Every week we run across genealogists who are interested in establishing links to their Native American ancestors.
For some of these folks, confirming a link to a specific tribe is a way of validating family stories they’ve heard since childhood. For others, proving direct ties to a specific tribe is the first step in the long process of becoming formally recognized as members of that tribe.
Unfortunately, getting registered on tribal rolls is a complicated, and widely misunderstood, process that could be more than the casual genealogist might want to take on.
If you’re thinking about taking on this complicated task, here are a few points you’ll want to consider.
Federally Recognized Indian Tribes vs. Tribal Rolls
Currently, there are approximately 562 Indian tribes that are recognized by the Federal Government. Native American descendants who can prove their blood ties to members of these tribes who appear on Indian census or tribal rolls can qualify for a Certificate of Degree of Indian or Alaska Native Blood (CDIB).
It’s important to note that receiving a CDIB is not the same as being registered on tribal rolls. Every tribe has its own set of regulations governing who qualifies as a full member and most of them are pretty strict. (This is done both to protect the integrity of the tribe, as well as to ration out scarce tribal resources.)
Researchers should also be aware of the fact that not every tribe or band in the United States is Federally recognized. In some cases, it’s possible to qualify for membership in a tribe, but not for a CDIB.
Do it for the Experience
Genealogists who dig into their Native American ancestry will probably have a more enjoyable experience if they ask themselves what they’re hoping to accomplish.
Anyone who thinks that getting registered on tribal rolls is a shortcut to a free college education or a monthly cut of tribal casino revenues is most likely barking up the wrong tree.
Most tribes aren’t interested in taking on members who are looking for a free ride and only a very limited number of them actually take in significant casino cash anyway.
There’s also a fair bit of confusion about what tribal membership means for college bound students. According to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, “An individual does not automatically receive funding because of Indian ancestry.”
While financial aid is available for students of Native American descent, most of it is need based and none of it is guaranteed.
Researchers who are dead set on making it on to official tribal rolls should steel themselves for some heavy-duty research. While it definitely won’t be easy, organizations like the Native American Law Library have put together some really useful resources to help guide you through the process.
If all you really want is to confirm your connection to one tribe or another for your own edification, that shouldn’t be too tough a project.
Online resources such as Ancestry.com (available at any DPL branch) and FamilySearch.org provide access to Indian census records, and other tools that can help you trace your family origins back to your Native American ancestors.
Not only is this route a lot easier than getting on a tribal roll, it’s a whole lot more fun.
The question of who decides whether a person is “Indian enough” to qualify for formal tribal membership is both complicated and controversial.
At the same time, this is America where generations of ethnic intermingling allow us the luxury of self-identification. After all, you don’t have to look too far to find people of mixed European descent who self-identify with the group they feel closest to at that moment. (Just visit LoDo on St. Patrick’s Day to see this dynamic in action.)
So our advice to genealogists as they dig into their Native American heritage is to savor the experience of learning about their personal histories without getting involved with a lot of bureaucratic red tape.
(For more in-depth look at how Indian tribes determine membership and how technology impacts those decisions, check out Native American DNA: Tribal Belonging and the False Promise of Genetic Science by Kim Tallbear (University of Minneapolis Press, 2013).