Ask a Genealogist: Indigenous Peoples & Native American Research
In honor of Indigenous Peoples’ Day, Legacy Tree Genealogists’ Kate Eakman discusses her interest in this area of research and some of the challenges in tracing Indigenous and native cultures in the United States and around the world.
A: I’m Kate Eakman, Legacy Tree Genealogists’ British research team manager and a former history professor.
I look at genealogy as a branch of history. It’s a very personal history, but it’s still history. I’ve used genealogy to teach before, tracing the history in the United States through the families of my students.
For example, I would find my students’ personal histories, their family backgrounds, and their ancestors’ connections to historical events. We would talk about battles family members fought in, where they lived, where they may have traveled, and their lifestyle during that time. Whether the ancestors actively participated in the historic event or not, most of the time it would have still affected their life in some way.
This approach made learning history a much more personal experience and helped to keep the students engaged because this was their family history. They weren’t learning about some random facts that they were required to study.
I’ve also used the reverse—history applied to augment the genealogy of my clients, bringing their stories alive with historical background and context.
Q: What interested you in genealogy, as well as Indigenous and Native American research?
A: I became interested in Native American research because my family had a story about an ancestor named Braveheart, who was the son of the son of an Iroquois chief. The story turned out not to be true but after I had researched it, it still piqued my interest. I was curious about my family history details and where we came from.
When I went to college, I lived in Oklahoma. It was the location of the so-called “Five Civilized Tribes”—Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, and Seminole—that were forcibly moved by the federal government from the southeastern United States into present-day Oklahoma. That added to my knowledge and interest in Native American research.
Q: What is a common client goal with Indigenous or Native American research?
A: Most of our clients come to us looking for evidence to prove that they have a connection to a specific Native American or indigenous tribe. Many have been looking to gain tribal membership.
We have had some people who have been interested in other tribal connections, too. We have had clients from Canada that wanted to prove either first-nation relationships or if they are Métis. The Métis are indigenous peoples in Canada and the Northern United States. They are unique in being of mixed indigenous and European (primarily French) ancestry.
We’ve also worked with people from South Pacific interested in their indigenous background. That’s a little more challenging for us because family history is often primarily an oral history in these cultures so it can be difficult to research in the traditional sense.
We have worked with people looking for their indigenous connections in Central and South America, as well, especially in Mexico. While there are many different indigenous groups in Central and South America, there isn’t really a way to apply to officially identify with these groups as there are in the United States and Canada.
In the United States, when clients come to us looking for proof of their native ancestry to be able to join a specific tribe, we must prove that someone in their family is a direct descendant of someone on a tribal roll in Oklahoma for the Five Civilized Tribes.
Other indigenous tribes in the United States and Canada have different rolls or registers that may require a certain degree of blood quantum to be able to prove that someone is part of that particular tribe. We will trace their lineage back in time, looking for an ancestor who would be on those rolls.
We can search the rolls and find that evidence, then put that whole package of information together. The client then can submit information to that tribe and apply to become a member.
Q: Is it true that DNA is not used to determine specific tribal membership?
A: None of the tribes in the United States that are recognized by the federal government accept DNA evidence for membership. The reason is that a DNA test and autosomal test may tell you that you have a certain percentage of Native American ancestry, but they can’t tell you what tribe you came from. You may know that you are a quarter or even half Native American ancestry, but it can’t tell you, for example, that it’s the Cherokee tribe or the Iroquois tribe, or the Nez Perce tribe.
It’s also important to note that most Native American DNA test results also do not differentiate descendancy between indigenous groups in Canada, the United States, or Central or South America. If your DNA test results show Native American ancestry and your mother’s family was from Mexico, it’s likely the results are showing your indigenous Central American heritage and not a tribe from the United States. One of our affiliates, SOMOS, is working to address this!
Q: How is research into indigenous history different than other research?
A: Research into indigenous history is different from other research because there are usually fewer records available. That makes it harder to trace family lines back in time.
Any records are written from the perspective of the people who created those records, such as the government or maybe the church. Through much of history, the emphasis was on the culture of the person rather than the individual that the record is about. It can be a little bit distressing.
For example, sometimes you might see that a Native American woman’s name isn’t even mentioned. A child could have been born and baptized, and the father’s name might be mentioned if he was a European. But if the mother was Native American, the record would just say, “Indian woman.” Or you may find that the priest has noted that the child was born of a family member. The family name may have been listed as “Savage” because their priest indicated that they were Native Americans or indigenous.
You may also find that records were not available because people tried to hide their Native American ancestry due to persecution and bias of the time. Because of this, sometimes it’s difficult to trace indigenous families through records because they may have attempted to pass as European.
Q: Would you tell us more about oral history and how it plays into genealogical research?
A: The role of oral history and genealogy is evolving. Before the written record, we used oral history and it was all that we had. It was the only way to trace our genealogy. Some cultures, especially Native Americans and other indigenous people, rely heavily on oral traditions. That’s how they remember and pass on their history from generation to generation.
Throughout western history, information about people was recorded in written records more and more and in about the 1500s became commonplace, so the genealogy profession primarily relies on the evidence of these written records.
But just because it’s written doesn’t make it true. As a genealogist, it’s important to take into consideration the oral history that also comes with our clients and their stories. Sometimes we can use the oral history as a good jumping-off point to track down records and documents and to verify those stories.
My belief is always that in every story, there’s some kernel of truth in it. And my job as a genealogist is to find what that truth is.
Q: What role do DNA and genetics play in indigenous and Native American research?
A: Generally speaking, DNA is not a tool that many Native Americans or indigenous peoples use for tracing their ancestry. Many European Americans, for instance, will use DNA to learn who they are (i.e., “I’m part this and part that and something else.”)
But if you grow up in a culture and understand who you are within that culture, a DNA test isn’t going to help much. If your DNA evidence might say that you come from a variety of backgrounds, but your culture is already in place, it may not be of a lot of interest to find out what that historical background might be.
So, we find that a lot of Native Americans don’t participate in DNA testing simply because the results aren’t as interesting to them as they might be for someone who has a different background.
Q: How can using a professional genealogist help someone who would like to learn more about their family’s indigenous heritage?
A: Genealogists can help anyone who would like to learn more about their family history, including Native Americans and other indigenous cultures. We can help by collecting stories that a family tells. We can write those down to make sure that they aren’t forgotten.
We can also research local governmental records and church records that would add supporting historical background and information to those stories. There is a lot of value in preserving a family’s tradition and stories, whether it’s oral or written.
We had a client who contacted us because her elderly father was originally from Fiji. The family had moved to the United States, but her father still remembered his background and his family stories. He wanted to preserve that information for his daughter and his grandchildren.
The daughter asked us to do some research into his background. That’s when we discovered how much of their history is oral and how little of it had been written down.
It took a lot of time and effort, including contacting local agencies and researchers to assist us in collecting all the information that was available about this family’s past. It was a learning experience for me because that’s when I discovered that within that culture, people’s names change throughout their lives.
The client had DNA tests as well. We found a lot of people who matched the father. He didn’t recognize any of the names, but after more research, we discovered that many were his cousins that he knew under another name.
Q: Have you come across clients who wanted help but didn’t think we could help them, for one reason or another?
A: One case that comes to mind is a Canadian woman who believed that her family was Métis. At some point in her family’s past, a Métis female ancestor married a European man. She became a European through marriage and Canadian law (of that time) stripped her of her claims to be a Métis. The client was under the impression that she no longer had the ability to claim Métis ancestry.
However, within the past generation or so, the Canadian government adjusted its laws and regulations and reversed what had been discriminatory against women regarding claiming Métis ancestry.
It’s gratifying to be able to tell someone that things have changed and that they can make a claim like that for their family’s heritage.
Q: Is there anything that Legacy Tree Genealogists can do that the average person can’t do themselves, regarding family research?
A: As professional genealogists, we have years—and sometimes decades—of experience and knowledge about where to find records, connections with archives and repositories, and we can collect information that is difficult to find.
Our experience analyzing and correlating data, learning what even the smallest changes in the way a form is filled out or organized, allows us to track a family member and continue to trace that ancestry back in time.
We don’t have anything special that we get to use that everyone else can’t use, but what’s special about us is our training, our experience, and our understanding of the work that we do for our clients.
Although researching indigenous or Native American roots can be difficult, the connections you make with relatives and stories you learn about your family make it worthwhile. If exploring these oral or written records on your own seems overwhelming, our expert researchers can help you through the process. Contact us today to let us know how we can help. Our Client Solutions Specialists can provide a free estimate if research is needed.