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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


Once a reasonable hypothesis has established the tribe of a potential ancestor, a host of new sources become available for the researcher to gather information about particular Native Americans. Learning as many specific details about the clan or tribe as possible continues to be of paramount importance, and locating and accessing specific records will increasingly become the focus of research endeavors.

The history of a potential ancestor's tribe is critical to continuing research. It is important to know where and when the tribe existed, the customs of the tribe'especially those customs relating to naming patterns, marriage, and burial practices'and other important life events. Emmet Starr's History of the Cherokee Indians and Their Legends and Folk Lore is an extraordinary example of a tribe/nation history containing excellent general data and significant genealogical information.<ref>Emmet Starr, History of the Cherokee Indians and Their Legends and Folk Lore (Oklahoma City, Okla.: Warden Co., 1921; reprint, Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co. 2003).</ref> Six chapters of more than 150 pages are devoted to 'Old Families and Their Genealogy.' Other lists include council members and nearly two hundred pages of biographical sketches. Woven through the entire work is a serious treatment of the customs and legends of the Cherokees. Serious efforts should be made to identify for use several major histories for the tribe or nation being explored.

Though customs varied from one tribe to another, scholars have found that Native Americans generally used two types of names: personal names and honorary names. In some tribes, one or the other of these names was considered sacred. Personal names may have been given or changed at birth, adolescence, the first hunting or war expedition, some notable feat, or the attainment of chieftainship. Tracking and documenting these name changes for any given Native American can be a formidable challenge. To these Native American names, Europeans often added a third, English name. A transitional record is one that indicates both a Native American name and the English name of a potential ancestor. Such records are a great boon to furthering research, but they are somewhat rare.

Kinship terms have varying meanings among many Native Americans. For example, 'father' does not always denote the natural parent. Many tribes are organized matriarchally rather than patriarchally, with lines of descent and property being passed down through the mother's line. The following excerpt is from a classic work of reprinted ethnology reports titled The North American Indian.<ref>John Trenchard and Walter Moyle, Iroquois Source Book, 3 vols. (New York: Garland Publishing, 1983-85).</ref> From 'An Iroquois Source Book, Volume 1, Political and Social Organization,' it indicates how complex such an organization can be for the genealogical researcher, describing some of the laws of descent of the Iroquois league, which was comprised of five nations: Onondaga, Cayuga, Oneida, Mohawk, and Seneca.

In each of the five nations who composed the original league, there were eight tribes, named as follows: Wolf, Bear, Beaver, and Turtle; Deer, Snipe, Heron, and Hawk. . . . In effect, the Wolf tribe was divided into five parts, and one fifth of it placed in each of the five nations. The remaining tribes were subject to the same division and distribution. . . . The Mohawk of the Turtle tribe recognized the Seneca of the Turtle tribe as a relative, and between them existed the bond of kindred blood. . . . A cross-relationship existed between the several tribes of each nation and the tribes of corresponding name in each of the other nations, which bound them together in the league with indissoluble bonds. . . .
Originally, with reference to marriage, the four tribes first named were not allowed to intermarry; neither were the last four. In their own mode of expressing the idea, each four were brother tribes to each other, and cousins to the other four. . . . At no time in the history of the Iroquois could a man marry a woman of his own tribe, even in another nation. . . . Husband and wife, therefore, were in every case of different tribes. The children were of the tribe of the mother. . . . As all titles, as well as property, descended in the female line, and were hereditary in the tribe, the son could never succeed to his father's title of sachem, nor inherit even his tomahawk. . . .
The mother, her children, and the descendants of her daughters in the female line, would, in perpetuity, be linked with the fortunes of her own tribe; while the father, his brothers and sisters, and the descendants in the female line of his sisters, would be united to another tribe, and held by its affinities.
The next feature of importance in their system of descent was the breaking up of the collateral line. . . . Thus a mother and her sisters stood equally in the relation of mothers to the children of each other; the grandmother and her sisters were equally grandmothers, and so up in the ascending series. . . . Thus the children of two sisters were brothers and sisters to each other; they were all of the same tribe. So also were the children of two brothers, although they might be of different tribes. 2

Knowledge of the individuals and groups that interacted with Native Americans is important for successful Native American genealogical research because most native peoples had few written records. Indeed, most Native American languages have a written history of only approximately one hundred years, making the researcher dependent almost exclusively upon the records of individuals who interacted directly with the tribes or clans. Understanding the collection-development policies and record-retention schedules of local, state, and national archives, libraries, and societies is vital to successfully locating these primary source accounts and documents. Indeed, understanding the basics of what might be called an information hierarchy will greatly assist research endeavors.

At the local level, city and county historical societies tend to collect the manuscript or primary source documents as well as very early imprints or first editions, while local public libraries tend to collect published accounts and secondary source materials. Local archives tend to collect official governmental papers as well as those records not kept in the local courthouse, which deal with sale and transfer of property, tax records, and other locally generated documents. State historical societies tend to collect primary source documents that concern multicounty areas of a state or those primary sources that local historical societies do not or cannot maintain in their collections. State libraries typically attempt to collect all consequential secondary source materials for their particular states. Indeed, special state-named collections can be found in many state libraries. In many areas, these special collections are rather comprehensive. Some larger academic libraries contain substantial historical collections and, in very rare cases, even function as the archive for a county. Both primary and secondary source materials at all levels of collection must be consistently consulted to successfully engage in Native American genealogical research.

Combining knowledge of the information hierarchy, of the geographic area historically and contemporarily inhabited by a particular tribe or clan, and of the various individuals and organizations that interacted with specific native peoples will maximize record possibilities. Local and state historical societies and libraries contain many record possibilities that must be explored when collecting Native American data.

Extraordinary record possibilities may also be explored at federal records centers and the National Archives' regional archives. Because the federal government interacted frequently with the Native American tribes and nations during the United States' settlement period, one can expect to find many useful records in repositories that contain federal documents. Guide to Records in the National Archives of the United States Relating to American Indians, compiled by Edward Hill, describes thousands of feet of manuscript collections and many important microform collections.<ref>Edward Hill, comp., Guide to Records in the National Archives of the United States Relating to American Indians (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1982).</ref> Genealogists can also glean many useful tips from Loretto Dennis Szucs's and Sandra Hargreaves Luebking's The Archives: A Guide to the National Archives Field Branches.<ref>Loretto Dennis Szucs and Sandra Hargreaves Luebking, The Archives: A Guide to the National Archives Field Branches (Salt Lake City: Ancestry, 1988).</ref>

The National Archives and Records Administration's (NARA) Southwest Region Archives is particularly rich in Native American records and federal documents relating to native peoples, though useful documents may be found in numerous regional archives as well as at Archives I and Archives II in Washington, D.C., and College Park, Maryland, respectively. NARA's Southwest Region archival holdings cover the states of Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Texas, and contain many documents relating to Cherokees, Chickasaws, Choctaws, Creeks, and Seminoles. The records of the Five Civilized Tribes, as they were called, as well as other Native Americans who were settled in the Indian Territories of Oklahoma, can be found among this region's vast holdings.

Researchers would be wise to consult NARA's Archival Research Catalog (ARC) at This online catalog lists holdings of NARA's repositories nationwide. While only a percentage of all the documents within the federal archives system are cataloged and listed in ARC, it is nonetheless an excellent access tool that continues to grow in size and utility. On ARC's main Web page, one will find a link to a digital copy of the entire Guion-Miller Roll Index as well as Dawes' Index to the Final Rolls of Citizens and Freedmen of the Five Civilized Tribes in Indian Territory. Many other Native American records are available on the NARA website as well. One will find an extremely helpful collection of links under the heading of 'Indians/Native Americans' in the Archives Library Information Center (ALIC). These link to NARA, the National Park Service, the Library of Congress, universities, and other significant digital research collections.

There are several other fine groups of sources for researchers who are seeking to obtain more tribe-specific information. These include dictionaries, encyclopedias, guides, detailed histories of tribes, federal government documents, and special transcriptions or methodology publications. The more successful researcher of Native American genealogy will pay attention to the finer details of a particular tribe's life and culture'details that may provide valuable clues and additional sources of data.

The Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups devotes more than sixty pages to both a general and tribe-specific treatment of the Native American experience.<ref>The Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1980).</ref> While it might be considered dated, the information provided in this truly timeless tome is concise and accurate. The maps indicating Native American tribes circa 1600 and the primary locations of 173 Native American groups in 1970 are particularly useful. The Reference Encyclopedia of the American Indian contains significant sections devoted to directory data, a bibliography of works accessible by tribe, and biographies of Native Americans.<ref>The Reference Encyclopedia of the American Indian, 10th ed. (Nyack, N.Y.: Todd Publications, 2003).</ref> Particularly useful are the lists of reservations, tribal councils, associations, and government agencies.

Important information can be found in many dictionaries and handbooks dealing with the native peoples of North America. Such sources often contain references to other, more detailed works. The three-volume Dictionary of Indian Tribes of the Americas contains significant tribe-specific historical details, variant spellings of tribal and clan names, and noteworthy individuals belonging to the Native American group.<ref>Dictionary of Indian Tribes of the Americas, 2nd ed. (Newport Beach, Calif.: American Indian Publishers, 1993-95).</ref> The various maps are useful, as is the subject and title index. Frederick W. Hodge's Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico is a classic work.<ref>Frederick W. Hodge, Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico, Smithsonian Institution, Bureau of American Ethnology, Bulletin 302, 2 parts (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1912; reprint, New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 1971).</ref> Organized in a dictionary format, it has long been recognized for providing useful data about various tribes, clans, and nations of Native Americans. In it can be found significant information about Native American tools, well-known individuals, geographic locations, arts and customs, institutions, and languages. Another exemplary classic work is John R. Swanton's The Indian Tribes of North America.<ref>John R. Swanton, The Indian Tribes of North America, Smithsonian Institution, Bureau of American Ethnology, Bulletin 145 (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1984).</ref> Its dictionary format makes the more than seven hundred pages of information readily accessible. Both of these later two works have been reprinted numerous times and should be rather widely available.

As oral histories and interviews are used to assist in establishing tribal affiliation, they can also be used to gather more specific details about particular Native American groups, bands, or tribes. Commonly called narratives or firsthand narrative accounts, these materials often represent some of the earliest accounts concerning particular groups of Native Americans. These early accounts were typically by European Americans, such as missionaries, trappers, fur traders, frontier families, and government agents. Firsthand accounts can provide citations to sources that are also narrative or firsthand accounts, well-documented works, or contemporary works that might not be so well-known.

Firsthand accounts can contain the writings of Native Americans as well as those individuals who first interacted with them. A fine example is American Indian Women: Telling Their Lives.<ref>Gretchen M. Bataille and Kathleen Mullen Sands, American Indian Women: Telling Their Lives, reprint ed. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1987).</ref> Also available as an electronic book, this work contains more than fifty pages of notes and bibliography'excellent for leading the researcher to additional sources. An excellent strategy is to always look for both the narratives as well as any notes and references that lead one to still other sources.

Late'twentieth-century firsthand accounts can provide much useful historical and cultural information about particular tribes or groups of Native Americans. These sources are frequently overlooked by researchers who are too focused on individual-specific records. Wisdomkeepers: Meetings with Native American Spiritual Elders is a collection of eighteen interviews with Native Americans from thirteen different tribes or confederacies.<ref>Harvey Arden and Steve Wall, Wisdomkeepers: Meetings with Native American Spiritual Elders (Hillsboro, Ore.: Beyond Words Publishing, 1990).</ref> In this work, the careful reader can learn the native names for particular ancestral homelands, locations and identities of sacred places, important historical details pertaining to little-known and nonfederally recognized tribes, and rough sketches of family narratives, which easily form the core around which family histories can be developed. John Gattuso's Circle of Nations: Voices and Visions of American Indians is another richly illustrated collection of contemporary firsthand accounts that provide documentary assistance to the historical researcher interested in a fuller understanding of particular Native American cultures.<ref>John Gattuso, Circle of Nations: Voices and Visions of American Indians (Hillsboro, Ore.: Beyond Words Publishing, 1993).</ref>

Careful researchers should necessarily be concerned about the objectivity of firsthand narrative accounts. It is significant to note through whose eyes the events were being seen. The usefulness of these accounts, though, in providing geographical data and kinship and cultural information, as well as actual names of some Native Americans, cannot be discounted. Larger academic and public libraries, as well as some special libraries, have such works.

Federal government documents are some of the most potentially useful records for obtaining significant data about particular Native American tribes. Two factors contributing to their significance are the frequency of federal government interactions with the native peoples during the settlement of many areas and the large number of documents produced by the Government Printing Office. Additionally, the availability of federal government documents is quite good because there are numerous repositories in most states and many of these documents are available through interlibrary loan.

While federal government documents are plentiful, their use may be challenging for the beginning researcher. The documents have their own classification system, which is designed more for archiving large bodies of material than for accessing those materials. This classification system, commonly known in library circles as the SUDOC system, groups materials by the issuing government agency regardless of subject matter. Native American records may be found filed under 'I' for Department of the Interior, 'LC' for the Library of Congress, 'SI' for Smithsonian Institution, 'W' for the Department of War, and 'Y' for Congress, etc.

Having access to a good, comprehensive index is important; that one does not exist for the totality of federal government documents is problematic. There are a number of keys, though, to unlocking the rich amounts of information in documents published by the Government Printing Office (see figure 19-3). First, always seek the assistance of a government documents librarian or information professional. For almost every document collection there is at least one person who is expert in its use and committed to assisting others in gaining access to the myriad of data contained in it. Some states and regions even have government document roundtables where information professionals gather on a regular basis to discuss the use and dissemination of data found in federal government documents.

Second, make use of the standard indexes available for accessing government documents, particularly the Monthly Catalog of United States Government Publications.<ref>Monthly Catalog of United States Government Publications (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1895-).</ref> The Monthly Catalog is the official index to published government documents. Published since 1895, it is the most comprehensive source for document location. Because federal government documents are cataloged by the authoring federal agencies, knowing the possible government agency of publication is helpful in locating documents more quickly. Access to government documents published after 1976 is enhanced by a number of CD-ROM and online versions of the Monthly Catalog that are currently available in most larger government document repositories.

There is free online access to the modern version of the Monthly Catalog at a site called GPO Access. Now called the Catalog of U.S. Government Publications (CGP), this resource is a comprehensive index of more recent publications from all agencies of the United States government. The types of government publications include traditional print, microfiche, electronic resources, audiovisual media, maps, and posters. CGP provides the user with the capability of searching bibliographic records, which describe federal government publications by keyword. At the present time, CGP on the Web is available only from January 1994 to the present. While that recent date is limiting, it is important for researchers to remember that the date (1994) is referring to the publication date of the item, not the date of the subject covered by the particular federal publication. Researchers interested in government information published prior to 1994 should still consult the other print and electronic versions of the Monthly Catalog available in depository libraries throughout the country.

Some other standard indexes follow, listed by general time period covered.

  • A Descriptive Catalogue of the Government Publications of the United States, September 5, 1774'March 4, 1881. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1885. Reprints and microform available.
  • Comprehensive Index of Publications of United States Government, 1881'93. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1890. Reprinted in 1953.
  • United States Government Publications, A Monthly Catalog, 10 vols. Washington, D.C.: Lowdermilk & Company, 1885'94. 10 volumes.
  • Checklist of United States Public Documents, 1789'1909. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1911. Reprints and modified editions available.
  • Cumulative Subject Index to the Monthly Catalog of United States Government Publications, 1900'1971, 15 vols. Washington, D.C.: Carrollton Press, 1973'75.

It is imperative to consult these indexes when endeavoring to use federal government documents for any type of historical research, most especially for those time periods before 1895. It is also important to note that there are numerous smaller indexes to federal documents that could prove quite beneficial to one's research into tribe-specific data.

Third, continually look for special guides, finding aids, and explanatory publications. As increasing numbers of individuals become aware of the vast amounts of information contained in government documents, new finding aids are developed to complement those that already exist. Documents librarians or local information professionals can assist in locating such guides. A useful contemporary work for the researcher seeking to become more familiar with government documents is the Introduction to United States Government Information Sources.<ref>Introduction to United States Government Information Sources, 6th ed. (Englewood, Colo.: Libraries Unlimited, 1999).</ref> This work, also available as an electronic book, will inform you not only how to access federal documents but also of the existence of such specific titles as the United States Statutes at Large, which contains the text of Native American treaties from 1778 to 1842 in volume seven.

The richness of materials contained in federal government document collections can scarcely be overemphasized. Histories of tribes; laws relating to allotments, patents, alienation, citizenship, and cessation of tribal relations; reports of various territorial governors dealing with Native Americans; and tribal council resolutions can all be found in government documents. The second volume of Charles J. Kappler's Indian Affairs: Laws and Treaties is devoted entirely to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century treaties with Native American tribes.<ref>Charles J. Kappler, Indian Affairs: Laws and Treaties (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1904).</ref> Available as well in reprint, thousands of individual names are included in its more than one thousand pages.

Major microform publishers, such as the University Publications of America division of LexisNexis, make significant document collections pertaining to Native Americans available for research. These collections can include copies of major council meetings, documents from the Office of Indian Affairs, and records of the U.S. Indian Claims Commission. Large public libraries and major universities may include such records in their collections.

Almanacs and ethnic-specific encyclopedias are excellent sources of data for tribe-specific information, lists of primary and secondary source materials, supplemental historical data, and addresses of institutions and organizations that researchers may contact for specific information. The Native North American Almanac: A Reference Work on Native North Americans in the United States and Canada, edited by Duane Champagne, is an excellent example of such a work.<ref>Duane Champagne, ed., The Native North American Almanac: A Reference Work on Native North Americans in the United States and Canada, 2nd ed. (Detroit: Gale Research Co., 2001).</ref> Among its nearly 1,500 pages are a general bibliography coupled with extensive chapter-specific references and maps indicating locations of tribes and bands. This encyclopedic work covers in some depth nearly every aspect of Native American life. The sections devoted to chronology, research centers and organizations, demography, and major culture areas assist the researcher both in determining tribal affiliation and in gathering substantial quantities of significant works pertaining to a particular tribe or nation. Chapters on law and legislation, languages, religion, and nonreservation populations provide vital tribe- or nation-specific details that enable a researcher to find and access a larger body of records.



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