth century.
Non-reservation records: Many family historians have related their frustration at the lack of records available for families living outside of reservation lands. For those who remain undaunted, one historian has recommended the 1900 U.S. Census, which included a separate form for American Indians living in non-reservation households. Consequently, he was able to find detailed information about his ancestor including her tribal affiliation, blood degree and American citizenship.
Tribal elders: Thanks to the rich oral tradition inherent in American Indian culture, many tribal elders can recite their family histories going back several generations. If you’d like to arrange an interview, you may do so through a local tribal office. Just be aware that, out of respect, you should refrain from bringing tape recorders and video cameras.