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Native American Genealogy

Presentation for the



Presenter: Mike Stevens

September 28th, 2002



Sponsored by the

North Dakota State Historical Society

Held at the

Education Wing of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon church) on 1500 Country West Road

Bismarck, ND  58763








Good afternoon!  & Hau Kola! My name is Mike Stevens.  I’m an enrolled member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe of Teton Lakota located on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation of South Dakota and an adopted member of the Wolf Clan of the Oneida Tribe of the Six Nations.  My Indian name is “Jumping Eagle”.  Most of my native ancestors belong to the Ite Sica Band or Red Cloud’s People.  I also have French ancestors that were instrumental the Fur Trade in the Fort Laramie region. 

I caught the “Genealogy Bug” about 15 years ago while researching a paper for a college course.  I had already had a healthy dose of family history from the time I was little.    A memorable part of growing up was the evening “sit down” at the kitchen table with Grandmas and Grandpas reminiscing and catching up on who was doing what.  I was the only grandson during these early years so I usually had a front row seat for these wonderful history lessons.  So I began this quest plugging away on a state of the art Apple II e computer, writing down everything I could remember.  I was also lucky in that as an enrolled tribal member I already had a partially filled family tree chart from my Tribal Enrollment office.  A few years passed and my project moved from an Apple computer to a PC computer and would soon outgrow its word processor and my ability to keep track and organized what I had.  One day I found a   Genealogy Software program on sale at Wal-Mart called “Ultimate Family Tree” and I was off to the races.  Of course I had my setbacks like not citing my resources.  So another year to backtrack and footnote everything.  It wasn’t long and I was becoming known as our family historian.  Off course this was all possible due to the help given by my parents & grandparents. Relatives began to help and keep me up-to-date on new additions and other branches.  It wasn’t until I put this work to the Internet that this all came together.  Now I had an easy way to distribute updates and had an avenue to meet new and lost relatives.  To my surprise there was no genealogy web site devoted to my Lakota, much less the Oglala sub-division.  So I made the decision to expand my mission to include all Oglala families.  This was the beginning of my project called “Tiyospaye” which in Lakota Language is the word for our extended families or as in “old times” was the camp that our families kept to.  Now with online guest books and e-mail, I look forward to meeting new relatives and share information daily from behind a computer screen.

Today I speak to you off my experience in researching my Lakota ancestors.  There are many unique challenges involved in researching Native American genealogy.  The traditions, naming customs, kinship terms & systems, and historical movement vary widely from one tribe to another or even from one band or clan to another.  It is necessary for the researcher to be familiar with these and the history of their particular tribe. 

Off course like any other genealogy project you start with your elders and other relatives that you have around you.

If the name of the tribe or better yet the reservation is known, you should be able to contact the Tribal Enrollment Office of that tribe.  These are usually located at the tribe’s Administrative office or in some instances the Bureau of Indian Affairs Agency office responsible for that particular reservation.   If your subject is already enrolled much of the lineage will be already on file and may be just a matter of making a photocopy.  But, many tribes have more than one reservation, in which case you will need to contact each Enrollment Office.  Please note that in many instance these enrollment offices are under funded and understaffed and there may also be a waiting list.  The location and addresses of these offices is freely available on the Internet or at most libraries.   In many cases, the tribal affiliation will not be known so it will be necessary to put those detective skills that every amateur genealogist hones.   Look to reservations in the area of the place of birth if know, or places where they may have resided. Remember that were a tribe’s reservation is today may not be it’s historical homelands.  Hopefully, this will helps to narrow down the possibilities. 


At the turn of the century after a generation of Indian children had been whisked away to boot camp style boarding schools, many children returned stigmatized about their Native identity.  For the mix-bloods it was easier to hide their Native identity.   This is reflected in the attitudes of many children of the early boarding school experience.  For this reason these people of native decent may not have identified themselves in various records as Native American.  Some municipalities without large Native populations may not have even listed Native American as a choice. 

Naming Customs and Kinship systems

Names are a common dilemma that you will run into in your Native American research. In the 1880s, when the annual federal Indian census lists commenced, you may find your ancestor listed with two different names: an Indian name & an English version.

Most if not all tribes to my knowledge did not have surnames like we have today.  A person may have many names throughout his or her lifetime.  Usually an infant received a name that had some significance to the birth or a dream.  This name was primarily reserved for special occasions.  While among relatives it was proper to call the person by their relationship (ie: father, son, Grandfather, Grandmother, older sister, younger brother and so on).  Names could be passed on or given to a son or grandson or an older relative who’s qualities they may wish to instill in the person, but not necessarily. 

Names could be given through ceremony, such as the Hunka or “Making of Relatives” Ceremony or after the Hamblenca or “vision quest”.   European type surnames came about among my people as a result of confinement to the reservation and the assimilation process. 

I’m sure most off us may have seen the old stereotypical western movie where Native people where lined up at a table and the Calvary guy sitting behind the table and took names of every one.  Usually someone translated the name, or in most cases they butchered the meaning of the name into English.  If the meaning of the name wasn’t suitable or to long, or perhaps the end of the day, it was cut short.  The name of the family head would be given as a surname as in European fashion.  They were given a random Christian name for their first name.  You will also find some names similar to African-American slave names where they where named after American presidents, or your common Smith’s and Jones.  In many records such as early marriage records the Native woman might be listed just as Sioux woman, Indian woman.   Some of these records generally called ledger books still exist and may contain their old personal name and their new given name.

With most Native people an extended kinship system is practiced.  And for this reason you will also have to be careful when you encounter kinship terms, especially in literature.  For some tribes a person’s matrilineal aunts and uncles are called their moms and dads.  Their father’s brothers and sisters would be their aunts and uncles.  Also all your 1st cousins are your brothers and sisters.  Similarly all your parents’ aunts and uncles were grandfathers and grandmothers.  Another practice was the “Making of Relatives” or Hunke, in my Lakota Language, which was a form of adoption were individuals were made relatives to honor a special relationship.  They would then address each other as brother/sister or father/son, depending on the relationship. You will also need to remember that before the reservation period a man might have had multiple wives if he was a good provider.  It was customary among the Lakota to take a second wife, which might be the younger sister of the 1st wife.  This makes it hard to differentiate which wife was the mother to which child.  The census records did not record this information.  Also there was a practice of taking a wife that was captured from an enemy tribe.  All these considerations may need taken into account in your research.

Early sources of Information (Pre Reservation1870)





Winter Counts.


Winter Count’s are a great resource to track the movements of the tribe.  A "winter count” or "waniyetu wowapi” in my Lakota language was a mnemonic device used to record the history of the family, band, and tribe.  Kept on hides or muslin cloth. They were marked with pictographs or special characters that represented famines, the introduction of the horse, buffalo hunts, wars, severe winter storms, smallpox epidemics, school attendance, perhaps the move from tipi to cabin, and many other important events.  The symbols on the winter count were meaningless unless someone knew what they represented.  Among the Lakota each band had a Winter Count Keeper and it was his job to remember the stories behind each.  Each year the leaders of the band would meet and decide the year’s most important event of the previous year and add it to the succession of pictographs.  It wasn’t uncommon for these winter counts to span two hundred years.  Each winter during the storytelling time the Winter Count Keeper would narrate the stories behind each pictograph and in this manner pass on the history alive orally.  In some instances copies of the Winter Count would be shared among the different bands and a common history connect the Lakota Bands. The people would then associate birth dates or other events by the year on the Winter Count.  The Winter Counts where passed from generation to generation sometime from father to son.



Fur Trade Company Records and Account Books


Some of the first documented contacts with Native people were the fur traders who were sent out into the Plains to establish trade relations with the Tribes.  These companies kept pretty good records of their trade and are another source of good information.  Some of these records have been archived and available to researchers.  To mention a couple we find:





Early Reservation Period Sources (Post 1880)





Indian Census Rolls (1885-1940)


There where annual censuses as required by an act of Congress in of July 4, 1884 (23 Stat. 98) taken by Indian Agents or Superintendents responsible for their respective Indian Agencies or reservations.  Data collected varies from year to year and by reservation.  The Census Rolls are in English and may include the individuals’ Indian name, tribal roll number, age, or date of birth, sex, and relationship to the head of household. 

Something to remember with the Indian Census Rolls is that is a spouse was Non-Indian than that person was not included as part of that family.  This might appear that spouse wasn’t living in the household.  Also there are instances were the family or a family member is not listed on the Census.  In some cases the children would be all at boarding school or the family was away at that time.  The same holds true for Federal Census were a Non-Indian husband and his mixed-blood children would be listed but not his Indian wife.  Furthermore some families just choose not to live on the reservation and were not enumerated.

After 1930 these Census rolls also included the degree of Indian blood, marital status, ward status, place of residence, and sometimes additional information.  For some years the rolls were amended with supplemental rolls deletions that showed deletions and additions.  Such years are the 1935, 1936, 1938, and 1939 rolls. The bulk of these records are available through the National Archives.   For some reason most the 1940 rolls were kept by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.  The Rolls are available in microfiche and microfilm format and can be purchased through the National Archives.  Many State, University and tribal libraries have these records that pertain to their local reservations.  These records are referenced as NARA microfilm publication Indian Census Rolls, 1885-1940  (692 rolls).




Federal Census Records.


The first federal Census Rolls that included Native Americans living on the reservation was done in 1890.  These records were lost to fire though, so the next enumeration was in 1900.  There were Native Americans included in previous Census Rolls (1790-1850) if they lived in non-Indian settled areas, were taxed and didn't claim a tribal affiliation.




Ledger Books


A number of activities were recorded at many Indian Agencies and written down in Ledger Books.  Many of these Ledgers have survived in one form or another and can be found in libraries, museums, or personal collections.  Of the different types there can be Surrender Ledgers that include the names of each person their family members, age, and band or tribe.  Another type is the Ledgers Drawing Book that has become a Native American Art form.  These included drawing of early reservation life, dress style, and many include family names and information.   Ration Ledgers that list the head of a household, how many adults, and children, their band, and place of residence, and how many ration tickets they were issued.




Agency Reports.


            Each reservation Agency Office had to submit reports on their activities.  They recorded such things as memo, correspondences, vital statistics, sanitary and school records, individual history and marriage cards, and the reports and correspondences of the of the Post Surgeon, Sutler and other offices within the Agency structure.  The surgeon’s reports are especially interesting in that they had the closest dealings with the people and include a lot of personal commentary about families, births and deaths.  These records have been microfilmed and are available through the National Archives.

Vital Statistics (BIA) - Births and deaths, arranged chronologically. Birth records may include child’s name, birth date, parents, degree of Indian blood, tribe, residence. Death records may give name of deceased, age, sex, degree of Indian blood, tribe, place, date, cause of death, residence. Held by NARA regional branches. 


Marriage Registers (BIA) - Include names of spouses, ages, nationality, tribe, parents, previous marriages, sometimes divorces. Held by NARA regional branches.

Marriage Cards (BIA) - Give Indian and English names, sex, tribes, how married, census and allotment numbers, if divorced and when, children. Located in NARA regional branches.

Tribal Vital Records - Result of Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 authorizing tribal councils. Include birth and death records. Held by individual tribes.

Sanitary Record of Sick, Injured, Births, Deaths, etc. - Recorded by BIA agents by 1886 for all Indians who used health services for physical or mental health. Usually arranged chronologically; held by NARA regional branches. Includes name, age, sex, disease, date taken sick, recovery or death date; births include parents’ names.




Allotment Records.


The General Allotment Act of 1887, also known as the Dawes Act, was intended to wipe out the traditional ways of life by breaking up lands held collectively by the tribe into individual allotments.  The government allotted 160 acres for each family head, 80 acres for a single person over 18 or an orphan under 18, and 40 acres to each tribal member under 18. Tribal members who took an allotment agreed to accept the "habits of civilized life" and were granted citizenship, although the latter didn’t happen until 1924.  The Bureau of Land Management makes these records available online through the USGenweb Project and hosted at for each state and is broken down into counties.  These records also include “homestead, mining and timber claim, as well as cash sales and Indian allotments”. 

Allotment Registers - Registers begin in 1905 but include information back to early 1800s. Data include legal land description, acres, Indian and English name, date allotment approved, and patent information. At NARA in DC (and NARA regional branches).


Register of Families - These were used by Indian agents to determine family relationships for allotment heirs. At NARA regional branches. Include Indian and English names, age, % of Indian blood, tribe, marital status, marriage date, how married, parents' names and whether living, allotment register numbers.


Heirship Records - Successor to register of families (see above). At NARA regional branches. Include correspondence with examiners, date of allotment, death date of allottee, names of approved heirs.


Claims Records (BIA) - Claims against U.S. government. May give claimant, birthplace and date, residence, children, siblings, parents, grandparents. At NARA in DC.


Estate Files - Starting in 1910, Indians could make a will with approval of Commissioner of Indian Affairs. Contain reports on heirship, wills, etc. Data include name, tribe, residence, death date, age at death, spouse, marriage date, parents names and marriage date, children, siblings. Held by NARA in DC.




Tribal Enrollment Records.


An outcome of the Allotment process was the Tribal Enrollment system of determining tribes’ members.  The requirements for membership in the tribe is determined by the Tribes’ Constitution.  Some tribes require a direct lineal dependency while most require a certain blood degree or quantum.  Some tribes require applicants to prove their decent from one of the tribe's matriarchs. Still other tribes require proof of bilateral descent through both parents.  They usually provide name of the tribe, validity date, roll number, names (birth, given, married), sex, death date, probate number, degree of Indian blood, parents, blood degree of parents. These are held by the Tribe itself.


Tribal Enrollment Pointers

Helpful documents:


Annuity Payrolls

Annuity payrolls (1848-1940) treaties or acts of  Congress sometimes provided for annual or quarterly payments to tribal members for a certain length of time. Arranged by name of tribe and then chronologically. Names are not alphabetical. Include name, age, sex, and amount of payment.

These records show for each person in a family the Indian or English name, age, sex, and relationship to the head of the family, and sometimes to another enrolled Native American.  Rolls sometimes contain supplementary information, such as the names of persons who died or were born during the previous year. The National Archives will conduct a search of these payrolls provided you can furnish the following information: the Indian's name (preferably both the English and Indian name), the specific tribal affiliation, and the approximate date of association with the tribe.



Diaries and Narratives.

After America’s tribal people were relegated to their respective reservations.  Many tribes experienced a flood of missionaries, anthropologists, and homesteaders.  Many of these folks wrote book or diaries, which are sources of information. 




Boarding School Records.

In 1870s and early 1880s BIA became concerned about educating Indians confined on reservations and established a series of Indian schools

Another set of records is the Superintendents' Annual Narrative & Statistical Reports from the Field Jurisdictions of the BIA, 1907-1938 (174 reels documenting the accomplishments of agencies, schools, and hospitals-including maps, photos, and newsletters.) The Statistics of Tribes, Agencies, and Schools, published by the BIA, is on the Labriola reference shelf. This is a reprint of a 1903 book that listed all tribes, agencies, and Indian schools, showing their population or enrollment, land holdings, buildings, amenities (such as plumbing), etc.


School Census Records - For each student, includes name, sex, age, where born, % of Indian blood, parents, name of school, no. of grades attended.

School Reports - Includes attendance, exams and promotion, supervisory visits to home. The quarterly reports provide much data about each student.

Individual History Cards - For students at Indian schools; provide name, tribe, sex, birth date, parents, siblings, aunts, uncles.



   Records of the Office of the Judge Advocate General (Army) (Group 153)

       Occasionally, Army officers involved in the peacetime administration of Indian affairs found their policies subject to investigation by military courts and commissions. One of the subjects under this heading was the selection of Indian children to attend the school at Carlisle, PA.




Church Records.

    For each reservation a specific church denomination was assigned to a reservation and for the most part became the government sanction religion for that tribe.  You will need to find out what group was assigned to the reservation that you are researching.



Military Muster Rolls & Pension Records.

The National Archives military records section has a separate alphabetical file for each American Indian veteran who served prior to 1870.


Other Resources.


Online Resources.





During the time of the “Indian Wars” children were picked up off the battlefield and adopted by Non-Indian families.   One famous child and topic of a recent book was of this circumstance, was Lost Bird (Renee Sansom Flood) who was picked up off the grounds of the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890.  After the tribes where confined to the reservation The US Government adopted a policy of assimilation.  Countless Native children were forcibly removed from the families in the Governments’ attempt to strip Native Americans of their identity, culture, and association to their respective Tribes and sent to Government & Christian boarding schools across the country.  In cases were the parents passed on these children were adopted to non-Indian families hundreds of miles away from home.

Often, child welfare agency workers used their own cultural beliefs to decide if Indian children were being raised properly. Also, many have not understood the importance of the extended family--relatives other than mother or father--in bringing up children in native cultures.

By 1974, some 25 percent of Indian children had been removed from their homes, placed in foster care, adoptive homes, institutions or boarding schools. The majority were cared for by non-Indians.

In 1978, Congress enacted the Indian Child Welfare Act to address the systemic problems facing Native American tribes and families concerning their children; the act set out procedures for notice to tribes and families in cases of adoption, foster placement, dependency and neglect proceedings against parents, and other situations where parental rights of Native Americans were at risk.


The Indian Child Welfare Act

 is little-used, but it can be the key to a successful petition to open a sealed file if you are adopted, and are some or all Native American.

Essentially this section directs the State to give adult adoptees of Native American heritage who request it, their birth information, so that they may enroll in their tribes. The section does allow for birthparents to file a veto, but even then the adoptee is entitled to tribal notification so that they may process their tribal rights and privileges.





In today’s world of Information technology and the Internet the world has become much smaller.  There are online networks established to help the children or their descendents find their lost relatives.


Lost Bird Email List - A place for Native Americans who were adopted into non-Native American families to talk about all aspects of their experiences.






Web Links






·       American Indians: A Select Catalog of National Archives Microfilm Publications. Washington, DC: National Archives and Records Administration, 1995. Comprehensive roll-by-roll listing.

·        Everyday Life Among the American Indians by Candy Vyvey Moulton (writers Digest Books, $16.99)

·        A Genealogist's Guide to Discovering Your Immigrant & Ethnic Ancestors by Sharon DeBartolo Carmack (Betterway Books, $18.99)

·        Handbook of North American Indians edited by William C. Sturtevant (Government Printing Office, $57)

·        How to Research American Blood Lines: A Manual on Indian Genealogical Research by Cecelia Svinth Carpenter (Heritage Quest, $8.95)

·        Native American Genealogical Sourcebook by Paula K. Byers (Gale Group, $95)

·        Native Americans Information Directory (Gale Group, $110), with contact information for Native America-related organizations.

·        A Student's Guide to Native American Genealogy (Oryx Press, $24.95)

·        "Tracing Native American Family History" by Curt B. Witcher and George J. Nixon in The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy (Ancestry, $49.95)





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