How to Research Native American Roots

By Kimberly Powell, Native American Encyclopedia

Whether you want to become an enrolled member of a federally recognized tribe, verify a family tradition that you descended from an American Indian, or just want to learn more about your roots, researching your Native American family tree beings just like any other genealogy research – with yourself.

Starting Your Climb Up the Family Tree

Unless you have a large collection of facts on your Indian ancestor, including names, dates, and tribe, it is usually not helpful to begin your search in Indian records. Learn everything that you can about your parents, grandparents, and more distant ancestors, including ancestral names; dates of birth, marriages, and death; and the places where your ancestors were born, married, and died.

Tracking Down the Tribe

During the initial phase of your research, the goal, especially for tribal membership purposes, is to establish and document the relationships of Indian ancestors and to identify the Indian tribe with which your ancestor may have been affiliated. If you’re having trouble finding clues to your ancestor’s tribal affiliation, study the localities in which your Indian ancestors were born and lived. Comparing this with Indian tribes that historically resided in or currently live in those geographical areas may help you to narrow down the tribal possibilities. The Tribal Leaders Directory published by the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs lists all 562 federally recognized American Indian Tribes and Alaska Natives in a PDF document. Alternatively, you can access this same information through an easy to browse database of Federally Recognized American Indian Tribes, from the American Indian Heritage Foundation. John R. Swanton’s, “The Indian Tribes of North America,” is another excellent source of information on more than 600 tribes, sub-tribes, and bands.

Bone Up on the Background

Once you’ve narrowed your search to a tribe or tribes, it is time to do some reading on tribal history. This will not only help you understand the traditions and culture of the tribe in question, but also evaluate your family stories and legends against historical facts. More general information on the history of Native American tribes can be found online, while more in-depth tribal histories have been published in book form. For the most historically accurate works, look for tribal histories published by University Press.

Next Step – National Archives

Once you’ve identified the tribal affiliation of your Native American ancestors, it is time to begin research in records about American Indians. Because the U.S. federal government interacted frequently with the Native American tribes and nations during the settlement of the United States, many useful records are available in repositories such as the National Archives. The Native American collection at the National Archives includes many of the records created by branches of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, including annual tribal census rolls, lists relating to Indian removal, school records, estate records, and claims and allotment records. Any American Indian who fought with federal troops may have a record of veteran’s benefits or bounty land. For more information on the specific records held by the National Archives, visit their Native American Genealogy guide or check out “Guide to Records in the National Archives of the United States Relating to American Indians,” compiled by archivist Edward E. Hill.

If you want to do your research in person, most of the main tribal records are stored at the National Archives Southwest Region in Fort Worth, Texas. Even more accessible, some of the most popular of these records have been digitized by NARA and placed online for easy searching and viewing in the Archival Research Catalog (ARC). Online Native American records at NARA include:

  • Index to the Final (Dawes) Rolls of the Five Civilized Tribes
  • Index to Applications Submitted for the Eastern Cherokee Roll of 1909 (Guion-Miller Roll)
  • Wallace Roll of Cherokee Freedmen in Indian Territory, 1890
  • Kern-Clifton Roll of Cherokee Freedmen, January 16, 1867
  • 1896 Citizenship Applications

>>Links to the above digitized documents and other online Indian records. Bureau of Indian Affairs

If your ancestors had land in trust or went through probate, the BIA field offices in selected areas throughout the United States may have some records concerning Indian ancestry. However, the BIA field offices do not maintain current or historic records of all individuals who possess some degree of Indian blood. The records the BIA holds are current rather than historic tribal membership enrollment lists. These lists (commonly called “rolls”) do not have supporting documentation (such as birth certificates) for each tribal member listed. The BIA created these rolls while the BIA maintained tribal membership rolls.


EPA awards over $756,000 to research coastal climate change impacts on Swinomish Indian Tribal Community


Source: EPA


(Seattle—July 23, 2014) The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced today it is awarding over $756,000 to the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community to research coastal climate impacts to traditional foods, cultural sites and tribal community health and well-being.
The combination of sea level rise, wave impacts, and shoreline development will change coastal ecosystems that support Swinomish first foods and place-based relationships, which in turn impacts community health and well-being.

The funds will be used to:
· Develop a model showing projected coastal erosion due to sea-level rise, storm surge, and wave energy through Year 2100 on the shores of the Swinomish Reservation
· Map the vulnerability of Swinomish coastal ecosystem habitats of first foods and culturally significant sites
· Support the Swinomish Climate Change Initiative
· Create educational and outreach tools for Swinomish community members and Coast Salish communities
· Assess research results and develop adaptive strategies
EPA funds research focused on tribal communities through the Science to Achieve Results program. Because many tribes rely on natural resources, it is essential for tribal-focused research to identify possible environmental health risks and the most efficient methods of avoiding or addressing these risks.

More information about the grants awarded:

More information on Tribal Environmental Health Research:

Stalking Puget Sound Steelhead With Science

The crew of the research vessel Chasina gets ready to drop an acoustic telemetry receiver 300 feet down into Puget Sound. The device will record tagged steelhead as they swim out of their spawning rivers. | credit: Ashley Ahearn
The crew of the research vessel Chasina gets ready to drop an acoustic telemetry receiver 300 feet down into Puget Sound. The device will record tagged steelhead as they swim out of their spawning rivers. | credit: Ashley Ahearn

By Ashley Ahearn, Earthfix; OPB

TACOMA, Wash. — You might call Barry Berejikian a steelhead stalker.

The government scientist’s pursuit of these anodramous trout has brought him to the deck of the Chasina, a research vessel that’s motoring through choppy gray waters of southern Puget Sound near the Tacoma Narrows Bridge.

He’s here to lay the groundwork for an experiment that could explain why so few steelhead are completing their journey through Puget Sound and on to the Pacific Ocean.

Since 2007, Puget Sound steelhead have been listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Millions of dollars have been spent improving their habitat but the fish are not recovering.

And scientists can’t pinpoint why.

Berejikian aboard the research vessel Chasina. Credit: Ashley Ahearn


Berejikian is surrounded by keg-sized yellow buoys as he stands on the ship’s deck. These buoys are equipped with acoustic telemetry receivers and roped up to 500-pound concrete weights. The crew uses a crane to lift the devices over the side of the boat and drop eight of them 300 feet beneath the waves in a staggered line across Puget Sound.

Once they’re in place, the receiver buoys will float 20-30 feet above the bottom “listening” for fish. Later this spring, Berejikian plans to tag 300 juvenile steelhead in the Nisqually and Green rivers.

The floating receivers will record the tags when the fish pass by, enabling scientists to track individual fish as they make their way north through Puget Sound en route to the Pacific.

These arrays will be set up at four other points in Puget Sound, to chart how far the fish make it once they leave their spawning rivers.

“We want to detect every fish that comes through,” said Berejikian, who works for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “It’s kind of an aggressive approach but if you’re going to go to the trouble of doing the study you might as well go for it, so we’re going for it.”

The rivers in this part of the Puget Sound region are producing tens of thousands of juvenile steelhead every year. But scientists believe that only 20 percent of those fish complete their migratory route to the ocean. That has scientists curious about the locations of steelhead death “hot spots” as Berejikian calls them.

“We need to figure out why they’re dying and where they’re dying in order for us to work on management approaches to improving the situation,” Berejikian said.

If you’re a steelhead on your way out of Puget Sound this might be what comes to mind when Berejikian says “death hot spot”:

Harbor seal populations have boomed since the 1970s, prompting scientists to explore whether seal predation is contributing to steelhead mortality. Credit: Ashley Ahearn.


“They eat all salmon species, which would include chinook, coho, steelhead, chum and pink salmon,” said Steve Jeffries, who has studied harbor seals with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife since the 1970s. Jeffries added that there could be other animals preying on the steelhead, like sea lions, cormorants or harbor porpoise, whose populations are also on the rise in Puget Sound.

And of course there are other factors at play: Human population has increased in Puget Sound since the 1970s, as has development along rivers and coastlines.

But seals are still on the list of suspects and one thing’s for certain: there are more seals than there used to be.

Since the passage of the Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1972, harbor seal populations in Puget Sound have risen from roughly 2,000 in the early 1970s, to 13,000 today.

In conjunction with Berejikian’s steelhead tagging, Jeffries plans to tag 12 harbor seals this year. The tags on the seals will track their movements. They’ll also act as receivers, like the floating buoys on the bottom of Puget Sound, recording if there are any tagged steelhead that come within range.

“If we find out that the seals are feeding over here and the steelhead smolts are swimming through the same area then you’ve got this special overlap and it’s more likely that there is a predation going on,” Jeffries explained.

And if the seals are eating the out-migrating juvenile steelhead?

“I don’t know the answer to that question,” Jeffries said. “Harbor seals, all marine mammals, are protected so any action that would come out of this would have to be vetted in a resource management arena.”

Jeffries said right now it’s too early to say if seals are a major contributor to steelhead mortality in Puget Sound. “It’s a long time in the future ‘til we would actually do anything proactive to reduce predation.”

Crab research by QIN to shed light on low oxygen events

Is low oxygen in the ocean near Taholah killing off young crab each year, threatening the future of the fishery?

The Quinault Indian Nation proposes to research how low oxygen events may be affecting Dungeness crab populations in their traditional fishing waters. Dungeness crab is important culturally and economically to most western Washington treaty Indian tribes.
The Quinault Indian Nation proposes to research how low oxygen events may be affecting Dungeness crab populations in their traditional fishing waters. Dungeness crab is important culturally and economically to most western Washington treaty Indian tribes.

Source: Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission

That’s the question Quinault Indian Nation (QIN) wants to help answer using special equipment to measure the extent and depth of low oxygen events.

QIN has requested a grant to pay for instruments that would measure dissolved oxygen from inside crab pots. “It’s a great way to get them distributed as part of a fisherman’s normal crab pot routine and they can retrieve them once a month for us so we can download the information,” said Joe Schumacker, marine scientist for QIN.

“Right now, all we know is that dead fish and crab have washed up on our shores in varying degrees in the summer for the past few years” Schumacker said. “We have no idea how far the low oxygen zones extend or how long they last. We see a result and we need to define the problem.” There is also no oral history among Quinault people for consecutive seasons of this sort of die-off.

Dungeness crab is a delicacy served in many fine restaurants and a signature Washington state seafood. Not only has it been important to tribes culturally for millennia, it forms the mainstay of the fishing season for many tribal members on the coast and in Puget Sound.

“Crab has always been a cultural resource for us,” said Ed Johnstone, QIN fisheries and ocean policy representative. “Ever since we have been on these shores, the abundant crab and razor clams sustained us along with the greens of the sea.”

QIN has only one measurement of the oxygen problem from a fish kill in 2006 when a QIN fishermen was pulling his cab pots in a line running north and south. “As he headed north toward Taholah, he was getting live crab in his pots until he crossed the Moclips River. Then it was pot after pot of dead crabs until just past the Quinault River. That’s about eight miles,” said Schumacker. One of the things QIN would like to know is if oxygen-poor water is settling over young crabs who take refuge in nearshore areas. “Maybe we’re losing whole age classes sometimes. We just don’t know,” said Schumacker.

The instruments QIN would use cost $8,500 each including annual maintenance that includes calibration. Six devices would allow QIN to minimally cover the nearshore part of their traditional fishing area. The Nation would also test less expensive dissolved oxygen meters that have traditionally been used in freshwater streams, but would need field testing side-by-side with the more expensive meters to evaluate performance in saltwater and ocean depths.

Low oxygen water naturally upwells from deep in the ocean and gets oxygenated at the surface. “Somehow this mixing isn’t occurring during some summers,” Schumacker said. “These events tend to happen when the winds and the ocean go calm.

“There is a lot of research interest in the low oxygen events along the Pacific Coast, but this affects treaty-protected resources and we need a great deal more information for our area to understand the extent of the problem and how we can adaptively manage around it,” Schumacker said.