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Exploring Native ancestry: a how-to

WASHINGTON – In a highly practical lecture Aug. 16 at the National Museum of the American Indian, author and genealogist Angela Walton-Raji offered little comfort for the family romances that seem to afflict beginners of all races in the field of ancestral research.

“Don’t go back as far as you can, as fast as you can,” Walton-Raji advised an audience of 30 or so on the topic of “Native American Ancestors of African-American Families.”

Don’t search for gold, avoid invention, and “understand the limitations,” she added – not everyone can document Native ancestry. Genealogy does not describe ancestry by physical features, so be guided by documentary records.

Above all, “You research to find, you don’t research to prove. ... Go back to what you know to get to what you don’t know.”

All that said, the historical record is indisputable: Blacks and Indians have come together amicably at countless points of the colonial and American past, often in families and communities. The presence of escaped slaves in tribal communities is well attested; less commonly acknowledged is that many Indians found refuge in black communities, from the onset of Anglo-European settlement throughout the period of westward expansion. Such communities provided refuge from the pervasive racism of 19th century America.

For that matter, the worst crimes of white America, slavery and genocide, found partisans among the victims. Blacks formed special cavalry and infantry regiments following the Civil War; the tribes they fought across the frontier called them “buffalo soldiers,” an obviously ambivalent sobriquet (buffalo were treasured among tribes; soldiers, hated). And the slave-holding habit of some antebellum Southeastern tribes has brought freedmen – descendants of slaves and free blacks among the tribes – to widespread attention.

The historical record, then, holds much to find for blacks who have heard, or suspect, that they have Native ancestors. Walton-Raji provided specific guidelines for those of a mind to search the record. Among them:

• Start with oral history, often from within the family. Inquire about specific Native ancestors, find out the oldest family member within living memory, and get full given names at birth.

• Rely on standard genealogical methodology, a well-developed discipline that can be consulted in detail over the Internet.

• Look for specific Indian communities near where an ancestor lived. In Walton-Raji’s case, her family hailed from Fort Smith, Ark., a 19th century frontier town near Choctaw and Cherokee settlements. She learned from Choctaw records that her ancestors were freedmen, former slaves of the Choctaw.

• People didn’t get far from home in the old days, so siblings, neighbors, whole communities and regions matter. Did your ancestors visit others, and did others visit them? Join county historical societies and obtain the oldest maps available, which may hold community names and geographical designations that have changed since. “You want to become an authority on the region your ancestor was from.”

• Consult the National Archives. Census records are available from 1790 to 1930; a 72-year embargo on individual detail means census records from 1940 won’t be available until 2012, and so on.

• Some Indians are recorded in the censuses of 1850 and 1860, and whole families appear from 1870 and 1880 under the designations “I,” “In” or “Ind.” They are often designated “colored” as well. Individuals have been designated “B” for “black” in one census, “I” in another, and back to “B” in a still later census. Past census enumerators often based their designations on appearance.

• The special Indian census reports of 1900 and 1910 are of particular interest.

• Tribes near ancestral communities may have citizenship records. Among the most often consulted citizenship rolls (each with its separate limitations when it comes to genealogical research) are the Cooper Roll of 1855, the Creek Freedmen Roll of 1867, the Dunn Roll of 1869, the Hester Roll of 1883, the Wallace Roll of 1890, the McKennon Roll of 1899 and the Dawes Rolls from 1898 through 1914.

Though she is not formally affiliated with NMAI, Walton-Raji has been commissioned to write an essay for the museum’s traveling exhibit “IndiVisible: African-Native American Lives in the Americas.” Her lecture anticipates the exhibit, which has been rescheduled to open in September 2009, as part of the museum’s fifth anniversary observances, said Fred Nahwooksy, community exhibitions program coordinator.

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