Ask a Genealogist: When Native American Research Gets Personal
Legacy Tree Genealogists’ Melissa Finlay has more than 30 years of experience in genealogy research and a bachelor’s degree in family history genealogy from Brigham Young University. She also has a professional credential through the International Commission for the Accreditation of Professional Genealogist with a specialty in the U.S. Mid-South region. She has been involved in Native American research in the United States for many years. We asked Melissa about her experiences in Native American research and learned that her interest in American tribes and groups started close to home.
Q: What got you interested in genealogy and specifically Native American research?
A: My grandmother was the person that got me interested in Native American genealogy when she told me about my grandfather, who I never met. He was Native American and died when my dad was 11 years old. His family line was Cherokee.
That was where I started. My first genealogy research was learning about my grandfather’s line and researching his Cherokee ancestry.
Q: Besides Cherokee, what other tribes do you have experience with?
A: Cherokee research is part of what is called the Five Civilized Tribes (that’s just a term that has been used for a long time). I don’t love the term, but it refers to the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole tribes.
And basically, they have a similar relocation history. A lot of the same records were generated for those five groups, and so they are easier to research.
Because I live in Texas, I’ve also worked with clients looking for research into Southwest US and northern Mexico ancestry. In most cases, these clients have DNA results that state they have some indigenous ancestry related to that area.
I’ve learned a lot about the indigenous populations in this area. And, thanks to the wide variety of client queries we receive, I have learned to research other Native American tribes as well.
Q: Can you talk about some of the brick walls you’ve encountered with Native American research, and how you overcame them?
A: Native American research is interesting because a lot of it is based on oral history and government records that were kept more recently. You can also utilize DNA to some extent. Many brick walls occur when one or more of those resources are not available.
I worked on a case where there were a lot of modern records, as well as early historic records, for this family because of their involvement in the early treaties. But we had a hard time proving the middle generations for this family, so we had to dig into the oral history of the tribe.
We contacted a local historical society in an effort to prove the generations in between. That was how we overcame that brick wall, using oral history to bridge the gap between the government records that were on either side.
Q: How can DNA help with brick walls?
A: DNA can be useful, but it does have limits.
I had a client who came to us from South Texas. The results revealed that 25% of the DNA is from Indigenous Americas of Mexico around Northeastern Chihuahua. It’s a little tricky in that part of the world because the indigenous population and the early European settlers were mixing in the population in early time periods, and tribal affiliations lessened.
Sometimes you can find clues in early parish registers. You can see race indicated in the registers, but it will say, Indio or mestizo, which means “of a native population,” or mixed blood. Sometimes that’s all you can find.
We looked at the records and found what we could, but when a native person in that area of the world converted to Catholicism, they were usually recorded in those parish registers with a Christian name. When that happened, they may no longer be recorded by their native name anymore.
In the case of my own Cherokee history, DNA didn’t help at all. Although my direct line lived in the Cherokee Nation up until the 1930s, there was intermarrying with European heritage. Our Native American DNA is quite diluted, and it no longer shows in my DNA test. The proof of my Native American heritage depends on the paper trail.
Q: This brings to mind our previous interview with Kate Eakman for Indigenous People’s month when we learned about blood quantum. When and where did this concept originate?
A: Historically, most indigenous people – tribes, bands, and groups – mingled and intermarried as they encountered other groups. This would have been through trade, travel, war, exploration, and intermarriage.
Newly incorporated members of their group would simply become part of their tribe and community, and they would adopt the culture. And so, their biological identity was less important than their community and their cultural identity. And of course, I’m speaking generally because there are hundreds of different tribes and groups across America.
So, the concept of blood quantum was introduced later by the federal government, which comes from English law concepts from Europe. It was introduced because the federal government wanted to move the indigenous peoples onto reservations to give them allotments, and it was a way to limit official tribal enrollment for government benefits during that time.
It’s a concept and restriction imposed by the government upon indigenous groups, which makes it a controversial topic.
Q: So how is blood quantum used now?
A: Each tribe has had to decide where they stand on the issue in modern times. In some ways, it limits tribal members from being able to mingle and intermarry because their children might fall outside the blood quantum levels that they set for themselves.
But in other ways, it preserves the sanctity of membership and the benefits for those that belong to the tribe. It’s kind of a double-edged sword concept. Some groups like the Navajo Nation, the eastern band of Cherokee and some Chippewa bands, still use the blood quantum limits for citizenship.
But other groups, such as the Cherokee Nation that’s centered in Oklahoma, do not have a blood quantum requirement for citizenship. You just have to be able to show that you descend from the ancestors that were listed on those original membership rolls.
Q: What goals do clients have in Native American research?
A: A lot of clients who ask about their Native American heritage want to verify family stories that they’ve heard that happened in their family history. Sometimes they want to confirm the family resemblance of a particular tribal affiliation, or they just want to be able to connect with a culture that they feel might be part of their family heritage.
Q: Tell us about what your Native American research means to you personally?
A: About four years ago, we took our children on a road trip, focusing on family history as much as we could. We stopped at the Cherokee Heritage Center in Oklahoma, and our children loved exploring their Cherokee heritage there.
In fact, they talked about it the entire trip, about the amazing things they learned. They loved the culture. They soaked it all in.
Q: So, Melissa, when is the research complete? Do you ever say to yourself that you’ve discovered everything you can discover?
A: Well, more recently, my daughter had her DNA tested. She’s a young adult and her results came back with more Native American DNA percentage than my tests.
I thought, “Wait, what’s going on here? This is unusual.” We started to dig in and try and solve that mystery and figured out that her additional Native American DNA percentage came from an unknown parentage line on my husband’s side of the tree.
We were able to figure that out that she also had Native American heritage other than Cherokee. The group named in the DNA result was the Indigenous American Great Lakes and Canada group, so that pointed us to where her native heritage was from. This eventually led us to the Chippewa group, which opened a new foray into our Native American ancestry. Now I’m looking into the Chippewa tribe, where I will gain research experience with that tribe.
For most of our researchers, genealogy is in their blood. Their interest in discovering family history started with a personal family mystery they wanted to solve. If you have a mystery that you can’t solve, share it with us and we can help you discover your legacy. Contact us for a free estimate on research.