Native American Tribal Enrollment: How DNA Can Aid The Paper Trail

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Despite what some may think about Native Americans and what non-Natives have done to them, the Native Nation is alive and well. There are about 550 or so recognized tribes in the United States. These tribes are federally recognized and acknowledged, and those enrolled in these tribes can list “American Indian” as their official race on government paperwork.

But the problem comes in for those who aren’t yet enrolled in a tribe. What are these individuals to do if they are Native in every way but the official paperwork? I find myself in such a position. I grew up all my life being told I was Native American, and even told what tribe my ancestors came from. I attended local Pow-Wows when I was a kid. I heard the same stories over and over about my family being Native American, that the tribe I came from was the real tribe of my ancestors, and that certain places in the United States contained hordes of my cousins who were also of the same tribe as me.

Now that I’m in a family group that contains a few hundred cousins of mine, it’s no joke. I really do hail from the tribe I was told about all my life. I’ve met a few cousins who actually are card-carrying members of the tribe (yes, they’ve flashed their own tribal cards for me to see). Being related to so many who are enrolled tribal members is great confirmation that I too, am part of the same tribe. My DNA tests this year with companies such as Ancestry and 23andme have confirmed that these card-carrying cousins are my cousins. When you come up a “second” and “third” cousin (some a “first” cousin) by way of shared DNA, two things are obvious: 1) there was a lot of cousin intermarriage in the family and 2) you’re a part of a large family.

But even with this DNA confirmation, I’m still ineligible for enrollment into a federally-recognized Native American tribe. The reason? I don’t have the paper trail. Let me explain what I mean.

tribal enrollment and the paper trail problem

Native American tribes are sovereign over their own enrollment requirements. Each tribe can determine what eligible members must do to become officially part of the tribe. Some Native tribes mandate a blood quantum certification where you show you have one family member who is on the Dawes Rolls (referring to a list of Native Americans that was open for a short period of time, then closed forever). If it’s your great-grandmother, then you have to receive a 1/8th (or 12.5%) certification before some tribes admit you. In others, the paper trail is the main requirement. You have to show proof that a particular ancestor was listed as officially Native American on the Dawes Rolls, then come up with the paper trail to prove you are related to that family member (birth certificates of you, your parent, grandparents, and so on). Starting from your Native ancestor forward, you have to show document by document how that person is related to you.

I have those documents. I’ve spent nearly 2.5 years building up my family tree with documents including marriage certificates, death certificates, marriage license applications, and so on. So I can prove without a doubt that my paternal great-grandmother really is my great-grandmother.

But there’s just one problem, and it concerns the Dawes Rolls.

missing from the dawes rolls

The Dawes Rolls were created by Congress in 1893 to dole out the lands under the General Allotment Act of 1887 for Native Americans and African-American freedmen. Though the Dawes Rolls were created so that true Natives and freedmen could get their share, it has been used since its official closing (1907) to determine who is officially Native American and who isn’t.

My great-grandmother wasn’t even born when the Dawes Rolls were created and officially closed, but her mother was. My great-great grandmother would have been around at the time, but unfortunately. she was a slave for some time and didn’t know how to read and write. And so, she couldn’t register likely because she didn’t know that she could register. And her daughter, my great-grandmother, couldn’t read and write and so, she couldn’t register herself before the government to certify she was Native American, either. So both women that would allow me to enroll federally are now deceased and never made it to the Dawes Rolls. Doing work on my family tree has also turned up other family members through this same great-grandmother that were themselves rejected from the Dawes Rolls while they were open for enrollment. So there’s just very little paperwork that I could use to confirm me as a federally-recognized Native American because of the Dawes Rolls. The closest and most eligible family members never applied, and the most distant family members were rejected.

are you really native american?

At some point, some of you are ready to ask the question, “Are you sure you’re Native American, or is it just a made-up rumor you heard all your life?” I remember when I received my Ancestry DNA results back and didn’t see a drop of Native American ancestry in my results. I was disappointed. I started reading a bit to find out if others had the same problem, and I saw Ancestry stating then that for many people, the “I’m Cherokee” claim is just a rumor based on something that may not be true. Christie Cowan from Ancestry said at one point that some people have found photos of relatives dressed in Indian garb and assume the relative was Native — only to discover that the Indian garb was nothing more than a costume they took pics in at a carnival of some sort.

And so, I immediately rejected this idea. I’d been told from both mom and dad that I was Native. When both parents tell you, it isn’t really a lie at that point. I didn’t grow up with my dad, but he told me I was Native. And then my mom told me I was Native. My mom raised me and hadn’t lied to me about the important things in life…so why would she lie now? What benefit would a lie give?

in the absence of the paper trail, dna is a lifesaver

The absence of the paper trail, as I define it here, refers to my lack of enrollment paperwork for my great-grandma and great-great grandma on the Dawes Rolls. My great-grandmother wasn’t living when they closed the Rolls, most likely, but her mother’s inability to read and write didn’t help her cause, either. She couldn’t have enrolled as a federal Native because her mother hadn’t enrolled in the Dawes Rolls. Great-great-grandma had been enslaved for some years, and even had her name changed when she was enslaved. She never forgot her real name, though, but she had to change it back once she got her freedom.

Without a paper trail to confirm my Native American ancestry, DNA came to the rescue. It showed me that I was Native American, and, to be sure, on both sides of the family from both mom and dad. First, as I state in an earlier article on Native American Ancestry in DNA Testing, I discovered that a maternal uncle was Native American. His results came through with Native American ancestry present. Next, my father’s side came up Native American when a paternal aunt had a blood test done at a respected medical center.

Blood tests are more accurate than saliva DNA tests, though, and so her blood test revealed she was 81% Native American. 81%! It didn’t reveal the tribe (nor did my uncle’s DNA test), but it shows that we come from a long line of Native Americans. Since children draw DNA from their parents, grandparents, and even great-grandparents, my aunt’s great-grandparents had to have some strong Native descent for she, some generations removed, to be 81% Native American. And it suggests that my great-grandma, her mother, was definitely full-blooded Native. This blood test put to rest any suspicions or questions I had.

double native discovery

The shocker came in my double native discovery, when I found out that I am Native on both mom and dad’s sides of the family. Mom had always told me I was Native on her side, too, but I thought it nothing more than a rumor. That is, until my uncle’s DNA test (I mention above) came back. But even then, I’d heard that my great-grandfather (his dad) was Native. I knew that already. But then something happened that shook up everything: I discovered that my great-grandma (maternal) was Native, too!

23andme is, as I’ve said before, the best DNA test hands-down. The test shows you all 23 of your chromosomes. Men have one X and one Y chromosome (the Y coming from the father; only sons get a Y chromosome, for those who don’t know. Women get two X chromosomes). Looking at the DNA Painting of my chromosomes, I noticed that the X chromosomes had Native American ancestry. What this revealed to me is that my grandma was Native from her mother, who got it from her mother, and so on. And, sure enough, 23andme says that one full-blooded Native entered the family tree in recent history.

So, it appears as though mom was native as well as dad. With me being more Native than I knew before, I am more convinced than ever that I am truly Native American.

the problem: without the paper trail, I’m ineligible for Native Tribal enrollment

DNA confirms I’m Native American. Stories have told me what tribe I come from. But without the paper trail (that is, someone whose bloodline I’m directly in, I am unable to apply for tribal enrollment). And so, I’m just a Native without a tribe, honestly. I’m not alone though (there are many more cousins who are in the same position), but it’s a personal disappointment.

For many Native American tribes (if not most of them), the paper trail is everything. If you can connect yourself to someone on the Dawes Rolls, you’re as good as in. My problem is that I have true Native American ancestry but don’t have a family member on the Dawes Rolls I can point to as my frame of reference for tribal enrollment.

This could all be avoided if DNA were allowed in many Native American tribes. For those like me who are Native in DNA but don’t have the paper trail to prove it, they could submit DNA tests that would show their relation to current tribe members. I’m in a family group on social media where some of my cousins are card-carrying members of local and federal tribes. And, to be sure, they and I are related. 2nd, 3rd, and 4th cousins. And these 2nd, 3rd, and 4th cousins are enrolled in their respective tribe(s). They have tribal enrollment, many of them having made their case by way of paper trail.

If they are members, though, and I’m related to their parents (if I’m related to them, clearly I’m related to their parents), then why do I need a paper trail for enrollment? I know one member of an officially recognized tribe who is my second cousin by DNA. If he can enroll, then why shouldn’t I qualify by DNA? DNA would help me achieve enrollment because I lack a paper trail (no Dawes Rolls enrollment in my direct family). It gets even more interesting when one considers that this individual is related to me through his maternal line, which fits into my maternal line.

Some cousins in my DNA journey have come up related to me as an X-match (FTDNA). X-match refers to someone matching DNA on your X chromosome, someone that is related to you through either of your maternal lines. This cousin matches me on my dad’s mom’s side. Interestingly enough, that’s the same side from which my dad’s Native American ancestry comes. So, again, DNA confirms that I’m as Native American as this cousin that’s enrolled in a federal tribe. But I’m denied enrollment because I don’t have Dawes Rolls names I can point to as my direct family.

what’s the beef with dna? why indigenous tribes reject it (for the most part)

Not all Native American or indigenous peoples reject DNA, but a large number do. The reason? They say that first, Native tribes are about identity, culture, heritage, customs, and traditions. Being Native is about so much more than DNA, many say. Anyone can claim they belong because of DNA, but bloodline doesn’t influence what a person does. There are those who are adopted as children that aren’t Native, but are raised by Native parents to honor Native traditions and customs and culture. Native tribes allow these adopted children to be listed as Native Americans though they may not possess a drop of Native American blood. Meanwhile, there are many who are Native yet cannot receive enrollment because of the lack of a paper trail.

Native tribes don’t want to rely so much on DNA because of adopted individuals who embrace the tribe and the Native way of life. It’s likely they don’t want to offend those who don’t possess “the right DNA.” But Native tribes don’t have to mandate a DNA test for everyone. They can allow some to arrive in the tribe by paper trail, while others can be admitted by DNA test. Since the tribes themselves have sovereignty over their enrollment decisions, they can admit those like me whose DNA leaves the only evidence of their Native American tribal descent.

This idea of “DNA descent” could co-exist with the current paper trail requirement. In the event someone doesn’t have a Dawes Rolls name or names to point to, he or she can be tested at one of the major DNA companies (Ancestry, 23andme, Family Tree, Living DNA, MyHeritage) to determine if they’re related to Natives that are already enrolled members. If they’re found to share DNA with any one member of the tribe, then they’re considered family and enrolled as an official member.

Native tribes don’t have to shame adoptees by requiring a DNA test from them. They don’t have to shame official blood Natives, either, by requiring a paper trail requirement they cannot meet. It makes blood Natives feel terrible when they can’t receive enrollment because of a paper trail, while an adoptee who isn’t related receives enrollment because he or she can prove a paper trail.

Paper trails prevent adoptees from being shamed, but they cause blood Natives who lack it (for various reasons, be it slavery, illiteracy, etc.) to be shamed. It really is harmful to blood Natives that the one thing they could use in these circumstances (DNA) is something that tribes reject.

dna: more accurate than the paper trail

If you’ve done a family tree or even tried to, you’ll immediately notice how difficult compiling family records can be. Take any one family member’s name, and you’ll notice the problem. You can have 30 different people with the same name, living in the same city or town at the same time. They could even share the same birthdates. In my case, for example, a Susie Richardson could be either a grandmother, an aunt, or a cousin. You may put down one Susie as your aunt, but she could really be your cousin. The further back you go, the more confusing the names become — especially when they’re the same generic names.

So with that said, paper trails can be wrong. Historians and genealogists will tell you that compiling documents takes good research, but at the end of the day, it takes faith, too, because, well, we can’t know with absolute certainty whether or not all the compiled records are perfectly accurate. There’s no way to know with absolute certainty. And so, there’s always a margin of error with documents.

DNA is the one thing of which we can have the most certainty in this world. It tells us who our relatives are, and we can know it’s reliable. There can still be a measure of error, but the chances of that pale in comparison to the confusion that can result with family documents. Regardless of what documents a person has, DNA can tell me whether they’re telling the truth or not. DNA isn’t as manipulative as family documents.

just trying to take my rightful place: conclusion

DNA versus the paper trail is an important discussion to have because the decision of tribes to mandate a paper trail has shut out true-blue Natives forever and a day now from tribal enrollment. It simply baffles the mind that these tribes would want to shut out family instead of embracing them.

I think DNA is a good backup solution for true Natives whose families haven’t preserved the proper documentation, for one reason or another. These individuals could get their DNA tested. If they match current tribal enrollees, then they could be admitted as official members in the absence of a paper trail. If I’m a second cousin to someone who’s enrolled, then it’s clear that I’m related to them and that they are in my family. It’s no different than me being enrolled because of my brother, with whom I share DNA (for example). If the DNA says that two people (one enrolled, the other not) are related, then that person should be enrolled because they are true kin.

I realize that Native Americans prioritize heritage, customs, and traditions over DNA. Family is larger than DNA, true, but family includes DNA, too. God put people on this earth in biological families. DNA holds meaning to God because He designed DNA and implanted it inside each of us. And so, if it matters to God, it should matter to us. When Native American tribes disregard DNA and prevent it from being used for enrollment (thereby preventing true Natives from tribal enrollment), it sends the message that DNA doesn’t matter. It’s a slap in the face of God to make such a statement.