By Kathrine C. Aydelott, MLIS, PhD
People have many motivations for investigating whether they have Native American ancestry. Some people simply want to pursue the joys and frustrations of genealogical work. Some want to determine whether their family stories are true; others may be interested in seeking tribal membership. Regardless of the reason, the process for uncovering your Native American heritage is the same.
Start with what you know. Typically, that means starting with yourself and working backwards through your parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents. Write down names, locations, and dates of birth, death, and marriage, including any alternative names and other marriages. As you move beyond what you know, talk to your family members for help filling in gaps. Paper family tree forms or genealogical software can help you keep track of the information you find.
Continue to trace your family lines back as far as you can. Genealogy is a research project that depends upon documentation to “prove” kin and family relationships. Often more than one document is required for genealogical proof, and many are surprised to discover how many official documents contain errors! Therefore, we must look beyond the “vital records” of birth, marriage, and death, to find census records, wills, deeds, church records, military records, maps, newspapers, books, and other documents that might include information about relationships between people.
Online genealogy mega-sites, like Ancestry.com and FamilySearch.org, can provide some of the documentation you need, but not everything has been digitized for online access. Privacy laws may mean that more recent documentation is unavailable or may require paid fees. You may need to visit state libraries, historical societies, court houses, or town office buildings. Availability of records may vary by town, county or state, and, ultimately, documentation for some people may no longer exist. These ancestors become our “brick walls” that we work hard—sometimes for years—to break through.
Another challenging aspect of Native American genealogy is that the reliance on documentary evidence broadly comes out of a Western, European perspective on property and relationships. Many Native American cultures instead value other forms of understanding, including oral histories, storytelling, artwork, and other traditions, making it more difficult to trace and prove Native American heritage. For example, unless a record is very specific to say, “Marie, a native woman, married Nathaniel…,” we might never know Marie was of Native American ancestry. It might be even more difficult to trace Marie if she went by a native family name rather than an Anglicized or French name before her marriage.
Some feel that the increasing availability and affordability of DNA testing for ethnic ancestries can break down brick walls or otherwise prove Native American heritage. The tests look for markers in our genes that are similar to markers in ancestral “control populations.” For example, the test might identify a marker in your genes that is most similar to markers found in people from France. The test might therefore conclude that you are French; however, this isn’t scientific proof that you’re of French ancestry, just that these markers are similar.
Thus far, the control population of Native Americans who have taken DNA tests is small, but growing. As a result, Native American genetic markers have not been as well identified, so DNA tests for Native American heritage may not be accurate: they may reveal you have zero Native American DNA even if you do, or they might show you have Native American DNA that may be refined out in future tests as new ethnic markers are identified. As the Native American control population in these databases becomes larger over time, markers may become more identifiable in the future that will better help to determine Native American ancestry.
A DNA test cannot reveal a genetic link to a specific tribe or even a geographic locality. Only the traditional work of genealogy and historical research can help you prove your connection with your own Native American ancestry.
Additional Readings and Resources
Association of American Indian Affairs. “Researching Your Ancestry.” Association of American Indian Affairs. https://www.indian-affairs.org/researching-your-ancestry.html.
Office of Public Affairs-Indian Affairs. “A Guide to Tracing American Indian & Alaska Native Ancestry.” U.S. Department of the Interior. Bureau of Indian Affairs. https://www.bia.gov/sites/bia.gov/files/assets/public/ois/pdf/Guide_to_Tracing_American_Indian_Alaska_Native_Ancestry.pdf