Kent Carter, Director of the National Archives-Fort Worth Branch, jokingly calls anyone looking for Native ancestry a "Wantabe" Indian. In an article on the National Archives website, he advises that these "Wantabes" will either end up with a name and tribal affiliation for their ancestor or will end up as a member of the larger non-Native tribe of "Outalucks".
There are many reasons you could become an "Outaluck". Much Native American genealogy comes from oral tradition. Native Americans float in and out of official records – at various points in history the government was too busy fighting Indians to bother taking down their names. When Indians were included on censuses and rolls, Natives sometimes used different names. A number of Indians also simply moved or married into non-Native families, losing their tribal connection as well as any official documentation of their ethnicity.
"Unfortunately," writes Carter, "many people with legitimate claims to Indian heritage will never be able to "prove" their claim because their ancestor did not stay with the tribe or did not choose to be recorded in official records as an Indian."
How DNA Testing Can Help Break Through the Wall
Native American groups have several relatively unique DNA signatures which you could be tested for. There are three types of DNA tests you could take, although each has its limits:
The Y-DNA Test: This will reveal a direct paternal line, that is, a DNA signature that has been handed down from father to son over several centuries. Your Y-DNA signature may belong to a haplogroup strongly associated with Native Americans, such as Q3.
For this test to prove anything, you will need two things. The first is a Y chromosome. If you are a woman, you will need to find a brother, father or paternal uncle to take this test for you.
Secondly, you will need a Y chromosome that leads back exclusively through men to your suspected Native ancestor. If you believe that your mother's mother's father was Sioux, you will need to find the son of your great-grandfather's son. If he didn't have any sons, or you can't find another direct male descendant on that line, you'll be out of luck.
The mtDNA Test: Mitochondrial DNA is passed from a mother to her children, but only her daughters will pass it on. This test reveals your direct maternal line, your mother's mother's mother and so on.
There are several mtDNA haplogroups strongly associated with Native Americans. A 2008 study by the Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation in Salt Lake City and the University of Pavia in Italy found that almost every Native American in North, Central and South America can trace their ancestry back to one of six mtDNA signatures.
The limits of mtDNA testing are similar to Y-chromosome testing. Your suspected Native ancestor will have to be a direct ancestor exclusively through women. If she is not your direct female ancestor, you will need to find a suitable relative.
Autosomal Testing: One of the more controversial DNA tests, autosomal testing looks at your entire genetic portrait to discover different ancestry. It's an option if you suspect Native ancestry through a line that cannot be tested by Y-DNA or mtDNA.
Some autosomal testing will estimate what percentage of your ancestry is Indian, while other tests will show you which tribes you share a genetic affinity with. Testing services such as DNA Tribes and DNA Consultants offer Native American panels which may be able to detect small or distant Native ancestry.
So I've got (or don't got) Native American DNA – Now what?
You may not test positive for any Native ancestry. Does this make you an "Outaluck"? Not necessarily. Autosomal testing can be controversial because results depend on comparing your genetic signature to a database of other signatures. Not all tribes are adequately represented in each testing service's unique database. A non-Native Y-chromosome or mtDNA result may just mean you tested the wrong line.
What if you test positive? Does this prove that your great-great-grandmother was a Shawnee princess? No. There are several reasons for this (besides the fact that most Native American groups don't have princesses).
First, an autosomal test cannot tell you which ancestor contributed which of your genetic material. Your great-great-grandmother may have been a swarthy German who enjoyed telling tales. Her husband, the Oklahoma farmer, could've been the one to give you Native DNA.
Secondly, the widespread prevalence of the same haplogroups all over the Americas makes it difficult even for Y-chromosome or mtDNA testing to narrow down Native ancestry to a specific tribe. "We usually can't tell you what group of modern-day Indians you might belong to, except in a general way," advises DNA Consultants on its website.
The best thing to do with a positive test result is to use it as a springboard for more research. Share your results with family and see what information they share with you in return. Carter advises trying to trace a suspected Native ancestor to a general area in the United States and then researching which tribes lived in the area. If you can find a tribe associated with your ancestor, you'll have a good starting point to research your Native ancestry.