Native American Ancestry: Family Lore, Oral Swabs, and Enrollment Cards
By Mark Vezzola, CILS Escondido office Directing Attorney
Have you ever heard someone claim their great-grandmother was a Cherokee princess? Or that their ancestors include the Lakota holy man Sitting Bull? Until recently, most of what people knew about their family history came from older relatives, maybe even old photos and letters. Today, anyone with internet access and a credit card can get a DNA test, submit an oral swab, and presto – almost instantly, they get the location of their family’s origins, percentages by region or group, and with some services, even the names of extended relatives and known genetic abnormalities that run in the family.
Native American ancestry seems to get special attention from people who take the 23andMe and Ancestry.com tests. While they do not distinguish between North and South America or reference particular tribes (which are political bodies and not family groups sharing genetic markers), people sometimes are surprised to learn they have Native American roots. Beyond making for interesting cocktail party conversation (remember when we had parties during pre-COVID times?), this information can fill in gaps in family trees that were often overlooked or deliberately concealed out of fear of stigma and/or discrimination.
But does Native American ancestry get a person anything tangible, like a share of profits from an Indian casino? The answer is, it depends. Learning you have Indian ancestry can be the first step in forming a connection to a Native American Tribe or community. Most tribes require more to enroll as a member (which is similar to citizenship), such as a minimum amount of Tribal or Indian blood or a family tree showing lineal descent from a Tribal member. While Indian ancestry by itself does not guarantee formal Tribal enrollment, it can help a person seeking a political status that can unlock healthcare benefits, Tribal voting rights, job and scholarship opportunities, and more.
Keep in mind that individuals can be descended from and/or have connections to more than one tribe. Some tribes contain multiple bands, regions, or districts, such as the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe, which is made up of six distinct bands, including Leech Lake and Mille Lacs. Cultural groups like the Kumeyaay occupy both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. Several sovereign tribal Kumeyaay nations recognized by the United States government, like the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation and the Jamul Indian Village, have reservations in southeastern San Diego County. Kumeyaay villages previously existed in the Mexican municipalities of Ensenada and Mexicali were where their descendants live today.
CILS does not represent individuals seeking to enroll in Native American tribes. Tribes, which are sovereign nations, have the sovereign power to determine membership criteria and approve or deny enrollment applications. When people call CILS with questions about Native American ancestry, we provide general information about the potential benefits of formal enrollment in a tribe, contact information for the tribe(s) the caller believes s/he/they descend from, and a disclaimer that Tribes rarely if ever charge a fee to enroll. CILS is aware of some “Tribes” that advertise membership for a hefty fee and tout all sorts of empty benefits. We encourage anyone interested in Tribal enrollment to contact the Tribe directly to do more research on the requirements.