Dawes Roll of CherokeesCherokee.org

For this week’s column, we decided to address a topic that comes up frequently in your questions:

How does one legally establish Native American ancestry?

Legal recognition as a tribal member varies depending on the Native American nation in which you seek enrollment. Native American communities are sovereign nations and, as such, have their own requirements and procedures for becoming an enrolled member or citizen.

The Role of DNA Testing

Many people have family lore that suggests they have Native American ancestry. The first step to confirming or denying these claims is to take an autosomal DNA test, which will tell you definitively whether you have any Native American ancestry. These tests are available through companies such as 23andMe, Family Tree DNA and Ancestry.com.

It is important to note that genetics will not legally establish your Native ancestry, since most Native communities do not accept DNA tests for enrollment in the tribe. Testing can help determine the possibility of a connection so that you’ll know whether legal recognition is worth pursuing. If your DNA results reveal that you do not have Native American ancestry, you can save yourself the time and energy of trying to locate a Native American ancestor who does not exist.

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DNA is a complicated matter in tribal enrollment. Some nations are open to accepting results as additional proof of membership.

In other instances, DNA has been used by some Native nations as a way to disenroll members, such as the case of Cherokee Nation v. Raymond Nash, in which some members of the Cherokee Nation fought to disenroll descendants of black Cherokee Freedmen. (A federal judge ruled in favor of the Freedmen’s Cherokee Nation citizenship rights in August 2017.) Cherokee Freedmen were formerly enslaved by the Cherokee, after which they received Cherokee citizenship following the Civil War. The Cherokee were one of the so-called Civilized Tribes, each of which kept black slaves. The others were the Creek, the Choctaw, the Chickasaw and the Seminole. Each of these tribes and their slaves were victims of the dreaded Trail of Tears in the 1830s.

Some people now argue that since DNA testing reveals low percentages of Native American ancestry in Cherokee Freedmen’s descendants, they should not be enrolled members of the tribe. Why all the fuss? The same reasons that individuals may seek tribal membership, such as access to health services or education, are often the motivation for tribes to establish strict requirements for membership. This is why DNA is a controversial issue and may or may not be accepted by a tribal nation as proof of lineage. For more information about DNA testing and tribal enrollment, visit the Native American & Alaska Native Genetics Resource Center.

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If your DNA results prove that you have Native American ancestors, you can then begin your search for documentation of those connections. A good place to orientate yourself to the process is the U.S. Department of the Interior’s “A Guide to Tracing American Indian & Alaska Native Ancestry” (pdf). This overview explains the general process of documenting Native American lineage and suggests where to look for the documentation you will need. In almost all cases, you will need to provide a well-documented lineage of your direct connection to a known and accepted tribal ancestor for the nation from which you descend.

Documenting Your Connection

The next step would be to determine an association to a specific tribal nation, since each has its own application process and requirements. You will need to contact the tribe directly so that it can inform you of what you will need to prove your connection in order to enroll as a tribal member. The Bureau of Indian Affairs maintains a directory of tribal leaders (pdf) and their contact information, which will give you a place to start communication with the tribe about its enrollment process.

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Requirements vary by nation, but in most cases you will have to provide vital records demonstrating your lineage to an individual who appears on an Indian census in 1900 and 1910 or on the Indian Rolls, such as the Dawes Rolls or Guion Miller Roll. The Dawes Rolls are held by the National Archives, and FamilySearch has a great resource that explains how the records are arranged and how to access them. FamilySearch also has a helpful guide on the Guion Miller Roll.

Blood quantum historically served as a method for the BIA to determine who was considered “Indian.” Blood quantum refers to the percentage of “blood” contributions an individual receives from both parents (half from each parent). When blood quantum is used by the BIA, it is recorded on a Certificate of Degree of Indian or Alaska Native Blood (pdf), or CDIB, card. The calculation of “Indian blood” requires that you prove a connection to an ancestor in an Indian census or tribal roll. Your blood quantum is then calculated based on your ancestor.

A CDIB does not establish membership in a tribe, since that status is determined by the sovereign nation, although some Native nations may require a CDIB as part of an enrollment application. The card is issued only to individuals of federally recognized tribes, and some people, such as the Cherokee Freedmen, are not eligible for the card because their ancestors’ degree of Indian blood usually was not recorded on the Dawes Rolls.

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Some nations, such as the Navajo Nation, do use blood quantum for tribal enrollment. All members of the Navajo Nation must be at least one-quarter Navajo in order to be enrolled members of the tribe. Similarly, the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe in New York and the White Earth Nation (pdf) in Minnesota also require members to have one-quarter blood quantum from their nation. Other nations, such as the Cherokee Nation, require a documented lineage connecting the applicant to a direct ancestor who was listed on the Dawes Rolls. Others, such as the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, require that one of the parents of the applicant be an enrolled member.

Regardless of the tribal nation in which you are seeking enrollment, it is likely a good idea to contact the nation directly early in the process. It will be able to help guide you through the process and let you know exactly what it requires.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published Dec. 5, 2014. Some information has been updated.

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Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and founding director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is also chairman of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

Send your questions about tracing your own roots to TracingYourRoots@theroot.com.

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This answer was provided in consultation with Meaghan E.H. Siekman, Ph.D., a researcher from the New England Historic Genealogical Society. Founded in 1845, NEHGS is the country’s leading nonprofit resource for family history research. Its website, AmericanAncestors.org, contains more than 1 billion searchable records for research in New England, New York and beyond. With the leading experts in the field, NEHGS staff can provide assistance and guidance for questions in most research areas. They can also be hired to conduct research on your family. Learn more today about researching African-American roots.