Posted by Ancestry Team on January 8, 2016 in Website

By Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Lisa Arnold, Senior Content Strategist at Ancestry

Is it possible to become accepted into the Native American tribe of my ancestor? —David C.

Many Americans believe they have at least one Native American ancestor. More than 900 nations, peoples, tribes, and bands (the terms are interchangeable) once lived on the North American continent, and more than 560 are recognized by the federal government today, with an additional 24 being recognized by states. However, an estimated 80 percent of Native American families became disconnected from each other and from their people over the years. So questions about how to become a member of a tribe are common.

The answer usually has to do with a concept called blood quantum (which we’ll discuss later) and your ability to prove your Native American lineage.

Native American nations set their own enrollment criteria in constitutions, articles of incorporation, and ordinances. These can include tribal blood quantum, tribal residency, or continued contact with the tribe. The criteria vary from nation to nation, so uniform membership requirements do not exist. The key is knowing which tribe or band your ancestor most often aligned with.


American Indian and Alaska Native as Percentage of County Population: 2010. (U.S. Census Bureau)
American Indian and Alaska Native as Percentage of County Population: 2010. (U.S. Census Bureau)

Searching for Your Ancestor

A good place to start your research is with the free guide to American Indian research at Ancestry, which is full of hints and strategies.

You need to track your family generation by generation until you get back to the reservation or other location where you believe your Native American ancestor lived. Using U.S. Federal Census records is the easiest way to do this research. (Ancestry has a great article on census search secrets if you want some tips.) The 1910 census included an “Indian census” at the end of each county’s enumeration that lists blood quantum and tribal affiliation. These records can be gold if your ancestor appears.

Ancestry has more than two dozen record collections that may reveal your ancestor’s tribe. There are also terrific collections of photos, marriage records, allotment records (referring to reservation land given to individuals by the government), and an index card file of over 800 articles and folders with information about Indians who were moved to Oklahoma.

The overwhelming majority of written records are from five Native American nations:  Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Muskogee (Creek), and Seminole. The Federal government called these “The Five Civilized Tribes” for various reasons (one of which was the fact that they owned black slaves). Andrew K. Frank provides the following definition on the Oklahoma Historical Society website:

The term ‘Five Civilized Tribes’ came into use during the mid-nineteenth century to refer to the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, and Seminole nations. Although these Indian tribes had various cultural, political, and economic connections before removal in the 1820s and 1830s, the phrase was most widely used in Indian Territory and Oklahoma.

Americans, and sometimes American Indians, called the five Southeastern nations “civilized” because they appeared to be assimilating to Anglo-American norms. The term indicated the adoption of horticulture and other European cultural patterns and institutions, including widespread Christianity, written constitutions, centralized governments, intermarriage with white Americans, market participation, literacy, animal husbandry, patrilineal descent, and even slaveholding. None of these attributes characterized all of the nations or all of the citizens that they encompassed. The term was also used to distinguish these five nations from other so-called “wild” Indians who continued to rely on hunting for survival.

Elements of ‘civilization’ within Southeastern Indian society predated removal. The Cherokee, for example, established a written language in 1821, a national supreme court in 1822, and a written constitution in 1827. The other four nations had similar, if less noted, developments.

Records for these five nations constitute 35-50 percent of all Native American records and 80 percent of all Native American records filmed by the National Archives. This is because in the late 19th century, the U.S. government established the Dawes Commission to oversee land redistribution within the Five Civilized Tribes. To do this, the commission attempted to create an official list of members of each nation, and required families and individuals to fill out applications for acceptance, in essence making them prove that they belonged to that particular tribe.

The Dawes Commission ended up rejecting almost two-thirds of the applications for various reasons, but census cards and application jackets were created for each applicant and are available for research, whether they were accepted or rejected. Ancestry has most of these records, as well as applications made to the Dawes Commission during an earlier attempt to enroll the tribes in 1896. (Here’s an insider’s tip: when you check the Dawes Census Cards, be sure to look at the front and back of each card and read all the notes. This will often lead to other cards you should check.)

The best resource for information about Native Americans other than members of  these five nations is the U.S., Indian Census Rolls, 1885–1940, collection on Ancestry. These censuses include 565 federally-recognized tribes besides the Five Civilized Tribes. The early censuses usually list Indian and English names, gender, age, and relationship. Some have additional birth, marriage, death and relationship notations. Not every group took a census each year. Keep in mind that blood quantum was usually not added until 1930s. Blood quantum is a measurement of tribal affiliation based on ancestry. For example, a child with one Native American parent and one non-Native American parent would be considered to have one-half Native American blood. If you have three non-Native American grandparents and one Native American grandparent, your blood quantum would be .25, or one-quarter. And so on.

Location Is Key

Where your ancestors lived will help you determine with which particular nation they were affiliated.  Tribes were made up of “bands” of families and often formed and reformed under new leadership over the years. It was often common for a Native American man to marry outside of his nation, and associate with his wife’s people going forward. Maps showing where Native American groups lived in the U.S. at specific times can be a huge help to your search.

From The National Atlas of the United States of America (Arch C. Gerlach, editor). Washington, D.C.: U.S. Dept. of the Interior, Geological Survey, 1970
From The National Atlas of the United States of America (Arch C. Gerlach, editor). Washington, D.C.: U.S. Dept. of the Interior, Geological Survey, 1970

Once you complete your research you will need to purchase the birth, death and marriage certificates (certified copies) for each generation back to the oldest Native American ancestor you can locate, to prove your direct ancestral line to them.

Case Study: Becoming a Citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma

For some peculiar reason, most Americans, white or black, who believe that they descend from a Native American ancestor believe that that ancestor was Cherokee, so let’s use Cherokee records for a case study.

Let’s say you wanted to become a member of the Cherokee Nation. How would you go about it? Well, first, Cherokee Nation citizenship requires that you have at least one direct Cherokee ancestor listed on the Dawes Final Rolls. This roll (census, really) was taken between 1899 and 1914 and lists Indians, white citizens, and black Freedmen (former slaves) residing in what was known as “Indian Territory” (now northeastern Oklahoma). If your ancestor did not live in this area during that time period, they will not be listed on the Dawes Rolls. Certain requirements had to be met in order to be placed on the Dawes Roll, such as being listed on previous Cherokee rolls and a proven residency in the Cherokee Nation. Many modern-day applicants do not qualify for citizenship because their ancestors did not meet the enrollment requirements of the Dawes Commission and were not listed on the Dawes Rolls.

If you do find your ancestor listed on the Dawes Final Rolls, your next step is to obtain certified birth, marriage, and death certificates proving your lineage to that person. After you have obtained the necessary documents, contact the Cherokee Registration officer in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, to obtain an application to become a member of the nation.

Unfortunately, unless you can find your ancestor’s name on an official tribal roll, you will probably not be eligible for membership. Remember, too, that some Native Americans in the 1800s did not remain with their nation when they were moved to reservations or assimilated into the larger American society.  Either of these facts can make it much more difficult for you to establish a direct Native American ancestral connection. Of course, this doesn’t mean you don’t have Native American ancestry.  In fact, we encourage you to take a DNA test which will show your percentage of Native American ancestry (but not a specific tribal affiliation or connection), over the last few hundred years.  Establishing the DNA basis of Native American identity is fairly straightforward.  But using archival records to prove specific Native American ancestry—that is, a connection to one particular group or nation—takes some legwork, and sometimes a little luck, but reconnecting with that heritage can be a source of pride for generations to come, even if you aren’t able to join a particular nation.




  1. Robert Kenneth Branson

    Is there a Native American DNA database to connect with? My G.G. Grandmother was said to be Cherokee, would love to verify this info.

    • Member Services Social Support Team

      @Robert AncestryDNA test results may predict if you are at least partly North Native American, which includes some tribes that are indigenous to North America, including the U.S., Canada and Mexico. The results do not provide a specific tribal affiliation, however. More details can be found here.

  2. Karen Galatro Kontrath

    I have more than 25 ancestors on the Dawes Rolls, all rejected. I know a few lived in what was Indian territory and the rest Kentucky. They stated their ancestors Indian names. Wondering where to go from here. Either way the names and birth/death and relationships were a gold mine for me. Many happy screams occurred during this adventure.

  3. Terrice C Kennedy

    My dad’s side, Kennedy, includes his mother, Grace Gillespie, related to those in Bowling Green, KY of the Gillespie Trucking Co. Dad told me we have Cherokee heritage from that area, as well as numerous other family connections throughout southern MO. He had been told, and told me, that due to ongoing prejudice, I should not look into our Cherokee heritage. Well, my dad died in ’06, and I’d like to confirm and pass our tree down to my daughter and granddaughter. Any help?

  4. Patrick

    Mr.Branson you can upoad your ancestryDNA results to GEDmatch. This is a free autosomal DNA comparison website. This helped me breakdown my precentages between North, Central and South American Native DNA results. An example is that I am 48% Native American through AncestryDNA. My GEDmatch breakdown is Mesoamerican (Central America): 23.48%, Arctic-Amerindian (Canadian/Alsakan): 0.79%, South-American Amerind: 7.87% and North-Amerind (North America): 14.18%. These results are the broken down by the Orical “formula” and lists tribes that I connect with such as the Miwok, Serrano, Cochimi ect… These are west coast tribes extending down into Central America through Baja. On facebook there are GEDmatch groups that can help you understand how GEDmatch works. It is important you follow the uploading of your results to GEDmatch very carefully, there can be complications in the upload process. Patrick-

  5. Bonnie

    My DNA did not show any Native American however I believe my great grandmother was Cherokee. I question my results.

  6. Glen

    Can someone please provide evidence Sen. Elizabeth Warren is part Cherokee? It’s been documented by her and now others are disputing the claim, which I find terribly distressing

  7. calyx

    It was funny a quarter of a century ago and is funny now — Every Anglo has a Cherokee princess as an ancestor. After centuries and decades of calling people “half-breeds” or “breeds” you want to rip them off. This entire MYTH of a Native ancestor is to make a claim right in the continents that Europeans stole and slaughtered Human Beings to steal. Since most of the Native population east of the continental divide were wiped out from filthy diseases from the Old World, or by warfare I don’t think there was much procreation with Europeans. Then, after the Civil War, the Union Army was sent West of the continental divide in order to wipe out the rest of the Native Population. You’re more likely to find a West African slave in your direct ancestry. Millions of them were kidnapped and imported to the Americas to be beasts of burden since the Natives were dying like flies from diseases that they had no natural immunity from. The Old World , Africa and Europe, shared that immunity. That’s why the Europeans brought Asians to Hawaii as the Natives there were dying in droves from filthy European diseases. So get over yourself and stop trying to find what isn’t there. You might find a West African slave (and that would be anathema) but you won’t find a Cherokee princess or an Ali’i.

  8. Bryson

    I have taken the AncestryDNA test. It states I am 15% Native American Indian. I am male. I wonder how do I dig a little deeper to find out what tribe of Native American Indian I am? Can you suggest a product? I am 10 years old, and do not have anything on my paternal side because my dad, whom I haven’t any connection with, only knew that he was half Indian with no name to link to.
    Can you help me?

  9. Rachel Blondell (Lewis) Murphy

    Just to share for clarification, only. Native American Indian Nations are like any “nation” of the world and not interchangeable, such as: Cherokee, Iroquois, Lakota, Ute, Shoshone. People(s): we usually refer to ourselves, no matter the tribe or clan, as “the people” and not interchangeable. Tribe is like the town you are from: Meherrin or Susquahanock or Boston or New York City. A Band is a group of tribal members, as we would know today as a group of friends that hang out together and not interchangeable. These are the logistics: Nation, Tribe, Clan, Band. Clan: is the direct lineage from where we are descendant: Just like the Jewish people follow their maternal lineage, so do we. Therefore, if your Mother is of the Deer Clan, so are you. The Clan is the bloodline. There is a Matriarch of the Clan, i.e., Clan Mother. In some tribes, the Council of Chiefs can be both male and female. A Medicine person, could be male or female, depending on the tribe. Note: I deliberately used the terms: can, some, could because not every nation, tribe, clan, band were or are the same. Just like each country, state, county, town is not the same.

  10. serena ruby lomeli

    I want to know all the tribes of my grandma Carolina enriqutia porras ancestry my name is Serena ruby lomeli can you help me? Her lndian ancestors.

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