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Native American Research

Many families have stories of Native American ancestry. According to the United States Census of 2000, an estimated 1.5% of the population in the United States has Native American ancestry. The census of Canada in 2006 estimated that 5.4% of that population descended from Native American tribes. Today, there are over 500 officially recognized tribes in North America. Many of these tribes did not keep any written records until the early 20th century. Compounding the lack of records, those Native Americans who left tribal lands in the 19th and 20th centuries worked hard to become assimilated into the white manís society and many stated (in census and other records) that they were white, in order to avoid prejudice.

Researching your Native American ancestry can be very challenging, but also very rewarding. Some of the reasons for discovering a Native American connection may be to join a tribe, to qualify for minority business and educational opportunities, or simply to know more about where you come from. The principles of sound research methodology are the same in this type of research as any other area Ė begin with what you know, and work backwards in time. Because of the importance of oral tradition among Native American tribes, it is even more essential to interview and document the life stories of any and all relatives. Defining the specific geographic area where your ancestors lived is crucial to identifying a possible tribal affiliation and increasing the chances of finding records to confirm a Native American heritage.

Removal of the Native Americans to reservations began in the 1830s, which generated several sets of governmental records that are available for research. Members of the Five Civilized Tribes (including Cherokee, Choctaw, Creek, Chickasaw and Seminole) have the most available records prior to 1900. Members of the Western and Plain States tribes are generally harder to research, as their records were created mostly after 1900.

Various tribes had different naming customs, but most used two types of names: personal names and honorary names, either of which may have been considered sacred. One or both of these names could be given at birth, and then changed at important points in the personís life. Often, a third English name was added. Surnames were not used until the government began requiring them for their records, and even then, their use was sporadic and inconsistent.

A certified pedigree will help you understand your heritage, and you will be able to study the events associated with your tribe and learn greater details about what their life was like. You may also qualify to receive many business and educational opportunities. It may or may not guarantee you membership in the actual tribe, however. Each tribe has a different set of requirements for membership. Once you have your pedigree and know your tribe, you should contact that tribe to see what other requirements they may have.

Although Native American research is made more difficult by the factors discussed here, additional records are constantly becoming available. If your family tradition includes a Native American ancestor, we can help you document that connection and introduce you to your heritage.

Mindi Stevens, Professional Genealogist
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