How to get started tracing your Native American heritage?

Posted By Paul G February 28th, 2017 Last Updated on: March 2nd, 2022

Where do I come from?

So many of us seek the answer to that question. We turn to ancestry and genealogy websites to try and trace our own history, or perform a Google search of surnames to attempt to find out more about our heritage. It can be tough to find any concrete information, particularly for those of us with Indian ancestry.

Related Info – What tribe am I from?

Before you dig yourself deep into a family history rabbit hole that’s going nowhere, take a step back. There are a few simple things you can do to start tracing your heritage today that will make it a lot easier to continue down the path to finding out where you come from. Here are some of the top tips to help you get started.

Gather your oral history

Your oral history includes anything your family members can remember about relatives both living and deceased and tell you about from memory. Living relatives are some of our best resources for finding out more about our family members past and present. Ask about names and birthdays of family members, but don’t stop there; gather stories and facts about them. The information may seem extraneous, but the more you know, the easier it will be to start tracing your heritage.  Take the time to talk to your relatives and record them!  These resources will not be around forever.

Sort through documents and photos

Once you’ve talked to all your living relatives, start sifting through family photos, documents, yearbooks, etc. Ask around for any relics or paperwork your family members have that might prove useful in your search. Search diligently through every place where documents or old photos might be found—that means the basements, attics and drawers of your own home, and the homes of your family members as well. Make photo copies of any documents that could prove to be important in your search in the future.

Check public records 

Churches, school, and county courthouses are all good resources to check for information about your family and ancestral history in the area. Don’t limit your search to the obvious records, such as birth and death certificates and marriage licenses. There are many other documents that could tell you important information about your family’s history. These could include civil records such as wills, property or land conveyances, deeds, or other such records.

If you need to request copies of certain certificates, write to the Bureau of Vital Statistics. Be sure to include the names, dates, and places of birth and your relationship to each individual family member on whom you are collecting information. Of course, it’s important to remember that these records only go back so far; for ancestors born before the turn of the century, you will more than likely not be able to find records of birth and death.

After you have exhausted the resources available at the state and local level, you may also consider checking documents and historical records on the federal level. The National Archives in Washington, D.C. contain federal census information for every decade from 1790 to 1920 available on microfilm, which can be a very good resource if you’re trying to identify your ancestors. The National Archives also has a specific Native American collection, including records related to schools, allotments, and special censuses.

Go to your local library

While we rely on them for books and a good source for free Wi-Fi, we often forget that libraries are also quite good resources for finding information about a local area. There is a lot to learn about Indian tribes’ histories, historical territories, migration patterns, and cultures. You will also be able to find books and other resources about genealogical tracing techniques, as well as standard techniques for general research. Talk to your librarian to find out how you can best take advantage of what the library has to offer.

Check other repositories

There are many historical societies and genealogical organizations on the state and local level that would be worth checking out. Other private institutions keep historical records as well. For example, the Family History Society of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints has branch offices called Family History Centers, which offer a large collection of Indian genealogical documents.

Start your family tree and work your way back in time

 Keep in mind that it’s easier to get farther back in your family history if you know as much as possible about your living or recently deceased relatives. Fill in gaps as recent as you can before searching for historical information on long-deceased ancestors, as it will be much easier to identify them with more family history information on your side.

And, of course, there are plenty of online resources at your disposal. You can start building out your family tree. Ancestry.com also offers this guide on researching your Indian heritage.

Ready To Start?

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Photo courtesy of the National Archives.


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Every time i get close the government shut me down why is this i am cherokee. Why is the government keep stoping me

Howard Hayes

My grandmother was Cherokee from Tennessee . Can find them on flag pond Tennessee web site. But not everybody dna will show indian. It skips a generation somewhere

Federico tellez garcia

Never knew I was Native American until I did DNA test , was born and raised in Mexico. No in my family knows anything about be native. Found my grandparents marriage license and my grandfather was Indian and grandmother was part Indian. That is all I have been able to find. Need help in going on with search. Both of my parents have passed on. I now call North Carolina home.

Frank Hayes

Your information here is wonderful! My mother and her family were born in northern Mexico. She and the rest are long gone.
While they were alive they refused to talk about it. One aunt would say ‘we ain’t no stinking Indians’ . Yeah, well you look like one.
I do have a travel document of my mother’s from the 1930s that states ‘half breed’ in her info.
I have had a dna test but in the results there was no mention of North American Indian.
Time to dig in once more! Thank you for the inspiration!

Chrystal Grimes

I am still having the hardest time researching my ancestors. My mother was raised with her grandmother in North Carolina. She NEVER talked about her. I finally saw a pic of her at my grandmother’s house, she was in full Native garb. My grandmother then told me, that her mother (my great-grandmother) was Cherokee. I was about 23yrs old and my mom was deceased. My grandmother died shortly after. I found ONE relative on the Trail of Tears census but can’t find our name ANYWHERE else. This is so hard

Susan Lannon

My mother showed me a sketch of her father when I was fifteen. On a white piece of paper and the sketch of an Indian on it with a full head-piece! I said to my mother ( “Mom he is an Indian!) That was 46 years ago but I think about it often.

debra fetzer

I was told I have Cherokee in me my mom was full-blooded but I don’t know how I can provide I have some in me

Martha Allen

I have my DNA kit and I am ready to take it and send it off. I know my great great grandmother was given the white name American Ann Sheroan. I also know she was from the Cumberland Falls area of Kentucky.

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