Overview of Native American Research

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Native American Research

This article is part of a series.

Overview of Native American Research
Finding Native American Tribe-specific Information
Finding Individual Native American Information
Records Relating to Native American Research in Oklahoma
The Commission to the Five Tribes
Indian Census Rolls, 1885-1940
Muskogee Area Office
Anadarko Area Office
Florida Superintendency
Select List of Native American Tribes
List of Useful Native American Research Resources

This article originally appeared in "Native American Research" by Curt B. Witcher, MLS, FUGA, FIGS, and George J. Nixon in The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy


Native American genealogical research is among the most challenging and rewarding of historical research endeavors. Interest in the life patterns, religions, migration, and settlement patterns'indeed, in the entire culture of these earliest inhabitants of the North American continent'remains high. There are numerous fundamental differences between the Native American and the European American cultures, and it is these differences that present the greatest challenge to the genealogist.

In beginning Native American genealogical research, it is important to employ a fundamentally sound research methodology'the same methodology that would be used in compiling any family history. Initially, family sources should be consulted for information about previous generations. These sources include all living relatives, family papers and scrapbooks, daybooks, photograph albums, and diaries. Considering the very strong oral tradition among Native American peoples, special attention should be given to conducting thorough interviews of all relatives.

Sound research methodology mandates that one research from the present into the past, from more recent times to more distant times, building a solid case based on primary and excellent secondary sources. The temptation to begin with the records of a particular tribe and prove the family line forward to a more contemporary ancestor should be avoided. Not only is proving a line from past to present difficult, it does not afford one the opportunity to investigate the widest range of records. Further, it tempts one to make assumptions that are clearly not based on facts and reasonable conclusions drawn from the facts.

Maintaining extensive and accurate records is essential for any genealogical endeavor, but especially so for Native American research. All places, dates, and other data associated with a potential ancestor should be recorded with appropriate documentation, even if their relevance is unknown or unclear at the time. No piece of data about a potential ancestor is inconsequential.

Adhering to a defined series of research strategies is the most productive way to engage in Native American genealogical research. The researcher must be willing to employ research strategies in a sequence that gathers useful general material first, tribe-specific data second, and, finally, individual (person-specific) data and records. A successful research strategy could be outlined in a manner similar to the following:

  1. Thoroughly investigate the areas where ancestral research is being considered for the identities, histories, and cultural attributes of the native peoples.
  2. Employ a carefully constructed and consistently applied methodology for locating the greatest number of research documents and data on the tribe of the potential ancestor.
  3. Work through all of the materials relating to a particular tribe or nation to obtain the fullest understanding of its peoples and the most complete individual-specific group of records.

This series details a number of sources that the Native American genealogical researcher may want to investigate in the process of establishing and documenting a family history.

General Histories and Records

More so than in any other area of genealogical research, knowledge of general history is a crucial factor for the researcher of Native American family history. A good working knowledge of general history will ground one's research in the proper time period, identify a more defined geographic area in which to conduct research, maximize all potential record possibilities, greatly assist in establishing tribal affiliations, and lead to a fuller understanding of the Native American culture. Because Native American naming patterns, kinship terms, and intertribal relations typically were quite different from those experienced by European Americans, it is essential to place one's Native American research in a historical context. Only in the proper historical context, devoid of assumptions and stereotypes, can truly effective Native American genealogical research be conducted.

There are many bibliographies of Native American historical works that should be consulted by the researcher endeavoring to gather general and tribe-specific histories. These bibliographies are useful because they are numerous and rather widely available, and because they greatly assist the researcher in striving to gather a comprehensive collection of documents. Annotated bibliographies compiled by academic institutions and experts in the fields of Native American history, archaeology, culture, etc., often provide a more complete list of sources and easier methods of accessing the specific information. An example of such a work is one by Katherine M. Weist and Susan R. Sharrock, An Annotated Bibliography of North Plains Ethnohistory.<ref>Katherine M. Weist and Susan R. Sharrock, An Annotated Bibliography of North Plains Ethnohistory (Missoula: University of Montana, 1985).</ref> Besides the descriptive annotations provided in this work, many title entries contain a section entitled 'other subjects' in which tribes covered by the particular work are listed, as well as major topics and subjects the author(s) encountered.

Worthwhile bibliographies are near timeless in their research value and should be considered vital aids to anyone conducting consequential Native American genealogical research. In finding and using these publications, more attention should be given to evaluating the authority and expertise of the compiler(s) as well as the comprehensiveness of the listings at the time of publication and much less attention given to the actual date of publication. College and university libraries as well as state libraries and large public libraries typically have many of these research bibliographies, with a surprising number available through interlibrary loan. Researching Native American family history in any state must include investigating the existence of substantial bibliographies in the respective state library.

Establishing tribal affiliation should be a primary objective in the initial stages of Native American research. Determining the tribe of a potential ancestor is essential to continued research because the vast majority of records are grouped, published, and accessed by tribe, clan, or nation. There are several approaches the researcher may need to take in determining tribal affiliation. First, critically evaluate oral traditions and stories preserved and communicated through generations of family members. It is important to remember that recollections of actual events, people, and places tend to fade over time and may be changed or embellished to make individuals appear more favorable than they actually were or to hide less-than-honorable deeds.

Another approach is to engage in a survey of the general histories of a large geographic region or the continent, as well as general histories of the native peoples. Both dated and more recently published histories are useful. These general histories typically provide significant data on village locations and settlement patterns, hunting and gathering areas, and migration patterns. They assist the researcher in beginning to determine the tribe of a potential ancestor. The value of a thorough survey of published histories as well as historical manuscripts such as travel diaries, missionary daybooks, and other ancient writing should not be underestimated.

A remarkable compilation in the realm of general histories that details Native American life at the beginning of the twentieth century in words and photographs is Edward S. Curtis's The North American Indian, Being a Series of Volumes Picturing and Describing the Indians of the United States and Alaska.<ref>Edward S. Curtis, The North American Indian, Being a Series of Volumes Picturing and Describing the Indians of the United States and Alaska (Cambridge, Mass.: University Press, 1907-30). This work is online at http:mwmory.loc.gov/ammem/award98/ienhtml/curthome.html. The electronic publication includes all of the published photogravure images, including more than 1500 illustrations and 700 portfolio plates.</ref> The twenty volumes of descriptive text and photographic plates are complemented by twenty folios of additional photographic images. While some controversy has always surrounded this work, including accusations that Curtis staged many of the photographs, the compilation is still quite significant in both the quantity and detail of information provided. These forty volumes have been reprinted and are available in microform formats. The Library of Congress has also made more than two thousand of these photographic images available on its American Memory website.

Some of the classic works of Americana pertaining to early travel and the native peoples provide valuable background data that is essential to exploring all of the record possibilities for Native American research. Henry R. Schoolcraft's Historical and Statistical Information Respecting the History, Conditions and Prospects of the Indian Tribes of the United States: Collected and Prepared under the Direction of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, per Act of Congress of March 3, 1847, published in six parts, is an excellent general history covering a variety of topics for numerous tribes including national and tribal histories, antiquities, geography, government, languages, biography, and art.<ref>Henry R. Schoolcraft, Historical and Statistical Information Respecting the History, Conditions and Prospects of the Indian Tribes of the United States: Collected and Prepared under the Direction of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, per Act of Congress of March 3, 1847 (Philadelphia: Lippencott, Grambo and Co., 1851).</ref> This work has been reprinted several times and is available at many university and large public libraries.

A host of general histories published more recently provide the genealogical researcher with good background data. Eleanor Burke Leacock's and Nancy Oestreich Lurie's North American Indians in Historical Perspective is such a work. Its nearly five hundred heavily noted pages detail the history of the major native tribes and clans of North America.<ref>Eleanor Burke Leacock and Nancy Oestreich Lurie, North American Indians in Historical Perspective (Prospect Heights, Ill.: Waveland Press, 1971, 1988).</ref> Placing the historical past of particular Native American groups into a more general historical context provides a research context more suitable for capitalizing on the record possibilities. General footnote sections, biographical notes, and references all provide the researcher with access to primary and documented secondary source materials. The origins of tribes are traced, with these historical recountings giving the researcher information on the groups of individuals, often called intruders, who interacted with particular tribes. Most general histories can be located in library catalogs under terms such as 'Native Americans,' 'North American Indians,' and 'Indians of North America.' Look for increased use of the most recent term of 'First Nations.'

A third approach to establishing tribal affiliation is to engage in a thorough study of maps and atlases that place indigenous peoples in particular geographic areas. These works are often valuable for determining not only the specific tribe of a potential ancestor but also migration and commerce routes, names and sites of villages, and locations of intertribal confrontations. Atlas of Great Lakes Indian History, edited by Helen Hornbeck Tanner, is a remarkable example of such a historical atlas.<ref>Helen Hornbeck Tanner, ed., Atlas of Great Lakes Indian History (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1987).</ref> Timelines assist in setting Native American events in context of the encroaching European settlement; narratives complement the detail provided by the numerous maps; and a selected bibliography provides the researcher with hundreds of additional sources of information. That this work is now available as an electronic book testifies to both the significance of this work and the timelessness of its research.

Finally, assistance in determining tribal affiliation can be provided by published local and community histories. Nearly every community has some accounting of its early days, and the compiled histories of cities and towns often contain pages about the earliest inhabitants of the areas. While typically not filled with large amounts of documented data, these works can provide information useful in determining the identity of the native peoples of a specific geographic area. Few county histories made it into print without at least some brief reference to the inhabitants of the area.



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