Posted by Brittany Begay on November 15, 2016 in Guest Bloggers
Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

There are secrets to success when it comes to tracing Native American ancestry. While many useful resources are now available online, in order to correctly identify your Native American ancestors, you’ll need to combine what you can find online with other direct sources of information:

U.S., Indian Census Rolls, 1885-1940, Ancestry.
  1. U.S., Indian Census Rolls, 1885-1940: Use these to identify which tribe your native ancestor belonged to. Follow each family member recorded, as this will often lead to clues for researching your ancestor. (They may be listed with two names, one in their native language and one in English.)
  2. Oklahoma Historical Society: Become a member for free, and get regular email updates. This is a way to stay informed about document collections the society has.
  3. Indian Boarding Schools: These were first established in 1885. Their lists of students will usually give the tribe and location of birth. There are also corresponding files for each student. For example, when Oklahoma Natives were sent to Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, during the summer months they were sent to live on farms, usually in Pennsylvania or New Jersey. These files still exist, and detailed information can be found about your ancestor at the Carlisle Indian School Digital Resource Center.
  4. Catholic Indian Missions: These were established early, especially among the tribes in Canada. Every mainstream denomination had Indian Missions located in Indian Territory. These separate missions also kept records. Google the website specific to your tribe and you will find a historical section that will typically list the historical missions that were established on the appropriate reservation.
  5. Maps: Always check detailed maps to find out where the tribe lived during your ancestor’s lifetime. After 1830, when Congress passed the Indian Removal Act, tribes were forcibly moved to different locations. Trace their patterns as you look for your ancestor, keeping in mind that they came in contact with white settlers along the way, and may have inter-married with them. (Some tribes, like the Navajo, did not keep records of names of their members who went on the “Long Walk,” which was akin to the Cherokee Trail of Tears and the Potawatomi Trail of Death.)
  6. There are 566 federally recognized Indian tribes: Be open minded when attempting to determine a tribe for your ancestor. They may have mixed with other tribes or been kidnapped, traded, or even adopted by another tribe. Tribes were broken down into smaller groups, called bands (usually followers of one leader), and then even smaller clans (family groups).

Get more expert insights from Ancestry’s ProGenealogists team here.


Brittany Begay

Brittany Begay specializes in Native American research at Ancestry ProGenealogists. She is a member of the Osage Tribe and married to a member of the Navajo Tribe. She is currently preparing a portfolio for consideration by the Board for Certification of Genealogists (BCG).


  1. Kaci

    What about trying to determine Native American ancestry at an earlier point in history? The 1820/30s? Are there any documents that might help one determine if an ancestor was Native American?

  2. Louise M. Lewis

    I was told I had 2 different Indian tribes, as my ancestors. Micmacs & Algonquin. How can I prove this?

  3. caith

    SInce paper trails sometimes lie (as in NPEs, non-paternal events) and DNA never lies, you might consider getting dna tested here at Ancestry.

    You can then upload your raw data to GEDmatch which is free. They have a multiple of BGA (Biogeographic Analsis) tools and you can ferret out NA and other ethnicities. This is primarily deep ancestry but could be helpful. Google GEDmatch.

    At this time tribal affiliations cannot be detected.

  4. Steve Shadoin

    The one add that bothers me is where the woman says “the most shocking thing is, is that I am 26% American Indian.” I think it would sound a lot better if it were surprising but not shocking.

  5. Carlisle was large, but only one of hundreds of Indian Schools. When writing a biography of a Navajo who attended Santa Fe Indian School, for instance, I found that the National Archives in Denver had his complete school file and they copied it and sent it to me.
    The other thing I learned through this file was his census number, a very important identifier when you have more than one person with the same name because it followed them through their life.
    Finally, be aware that in most cases if a child went to a boarding school, they were assigned a “white sounding” name which may or may not relate to the name that the rest of the family put down on the census form.

  6. Nancy

    Louise, Algonquin is a language. The Micmac speak Algonquin. Perhaps they are one and the same? Try to learn as much as you can through books and tribal historians about the Micmac. Maybe start with ?

    My grandfather said, “We have an Indian grandma.” I thought she would be from a tribe in our state, but it turned out her grandfather (father’s father) was 100% Native American from Rhode Island. First clue, the records stopped with him. Could not find his parents. Secondly, a 4th cousin I never knew posted her photo on Ancestry. I could see instantly that she was part Indian. Her mother was part Indian too, not just her father.

  7. Betty Cumbie Horn

    My granddaughter had her DNA done in Scotland. They told her it would be filed with Scotland Yard if she wanted to. They not only found she was NA both Paternal an Maternal, but what % from what tribe. I know I have NA blood, just don’t know what tribes, clan, etc. Why can’t you do the same as Scotland?

  8. Sherri West

    I’ve read that the children who were sent to boarding schools were given numerical tattoos. Could you track the school, through that specific number, if the name of the school isn’t known?

  9. Steven Palmer

    My Grandmother told one our
    Ancestor came over and married a princess in the Pequot tribe in Stoneington

  10. Anna m Garcia

    I did a DNA on Ancestry it told me I am Native American I would like to know what Tribe ? Ancestry from Mexico

  11. Rod

    I do not trust your DNA test . You tell me it could take 6 to 8 weeks even longer do to high demand. Why did it take only ten days for my results. the one person you tell me could be close kin is my brother. I have ADD and P.T.S.D. some times I do foolish things , like giving away one hundred dollars that I do not have for something that is not in my best interest . My fault . I AM PRETTY SURE THIS WILL NOT BE POSTED. God Bless you anyway

  12. Barbara Pruett

    Maybe I don’t understand how this all works, but I thought I would get my DNA results then be able to get further information and not have to pay for each report?? Your advertising seems to suggest otherwise.

    • Jessica Murray

      Barbara, We do not charge for additional reports. Our AncestryDNA results are delivered via email and you have access to your full ethnicity results, no separate reports are required. Is it possible you took a DNA test through a different DNA testing provider?

  13. Shaun SNOWWOLF

    I have been TOLD my grandfather on dads side and his parents etc were Navajo.
    I dont have any documents to prove it as yet. None of dads family are alive except me.

    I must be special lol

    What DNA test would have most chances to pick up the Navajo lineage.


    Shaun SNOWWOLF

  14. Diana Ouilette

    I’m a registered Pitt River native .my questions is my grandma Ona Billings / Parmentier lived and died in Carson City Nevada ..Your program has no record of her. She and my grandpa biff .live and was buried there.I’m looking for her will or probate .

  15. Viola

    I just recently received my DNA results and was surprised to find out my ancestors were all over the place. I knew I had some Native American in me because my maternal grandfather was of dark complexion and his facial features pointed in that direction. Since my family has lived in Texas for a very long time, what tribes were the most prevalent in that state?

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