The Challenge of North American Indian Genealogy. Part One

“The Challenge of North American Indian Genealogy. Part One: Background to Research,” by Denise R. Larson

My tiny drop of American Indian blood stirred when I saw a news report in November 2012 that a kindergarten class of Sioux children had collected pennies for two weeks, then gave $50 to the tribe chairman to help purchase land in the Black Hills of South Dakota, land that has long been sacred to the tribe but was lost through land grabs and broken treaties. The children’s contribution helped the united tribes meet the fast approaching funding deadline, and now Pe’Sla is again held in trust and honor by the Sioux. What place did my American Indian ancestor hold sacred, I wondered? How do I find out about her? As I started doing my homework on American Indian genealogy, I soon realized that I would have to be as resilient and resourceful in my research as my ancestors were for their survival in some harsh climates. More . . . A babbling brook of voices In the early days of European exploration of North America, ca. 1600, estimates of the number of native inhabitants ranged between 2 and 7 million with approximately 300 to 500 dialects. This shows the value of sign language, which played such a large role in historical tales. Today there are 566 federally recognized American Indian tribes in the United States, with 1.9 million registered members. Ironically, the government that bullied American Indians off their ancestral land in the name of Manifest Destiny is also responsible for compiling the most valuable records for genealogical research and establishing the invaluable Tribal Leaders Directory. It’s all about the tribe Traditionally, an extended American Indian family of two or three generations would form a clan that would live and move together throughout the year. Several clans would join together to form a tribe. Tribes would occasionally unite to form a confederation. A vast and varied physical environment and the resulting lifestyles brought about cultural and language distinctions among American Indians. The resulting language-root and social groupings are Eastern Woodland, Southeast, Plains, Plateau, Great Basin (Rockies to Sierra Nevada), Southwest, California, Northwest Coast, and Alaska/Arctic. Lineage practices

Tribes were either patrilineal, with descent through the male line, or matrilineal, with kinship through the female line. If the tribal territory was vast, it might include both practices. Sometimes tribes changed from one to the other style of leadership and lineage. When the Muskhogean, who had been agrarian and matrilineal, were driven westward by the Iroquois, they took up buffalo hunting and became patrilineal, with hunters taking prominence, whereas previously matrons ruled the roost and selected a spokesman to represent them at council.

A fundamental guide to North American Indian tribes is The Indian Tribes of North America by John R. Swanton. Language, history, and the origin of individual tribes are described. The author included over-sized fold-out maps as visual aids to locate tribes ca. 1650. Originally printed by the Smithsonian Institution’s Bureau of American Ethnology and reprinted by Genealogical Publishing in 2007, this sizable book of 726 pages is well respected as a reference source.

Clan name was surname of sorts The American Indian’s identity was through the clan and tribe. All members of the extended family identified themselves with the leader of the clan, the matron or patron, and used her or his name as an identifier. Clans and important individuals might also take on the name of an animal that was important to them, such as bear, beaver, lynx, or whale. Members married outside their extended family clan, usually within the tribe, but intertribal marriages were not uncommon. A first name was given to a child at birth but was held secret to protect the power in the name from anyone who would misuse it. Boys were usually named for a warrior, animal, bird, or sky event, e.g., Big Thunder, Elk, Eagle. Girls often received names from the earth, water, or plants, e.g., Green Valley, Babbling Water, Sweet Grass. A nickname chosen by the mother was for everyday use, such as Little Frog or Blue Flower. In the Northeast and eastern Canada, American Indians who were converted to Catholicism by French missionaries were given Christian names that were used interchangeably with their Indian names. European names usually underwent pronunciation changes. For example, Marie became Molly, Jacques was Sac or Soc, and Jean-Baptiste was pronounced as Sabatis. Laurent became Lola. The letters r and l were interchangeable. The French ou became w in the Indian languages. Knowing these quirks in translation might help family genealogists in their record searches. American Indians of present-day Canada sometimes intermarried with the French and their offspring were called métis. First Métis Families of Quebec, 1622-1748, by Gail Morin, includes fifty-six such families, often through three generations.


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