An Arapaho phrase says, “If we wonder often, the gift of knowledge will come.” Researching your Native American ancestors can be a challenge because there are 566 federally recognized tribes, but understanding the records and how to search them will help you find your family.
The good news is that when researching your Native American ancestors, you begin like everyone else: start with yourself and what you know, and work backwards. Look for clues in U.S. Federal Census records, which are available in databases such as Ancestry Library Edition (in-library use only) or HeritageQuest. Census records will give you clues to where your ancestors lived so that you can figure out what Native American tribes were located close to those areas. Also, check to see if the Census records indicate “I” under race for “Indian.” Before 1900, few Native Americans were listed in federal censuses, but from 1885 to 1940, the Bureau of Indian Affairs agents conducted censuses on those living on reservations. These records can be found in Ancestry Library Edition (in-library use only) and Fold3, or on microfilm. The Midwest Genealogy Center has a list of Native American Indian Records on Microfilm, which includes such resources as censuses, applications for enrollment, school records, and treaties for many different tribes.
Sometimes people get so excited to find out that their ancestor is Native American that they miss the great genealogical information that is available in the records. Your Native American ancestors often had to prove through an application process that they were eligible for land or other compensation. The applications could include the names of parents and grandparents, as well as the names of all their children, whether living or deceased. Further documentation that could be included are birth, death, and marriage information. Many of the surviving records were created by the federal government and date from the late 1800s or early 1900s (when the federal government created records), so if your family stories point to an ancestor before that time, it may be difficult to prove it on paper. What knowledge have you discovered about your Native American roots?
Midwest Genealogy Center