Establishing Your American Indian Ancestry
Some people want to become enrolled members of a federally recognized tribe. Others want to verify a family tradition (belief, fact or fiction, passed from generation to generation) that they descended from an American Indian, either in their distant or near past. While others might want just to learn more about from whom and where they came.
When establishing descent from an Indian tribe for membership and enrollment purposes, the individual must provide genealogical documentation. The documentation must prove that the individual lineally descends from an ancestor who was a member of the federally recognized tribe from which the individual claims descent.
When people believe they may be of American Indian ancestry, they immediately write or telephone the nearest Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) office for information.
Many people think that the BIA retrieves genealogical information from a massive national Indian registry or comprehensive computer database. This is not true. Most BIA offices, particularly the central (headquarters, Washington, DC) and area (field) offices do not keep individual Indian records and the BIA does not maintain a national registry. The BIA does not conduct genealogical research for the public.
What to Expect with Tribal Membership
The Price of Sovereignty
Once upon a time, every single person on the continent belonged to one of the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Native American tribes that were located across the land. This changed dramatically, and rapidly, once the Pilgrims arrived from England by way of Holland.
Now the country is populated by people who can trace their family lineage to every point of the globe every country in every continent. Except, of course, for the continent of Antarctica, which has no known history of ever being inhabited as a permanent settlement by humans. Depending upon your point of view, this diversity of population is either good, bad, or you’re indifferent to it. If, however, you descend from one of the original Native American tribes, the issue can be one that stirs the heart and riles the senses like almost no other topic can.
The US government acknowledges the existence of 561 Native American tribes, which operate under their own forms of government. These tribal governments are recognized as self-determining sovereignties operating according to their own government sanctions and each tribe is solely responsible for establishing membership requirements for inclusion into its ranks.
As sovereignties, Native American tribes are allowed to enforce both civil and criminal laws among their members. They also tax, license, and regulate all activities and commerce that is conducted within their jurisdictional boundaries.
The governments established by these 561 Native American tribes is granted with enforcement of many of the same powers the federal government grants to individual states. These Native American tribes also function under many of the same limitations the government places on states, too.
Individual states and Native American tribes are restricted in their operations by three major limitations placed upon them by the US government. Neither entity can wage war, coin their own money or establish a money system, and they cannot engage in independent relationships with foreign nations.
In spite of these privileges of sovereignty granted to Native American tribes, it is up to the individual person to seek and prove membership to these tribes. Formal acceptance for inclusion is granted by each tribe based upon its own legally recognized criteria, most often based upon documented birthright.