If you, like me, have Native American ancestry, the prospect of trying to research that ancestry can be daunting, but be of good cheer: your Uncle Sam can be a great help to you.
Some are fortunate enough to be well versed in their Native American ancestry because it was passed down to them orally by older family members who had learned it from their own elders. For far too many of us, however, the oral tradition was lost when the children were forcibly hauled off to Indian boarding schools to “civilize” them by, among other things, brutally punishing any youngster who dared speak any language other than English.
Moreover, those students who didn’t already have a good “white” name were assigned names by the school authorities, making it rather difficult to connect your great-grandmother Emma to her family in the tribal rolls before she reached school age. She is, however, probably there under her Native name or simply as “girl” in her native language. If she is Anishinaabe, look for her as “Kwe-sance” or “I-quai-sans” “Kway-sens” or some variation thereof, which simply means “female child”. More about Indian School records at the end of this post.
Young children can pick up new languages fairly easily, but they also easily forget languages that they cannot use in daily life. Thousands of boarding school children were stripped of their native languages and thereby became unable to learn about their own heritage and their own family history from the elders who did not speak English. Nowadays, most Native American tribes and bands have educational programs to preserve and pass on their linguistic and cultural heritage; for some, it may be too late.
However, for those who want to know the history of our own family as far back as possible, the US government inadvertently created records which can help us do so. In fact, I was rather astonished to learn how much information is available.
Naturally, the government created those records not for our benefit but for its own convenience in keeping track of us, and (bureaucracies being what they are) many of those records have survived. These include Indian School records, tribal censuses and rolls of persons who had a share of tribal annuities (minuscule financial compensation for the lands which had been hornswoggled from us). At the insistence of the Native Americans themselves, mixed-blood relatives were often included in the censuses and the annuity payments.
Investigations were commonly made to determine which persons (particularly mixed-bloods) were entitled to the treaty benefits, and the records of some of those investigations have survived. Some have been published; others are available in various libraries or historical societies. Those can be extremely useful if you want to sort out several persons with the same “white” name to determine which is your ancestor. A search online by tribe (plus treaty year or treaty name should turn up information about such investigations, including discussions in online forums, message boards, and mailing lists.
Annuity rolls are lists of persons in a given tribe or band who received a share of those annual payments. Usually they contain simply the name of the head of the family and the number of adult males, adult females, and children (often by gender) for whom the head collected payment. (A large family in 1868 might collect a whole $8, most of which usually went immediately to to pay off debts at the local trading post.) Family heads were usually listed by their “civilized” names if they had one, but often the annuity rolls contain the Indian name as well.
Indian censuses (unlike Federal or State censuses) were taken annually and are therefore extremely valuable. They generally list each person’s name(s), ages, and gender, although many families did not disclose the actual names of small children but had them listed only as “boy” or “girl”. A personal name has power among Native Americans and is not to be taken lightly. Many Native Americans to this day therefore have “everyday names” (English or translated Native American) as well as one or more “private” names (usually in their own language) which are not shared with outsiders.
The wonderful thing about turn-of-the-20th-century annuity and census rolls is that they often contain both the Indian name and the “white” name, enabling you to make that connection and take the line back into the era when Native Americans had only Native American names in their own languages.
The catch in the annuity rolls and Indian censuses is that Native Americans generally did not have written languages and, until fairly well into the 20th century, a name (like every other word) was spelled in English “like it sounds”. Therefore, it takes effort to figure out that the weird spelling of a Native American name in the previous year’s records is the same name in the next year’s records but with a different spelling from that used by the previous agent. For example, among the Anishinaabe, a female child might be called “female child” in the Anishinaabe language, so that the girl appears as “Kwe-sanse”, “I-quay-zance”, “E-kway-sens” and every possible spelling imaginable from one year to the next, until one year she shows up on the rolls as Mary.
The Indian Census rolls generally include a number for each individual which (in later censuses) may be cross-referenced to the previous year’s census; they may include whether the person is living on the reservation or elsewhere, and and often give either age or year and/or exact date of birth. Some Indian Agents would note births and deaths on their own copy of last year’s census so they could minimize the task of taking this year’s census, and if one of those personal copies is the one that has survived, you may be able to solve a family mystery with it. I did.
The National Archives in Washington, DC, is the main repository for Indian census and annuity rolls and other federal government records up to about 1935-1940, and most are available on microfilm both in Washington, DC and at Regional branches of the National Archives. (The Regional Branches of the National Archives generally have the rolls only for tribes in the area of their region.) More recent records will probably still be in the custody of whichever arm of the Bureau of Indian Affairs has present jurisdiction for the band or tribe to which your ancestor belonged.
Important: To find any government records for a specific tribe or band, you need to search under the "white" version of the name, not what the tribe or band prefers: for example “Chippewa”, not “Ojibwe” or “Ojibway” or “Otchipwe” or even “Anishinaabe”, or “Sioux”, not Dakota, or Navajo or Apache rather than Dine (pronounced “dee-NAY”).
I’d start an online search with Google or another search engine: for example: Sioux + “annuity rolls” or “Indian Census”. That should lead not only to whatever sources exist but where the records are available on microfilm or in transcription besides the National Archives. Search for family or individual names, too. There are probably many people researching members of your ancestor's tribe or even the same family.
Current records are usually in the custody of the band or tribe’s current government. Do NOT, however, try to get information directly from the band or tribe: its officials are much too busy with the essential affairs of their community to be able or willing to spend the time doing research for you or anyone else. (It’s amazing the number of people who want to become enrolled in a Native American tribe which has a casino!) In addition, tribal officials are naturally reluctant to open their current records to outsiders because they contain information about living persons. No one wants to make identity theft easy.
Indian censuses are also available online at Ancestry.com as part of the U.S. Collection, which is not exactly free, although your friendly local Family History Center (LDS/Mormon Church) may have a subscription to Ancestry.com for its patrons to use there. If yours doesn't have a subscription, it should still have microfilm readers, and you can rent many of the National Archives microfilms for use there. If you don't have an accessible local Family History Center, you can still purchase a copy of any National Archives microfilm from the National Archives and take it to any local facility that has microfilm readers, such as a public library, college or university library, a historical or genealogical society, or even a local newspaper.
You should know that the purported contents of a particular set/microfilm of Indian Census records may vary wildly from what’s actually on it. You are likely to get duplications (2 copies of 1894 instead of the promised 1894 and 1895), unlisted additions, and omissions. You may need to examine quite a few sets to get the complete surviving rolls for a particular band or tribe.
Annuity rolls are a little harder to come by, particularly for those tribes/bands who are still receiving annuities under a treaty. Many annuity roles can be found at universities, historical societies, or state archives and, if microfilmed, may be available through Interlibrary Loan. The Dawes rolls for the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Creek, Choctaw, and Seminole tribes have been published in book form; so have rolls for some other tribes.
Surviving Indian school records are available on microfilm or as actual documents in the National Archives in Washington DC or at Regional Branches. Many of these deal only with financial and administrative matters, but some do give helpful information about the students. Some of the school records are lists of students at the various boarding schools, and some of these are available online at Ancestry.com. Also, some boarding school records have more complete student information, and many of these on microfilm and available from the Family History Library through your local Family History Center.
In addition to the above, there are National Archives microfilms of Indian Agency records (much of it correspondence with agents higher up in the food chain). Mission records (Catholic and Protestant) can contain a great deal of useful information (such as the names of an adult convert's parents). You'll be surprised at what you can learn from local histories, travelers' reminiscences, land records, and local civil and criminal court records in the possession of a state, county, or municipality. Historical societies and universities can also be gold mines of information.
For full information on what Native American records the National Archives has, and where they are housed, click here. There are other links on that site you can follow to uncover more details, including how to order microfilms online.