A previous article discussed the importance of studying the culture of the Native American tribe you are researching. The history of the tribe, particularly as it relates to tribal movement, may also help you track down that elusive ancestor.
Use Charts and Maps
When you've lost an ancestor's trail, use a map and a history book to chart the tribe's movements as they were displaced by EuroAmericans. Mark reservation locations and the dates the reservations were established or closed. This will give you a geographic locality in which to focus your attention.
The dates of historical "happenings," when compared to your ancestral data, are called time perspectives and can be a significant aid in Native American genealogical research. For example, within our topic, the years 1880, 1884, 1890 and 1933 provided major changes in census rolls and lists as they relate to Native Americans.
Annual Indian census lists began to be taken in 1880. (Please do not confuse the annual Indian census list with the federal census. They are distinctly separate.) By 1884, the annual lists were required by law and by 1890 those lists were firmly established. In some respects, you would think genealogists tracing indigenous people would have an advantage over U.S. citizens who were only counted every 10 years. Unfortunately, that is not the case.
What's in a name?
A major roadblock for some researchers seems to be getting backward in time beyond 1890. If this is your roadblock, name transition is most likely the problem.
The earliest Indian census lists usually show the persons "Indian" name—most often spelled phonetically. As you traverse the years, be sure to sound out names that may be spelled differently than your original source word—sort of a backward Soundex system.
In the mid 1880s, as efforts were made to assimilate the tribes into EuroAmerican culture, Native Americans were asked to provide surnames; often they were just given a name. The males sometimes added an English nickname to their tribal name, i.e. Charlie Two Horse or Wolf Joseph. In many families, the wife and children then added the "surname" to their English nickname. So, Whitefeather, known as "Sally," then became Sally Two Horse or Sally Joseph. As the years progressed, the Indian name was slowly eliminated. Finding the census list that shows both the English and Indian name—that transitional list—can be the key to unlocking your ancestry door to the past.
An Important Caveat
Please remember that even if your ancestor is numbered on an Indian census list and was living on a particular tribe's reservation at the time of the census, it does not mean they were a tribal member. Spouses were often from different tribes and some were even EuroAmericans. In those cases, if the spouse were a man, his name was left off the list entirely. So, maybe your great-great-grandmother's husband wasn't dead in 1887—maybe he was white.
The government's need to enumerate and classify Native Americans led to the establishment of "enrollment" lists which took the place of the annual census lists soon after the Tribal Reorganization Act of 1933.
Our next article will look at some of the individual lists available for research. Future articles will focus on using each list.
Note: The National Archives Records Administration (NARA) has copies of most government-sponsored tribal enrollment and census lists for tribes in the United States.