This page will help you trace your American Indian or Alaska Native ancestry and provide you with information about tribal services, tribal contacts, and genealogical research. Some frequently asked and common ancestral search questions will also be answered within this page.
Establishing American Indian or Alaska Native (AI/AN) Ancestry
There are many reasons a person will seek to establish their AI/AN ancestry. When establishing descent from an AI/AN tribe for membership and enrollment purposes an individual must provide genealogical documentation that supports their claim of such ancestry from a specific tribe or tribal community. If the end goal for doing this research is to help you determine if you are eligible for membership in a tribe, you must be able to:
- Establish that you have a lineal ancestor (biological parent, grandparent, great-grandparent and/or more distant ancestor) who is an American Indian or Alaska Native person from a federally recognized tribe in the U.S.
- Identify which tribe (or tribes) your ancestor was a member of or affiliated with and
- Document your relationship to that person using vital statistics records and other records a tribe may require or accept for purposes of enrollment.
Services And Benefits for AI/AN Ancestry
Indian Affairs supports and assists the tribes as they develop their governmental structures and operations, build strong and safe communities, and provide services to their members. Indian Affairs-funded programs include education, economic and workforce development, social services, justice (law enforcement, corrections, and courts), infrastructure (road, bridges, and dams), housing, realty, agriculture and range management, and natural resources management and protection. Besides Indian Affairs, there are other Federal agencies with programs developed specifically to serve AI/ANs and their tribal communities.
Enrollment In A Federally Recognized Tribe
There are multiple reasons to enroll in a federally recognized tribe. Tribal membership may convey the right to vote in tribal elections, to serve in tribal leadership, to participate in the sharing of tribal assets, to use tribal treaty rights (such as hunting, fishing, and gathering rights) within the tribe’s jurisdiction, to participate in cultural or religious matters, to receive tribal services and benefits, and to exercise other privileges or rights unique to tribal members. These tribal privileges and rights differ from tribe to tribe, as do their unique membership criteria. Follow the link below to review a list of the current Tribal Leaders Directory to find information regarding each tribe's membership requirements and application. Uniform membership requirements among all tribes do not exist as criterion varies from tribe to tribe. However, it can be said that two commonly found requirements for membership are:
- Lineal descent from someone named on the tribe's base roll [a "base roll" is a tribe’s original list of members as designated in a tribal constitution or other document specifying enrollment criteria]
- Lineal descent from a tribal member who descends from someone whose name appears on the base roll. Other conditions such as tribal blood quantum, residency, or continued contact with the tribe also are common.
Doing Genealogical Research
Start your genealogical research with yourself and your personal family history. Start with current and historical records that you have on hand such as letters, journal, diaries, etc., that belong to you and/or your immediate biological family. If you or a lineal ancestor is not currently a member of a federally recognized tribe, band or group in the U.S., your research can begin with public or other non-Indian records such as those kept by state and local governments, churches, schools, libraries, newspapers, and historical societies.
Where To Look For Ancestral Information
There are several places that you may be able to find information regarding you AI/AN Ancestry.
- At Home - The first place where you can begin to do your genealogical research is at home. Valuable information can be found in newspaper clippings, military service records, birth and death records, marriage licenses, divorce records, family bibles, personal journals, diaries, letters, scrapbooks, backs of pictures and other documents. Your relatives and family members may also be a great resource for you, check to see if they can share information with you, or answer any questions you have.
- Local and State Level - It is often helpful to check town, school, church, and county courthouse records for information. Historical and genealogical information also can be found in other civil records at local courthouses such as deeds, wills, land or other property conveyance documents. Additionally, local newspaper may have important information regarding an ancestor. To obtain a vital statistic record, you must contact the department, bureau or office that handles vital statistics records for the state where the event took place. Each state has its own rules for who may request a vital statistics record and its own process for requesting one (including any fees it may charge). State vital statistics records offices may be found using the internet.
- Public Libraries and Other Repositories - Visiting the local library is a very good starting point for gathering facts about AI/ANs and their tribes. A wealth of information exists concerning the history of tribes, tribal cultures, historical tribal territories, and tribal migration patterns. Most libraries also have books on how to do genealogical research to gain an understanding of basic research techniques.
- Federal Level (NARA) - The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) is the repository for all federal records. The records it holds and the information it provides are very useful to anyone interested in genealogical research. One example is census records, which are a very good source of information for persons trying to locate and identify their ancestors in the United States. In the 19th century, the BIA, which was established in 1824, carried out census counts of American Indians living on reservations. NARA has Federal census records from 1790 to 1940, including BIA American Indian census records. NARA also has military service records, passenger arrival records, and other records of value to persons involved in genealogical research including the Dawes Roll if you are researching ancestry from any of the Five Civilized Tribes in Oklahoma.
- Records Concerning AI/AN - If you have identified your ancestor’s tribal affiliation, now you can proceed to begin researching records about the tribe. The American Indian records collection at NARA includes special censuses, school records, and allotment records. For more information concerning the special censuses of various tribes, NARA offers: Microfilm Publication M1791, American Indian Censuses, “The Special Census of Indians, 1880”.
- BIA Offices - BIA regional offices (and agencies may be additional sources of information on an ancestor if:
- your ancestor’s estate was probated through the bureau because he or she had land in trust with the bureau and/or received income derived from federal Indian trust lands and/or assets,
- his or her name appears on a tribe’s base membership roll, a copy of which rests with the regional office or agency that services the tribe, or
- his or her name appears on a judgment distribution roll developed as part of the settlement of a tribal claim against the United States.
The BIA, however, does not maintain current or historic records of all individuals who possess some degree of AI/AN blood. The BIA holds current rather than historic tribal membership enrollment lists, which do not hold the supporting documentation of the members listed. When you contact a BIA regional office or agency, be prepared to give the name of the tribe, the name(s) and birth date(s) of your lineal ancestor(s), and your relationship to such ancestor(s). The Tribal Leaders Directory includes contact information for all BIA regional offices and agencies.
What If I Was Adopted?
Generally, adoptions of AI/AN children have been handled in state courts under state laws. When you are seeking to open sealed adoption papers, the BIA cannot help you. You will need to obtain legal advice from an attorney that deals with this area of law. If you have questions about the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 (ICWA), P.L. 95-608, which allows federally recognized tribes to intervene in certain AI/AN child adoption situations, you can contact a BIA regional social worker in any of the Bureau’s 12 regional offices or contact the National Indian Child Welfare Association for more information.
Could A Blood or DNA Test Prove AI/AN Ancestry?
Blood tests and DNA tests will not help an individual document his or her descent from a specific Federally recognized tribe or tribal community. The only value blood tests and DNA tests hold for persons trying to trace ancestry to a particular tribe is that testing, if the tribe accepts it, can establish if an individual is biologicallyrelated to a tribal member. Check directly with the tribe you are seeking to enroll to find out if it will accept a blood test or DNA test as part of its enrollment application process.
Getting Help With Research
If you are contemplating hiring someone to research your family history, professional genealogists can charge fees on an hourly or flat-rate basis. For more information on what to consider when hiring a professional, contact your local genealogical association or society, or visit the NARA website. If you do not wish to conduct your own research, researchers are available for a fee. Please search the Board for Certification of Genealogists or the Association of Professional Genealogists websites for their listings of genealogical researchers.
Tracing Cherokee Indian Ancestry
We receive so many requests for information on how to trace Cherokee Indian ancestry, therefore we have included this special section for it. About 200 years ago the Cherokee Indians were one tribe, or "Indian Nation," that lived in the southeast part of what is now the United States. During the 1830's and 1840's, the period covered by the Indian Removal Act, many Cherokees were forcibly moved west to what was then termed “Indian Territory” and that is now the state of Oklahoma. A number of Cherokees remained in the southeast and some gathered in North Carolina, where they purchased land and continue to live to this day. Today, individuals of Cherokee ancestry fall into at least one of the following categories:
- Living persons who were listed on the final rolls (Dawes Commission Rolls) of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, now known as the Cherokee Nation, that were approved and their descendants. These final rolls were closed in 1907.
- Individuals enrolled as members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians of North Carolina and their descendants who are eligible for enrollment with the Band.
- Persons on the list of members identified by a resolution dated April 19, 1949, and certified by the Superintendent of the BIA’s Five Civilized Tribes Agency, and their descendants who are eligible for enrollment with the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians of Oklahoma.
- All other persons of Cherokee Indian ancestry.
After about a half century of self-government, a law enacted in 1906 directed that final rolls be made and that each enrollee be given an allotment of land or paid cash in lieu of an allotment. The Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma, a federally recognized tribe, formally organized in 1975 with the adoption of a new constitution that superseded one from 1839. The new constitution established a Cherokee Register for the inclusion of any Cherokee person for membership purposes in the Cherokee Nation. Members must be citizens as proven by reference to the Dawes Commission Rolls, which outlined the membership of the Five Civilized Tribes in Oklahoma – the Cherokee Nation, the Chickasaw Nation, the Choctaw Nation, the Muscogee (Creek) Nation and the Seminole Nation. These are the only federally recognized tribes who use the Dawes Rolls as their base membership rolls.
- Any questions with regard to Cherokee Nation ancestry and/or enrollment should be referred to:
PO Box 948
Tahlequah, OK 74465
Phone: (918) 456-0671
Fax: (918) 458-5580
- For the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in North Carolina, inquiries about the tribe’s enrollment criteria or information shown in the records may be addressed to the tribe at:
Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, Qualla Boundary, P.O. Box 455
Cherokee, NC 28719
Phone: (828) 497-7000
Fax: (828) 497-7007
- By the Act of August 10, 1946 (60 Stat. 976), Congress recognized the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians in Oklahoma (UKB) for the purposes of organizing under the Oklahoma Indian Welfare Act. Information about ancestry from this tribe and its enrollment requirements may be obtained by contacting:
United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians in Oklahoma
P.O. Box 746
Tahlequah, OK 74465
Phone: (918) 431-1818
Fax: (918) 431-1873
- Persons without affiliation to any of these tribes but still of Cherokee ancestry are best served looking through the Dawes Commission Rolls for their ancestor's listing.
Washington, DC 20240