While very few American frontiersmen married a “Cherokee Princess,” thousands wed Native Americans before 1906. If you have heard stories about a Cherokee ancestor somewhere in your family tree and want to claim your Native American heritage by becoming a member of the tribe, you will have to prove it to the Bureau of Indian Affairs and to the Cherokee Nation.
To be eligible for Tribal Membership with the Cherokee Nation, you must apply and be able to present a Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood (CDIB) issued by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. You must apply for a CDIB and provide acceptable legal documents that connect you to an ancestor whose name appears with a roll number and blood degree from the Final Rolls of Citizens and Freedmen of the Five Civilized Tribes-Cherokee Nation (commonly called the Dawes Commission Rolls or Final Rolls). These rolls were compiled between 1899 and 1906. Quantum of Indian blood must be computed from the nearest paternal and/or maternal direct ancestor(s) of Indian blood listed on the Final Rolls. Many descendants of Cherokee Indians cannot be certified, nor can they qualify for tribal membership in the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, because their ancestors were not enrolled during the final enrollment. The requirements at that time were:
If ancestors had separated from the Tribe and settled in states such as Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri, and Texas, they lost citizenship within the Cherokee Nation. Only enrolled members of the Cherokee Nation named on the Final Rolls and/or their direct descendants can be granted a Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood and/or Tribal Membership. CDIBs are issued only through the natural parents. In cases of adoption, quantum of Indian blood must be proven through the biological parents to the enrolled ancestor. A copy of the Final Decree of Adoption must accompany the application for CDIB, as well as the State Certified, full image/photocopy of the birth record.
The above was written by Johni Cerny, the founder of Lineages, in 2013. This information is still useful today.
For an update on this idea of “Blood Quantum,” see:
“So What Exactly is ‘Blood Quantum’?”, https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2018/02/09/583987261/so-what-exactly-is-blood-quantum “Blood-Quantum Laws are Splintering my tribe,” https://www.theatlantic.com/family/archive/2023/06/blood-quantum-laws-native-american-tribal-communities/674461/
“Blood Quantum and Sovereignty: A Guide,” https://nativegov.org/resources/blood-quantum-and-sovereignty-a-guide/.
Perhaps the best article is: “Blood quantum laws,” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blood_quantum_laws. It is a topic with a controversial history and many implications. The issues of tribal citizenship are even more complicated and contested for African Americans whose ancestors were enslaved by Native American tribes. For a case in point, concerning the “Choctaw freedmen,” see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Choctaw_freedmen.
Question: Where can I get a “blood quantum test”? Where can I find a lab to do the blood test?
Answer: A blood quantum is not actually a test of your blood. Historically, blood quantum referred to the fraction of Native American blood assigned to someone based on whether their parents and grandparents were full-blooded, half-blooded, and so on. In order to get a Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood mentioned above, you would have to know the name of an Indigenous ancestor who was on the official rolls of the tribe. Then you would have to call the local Bureau of Indian Affairs agency to figure out what legal documents you would need to submit in order to get the certificate. If you do know an ancestor who was on the Dawes Rolls but not a local BIA agency, call the Office of Indian Services and explain the situation. They should be able to tell you which BIA agency to submit the request to. If you do not know an ancestor on the official rolls of the tribe, you will have to do some research to figure that out. There is no lab test that can be taken that will help in this process, it is all based on legal documents.
Question: How do I register for Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma membership?
Answer: If you are enrolled in the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma, they have a website with instructions and contact information. https://www.cherokee.org/all-services/tribal-registration/.
Call or email the Tribal Registration services and ask how you should proceed. If you look under “downloadable forms” they have the instructions for the different forms you would need to fill out in order to apply. They include instructions for what enrolled parents need to do to enroll their children.
Question: How do I apply for membership in North Carolina for the Eastern Band of Cherokee?
Answer: In North Carolina, there is the Eastern Band of Cherokee. They have a description of how to enroll in their tribe on this webpage: https://ebci.com/enrollment/. Essentially, you must have at least one ancestor who is on the document called the “1924 Baker Roll.” If you know who your Cherokee ancestors were in 1924, you should contact the Eastern Band of Cherokee’s enrollment office and get further instructions. Each of the Cherokee bands/nations have specific enrollment requirements. It is important to go to their websites and follow their instructions.
Question: My family lived in Oklahoma and my DNA test shows that I have some Native American ancestry, but I do not know who my ancestors were to learn who was Native American.
Answer: If your family has been in Oklahoma for many years, it is likely that any Native American heritage would be from the Five Civilized Tribes there. If your goal is simply to identify whether you have Native American heritage, then there is no specific method other than doing general research on all the lines in your family until you find an ancestor who was Native American. If you are hoping to apply for membership in one of the Five Tribes, there are several requirements to be aware of. However, before anything else, you would want to see if any of your ancestors born before the 1890s were ever on the Dawes Rolls. You can look them up on websites like Ancestry.com, FamilySearch.org, or AccessGenealogy.com.
Question: Where can I search the Dawes Rolls?
Answer: The Dawes Rolls can be searched at Ancestry.com, FamilySearch.org, or https://www.okhistory.org/research/dawes. Once you know the Dawes roll number, you can look up the specific nation in Oklahoma and fill out the application.
Question: Can I acquire tribal membership based on my DNA test which shows that I am about 25% Native American? Or, my DNA test which shows that I am 1% Native American?
Answer: DNA by itself will not get you tribal membership. It may help learn which line your Native American ancestry is on, but in the end, you will need to document with traditional records like birth, marriage and death certificates your link back to someone who appeared on the Dawes Rolls, Baker Rolls, or other relevant rolls. If you are only 1% Native American on your ethnicity DNA report, this may be a statistical error or your Native ancestors may have lived long before the Dawes Rolls of 1899-1906. Traditional research would be needed to try to find your American Indian ancestor.
Question: I have heard that I can receive a lot of free benefits by gaining tribal membership. Is this really the case?
Answer: According the Roberta Estes’ book, DNA for Native American Genealogy, many tribal members resent people with no cultural ties to their tribe/Nation, who try to acquire membership benefits. The pie of resources from the federal government is very limited, and membership by people who are simply looking for free handouts takes away from legitimate members who live on the reservation/Nation. These benefits are already minimal, and life on Native lands is often a life of poverty. Even if your goal is not for benefits, but out of a desire to connect with your American Indian heritage, please be aware that many actual tribal members are leery of cultural appropriation by people who know very little of their lifestyles and traditions.
Question: How can I learn more about traditional Native American research?
Answer: On our sister website, Price Genealogy, we have published four articles on Native American genealogy:
Best wishes with your research. Let us know if we can help you trace your family tree to look for and prove your Native American descent.
Photo courtesy of wikimedia.org The work is in the public domain