Native Genealogy 101
One of the most frequently asked questions at the National Museum of the American Indian—by visitors to the museum in Washington and New York, people on the internet, and people who write letters to the staff—concerns tracing individual Indian ancestry. They often begin by saying, “I am adopted,” “My family always said we were Indian,” ”My grandmother was Indian and lived at a time when she tried to hide it,” “My father died and didn’t tell us anything.”
Genealogy is a term associated with researching family ancestry, lineages, and history. There are many ways to trace Native ancestry. People use family records, historical records, genetic analysis, oral historical accounts, and other records to compile genealogical information. Family bibles; newspaper articles; county birth, death, and marriage certificates; and interviews or conversations with family members also offer valuable information.
Start with yourself and work backwards through your family—your mom and dad, your grandparents, and then your great-grandparents. If you know where your relatives were born, try to get birth or death certificates, wills, or probates (records of the settlement of estates). If family members were landowners, go to the Bureau of Land Management and type in their name and the state where they lived.
Also check with the courthouse of their last known community of residence to see if there is a will or probate. To find out if family members belong to a federally recognized tribe, research where the tribe keeps its records and see if their family members are listed.
Other useful websites include:
Many people we meet at the museum are looking for Cherokee ancestry. If that describes your family, you might try:
I wish you every success in learning about your family’s background and history. If you have helpful genealogy information to share, please post it.