Determining Your Native American Ancestry through DNA
As you begin to dive into your family’s history and genealogy, many questions will likely arise, some you may have never considered. As you research, you may discover that you have Native American ancestors somewhere in your family tree. Does that make you eligible for tribal membership? Not necessarily.
It is not uncommon for many who live in North America to believe they have Native American ancestors. Because paper records are often difficult to locate, particularly older ones, DNA testing can be a helpful tool when constructing your family tree or when looking for genealogical answers to your Native American past.
DNA data is useful information when tracing ancestry. It tells you from which areas of the world your ancestors came, and it can be a helpful guide for further research. DNA is a testable link to your past.
This guide will help you understand the different types of DNA tests, what you can expect to discover, and how to use those results to determine your ancestry.
Before we get started, I want to make it clear that having Native American DNA and being Native American are NOT the same thing. It does not mean you are a Native American, nor does it mean your ancestor was Native American. It simply means you and your ancestor most likely had Native American DNA.
Understanding Your Purpose for DNA Testing
Before you start ordering a DNA test kit, be sure you understand what you will learn. There are a few misconceptions about what you will learn from DNA testing. When it comes to Native American genealogy, there are even more myths about how DNA information can be helpful.
DNA information will not be able to tell you from which tribe your ancestors came, nor will it help you join the membership roll of a recognized tribe. Understanding these limitations though will help you utilize your DNA information better when identifying your ancestral heritage.
DNA testing can provide you with helpful information about the percentage of your DNA that is Native American. Depending on which side of your family your Native American ancestors were, and which DNA test you select, you can gain helpful insights into your Native American past for many generations.
To learn more about your ancestor’s tribe and to find the evidence to prove your relationship with that tribe, though, you will need to use genealogical records and documents. In other words, traditional genealogical research is still essential, even with DNA information.
Because each tribe has different criteria for becoming a recognized member, that documentation will be even more critical if tribal membership is your goal. No tribe allows DNA evidence as the sole criteria for admittance.
Starting with a DNA test may not always be the best route to take.
Gathering genealogical information about your family first may help you decide which DNA test may be the appropriate choice.
Research can help you narrow your focus to which family line may belong to your Native American ancestor.
This guide will help you understand what information you can learn from various types of tests, and we’ll even provide you with some suggestions for further research, should you want to learn more about your Native American ancestry.
Types of DNA Tests
There are three main types of DNA tests used in genealogical research, and each will tell you something different, as they look at different parts of your DNA.
The three most common DNA tests are:
- Autosomal tests, which examine your overall genetic makeup.
- Mitochondrial or mtDNA tests, which examine your mother’s direct ancestral line.
- Y-line or Y-DNA tests, which examine your father’s direct ancestral line.
The first type of DNA testing offered by most kits today is the autosomal test. This test represents the most popular DNA test on the market, and it will give you information about both sides of your family within the last 5-7 generations.
Your DNA comes from both your mother and your father. Each of their DNA came from both of their parents. Parents pass on different genes to different children, so your ancestral genetic code will not be identical to your siblings (unless you’re identical twins), and your parents’ code would not look the same as your aunts’ or uncles.’
Results from autosomal DNA testing show you two things:
- Ethnicity estimates
- A list of matches with whom you share DNA
Remember these are estimates, and they won’t tell you from which side of your family you inherited that ethnicity or how your match is related to you.
When examining autosomal DNA, you are looking at the collective record of all your genes, but because you only receive a little from each previous generation, your DNA represents roughly six percent of each of your 2x great grandparents.
That’s 1/16 of your DNA code coming from your great-great-grandparents.
Anyone can take the autosomal DNA test. If your autosomal results reveal less than six percent Native American, you may have trouble finding documented Native American ancestors in your ancestry. If it shows a number higher than that, you may wish to continue further to find possible ancestors and their tribal affiliations.
If an autosomal test doesn’t show any Native American DNA, that doesn’t mean you’re not Native American.
It could mean any number of things such as:
- The DNA of your Native ancestor was washed out at some point – meaning one of your ancestors (maybe even you) simply did not inherit that part of the DNA even though your Native ancestor lived in that 5-7 generation window. This explanation is least likely.
- Your Native roots are farther back than 5-7 generations which could mean your Native DNA was less than 1% and therefore not reported.
To confirm Native American DNA this far back, you’ll need to take either a YDNA or mtDNA test.
For more on autosomal DNA, see my guide here.
Male children inherit Y-DNA from their fathers. The Y chromosome is what makes men different than women, and only men carry this chromosome.
Y-DNA changes slowly over time and therefore testing your Y-DNA allows you to examine your father’s lineage back thousands of years.
A Y-DNA test looks only at the direct paternal line of the person being tested. So for example, if your father’s mother’s ancestral line is your Native American connection, then a YDNA test will not detect it.
If you’re trying to prove Native American DNA, you typically want to start with a hypothesis of which line if your family tree might be the connection.
To test other lines of your tree, you need to ask a male relative on that direct paternal line to take the test for you.
Using the example above of your father’s mother’s line, you would need to test a male relative on the direct line of your father’s mother’s FATHER.
Because only males can have their Y-DNA tested, it can take an extra step to trace your father’s ancestry if you are a woman. You can ask any man with the same paternal lineage as you to take the test for you, as it will reveal the same information. You could ask your father or paternal grandfather, a brother, or a nephew or male cousin from that side of your family to take the test and share their results.
FamilyTreeDNA is the only company with a dedicated Y-DNA test. They currently test either 37, 67, or 111 markers on your Y-DNA. Testing more markers increases the confidence of the results. Testing for fewer than 37 markers is likely to give you very little useful information.
Your Y-DNA results will show you matches as well as your paternal haplogroup. If you believe that your Native American ancestors were on your father’s direct, this is the test for you.
Remember, women must find a male relative from the same paternal lineage to take the Y-DNA test for them.
mtDNA is inherited directly from your mother, whether you are male or female. This DNA allows you to examine your mother’s direct line lineage back thousands of years. Think of it as the opposite of YDNA.
If you believe that your Native American ancestors were on your mother’s direct line, and you find markers for Native American in your mtDNA, you have a strong clue that you need to gather more evidence on your mother’s direct line to prove the connection.
When selecting an mtDNA test, choose one that examines the entire DNA strand (the full sequence), not just a portion. This will give you more helpful and precise information. If you are somewhat confident that you have a Native American ancestor in your mother’s line, this is a good test for you to select.
The same rules apply as discussed above for YDNA regarding who to test and who not to test.
Again, only FamilyTreeDNA offers a dedicated mtDNA test. Anyone can take the mtDNA test, regardless of sex. That is not the case for Y-DNA.
Understanding Your Haplogroups
When humans first started migrating across the globe, they moved out of Africa to spread across the continents. As different groups became more isolated from one another, their DNA began to reflect mutations that were unique to each population. These sets of mutations represent haplogroups, which are mainly DNA profiles for each of these isolated groups.
Haplogroups help geneticists and genealogists identify where groups migrated and settled. Some groups were larger and more common, while others stayed isolated to small areas or followed migrations patterns that were specific to only their group.
When you examine DNA and see evidence of various haplogroups, you can make inferences about where your ancestors migrated from and to, which can help you narrow down your genealogical research.
The pre-European haplogroups of North and South America are distinctive from those in the rest of the world because of their extended period of isolation from others. This information is especially relevant if you discover markers for Native Americans in your DNA. That is a reliable indicator that you have Native American ancestors in your family tree.
Only mtDNA and Y-DNA test results will show your haplogroups. When pursuing DNA testing, be sure you understand what information you will gain, which can be helpful in your continued research into your family tree. Having realistic expectations will help you as you move forward.
Tribal Registry and Genealogical Research
If you have several Native American ancestors, but they are from different tribes, you may not qualify for tribal status. Most tribes want evidence and documentation that shows a direct relationship with a member of their tribe, and while your DNA may suggest you have several Native American ancestors, if they were from different tribes, that will not be sufficient in most cases to be admitted to one specific tribe.
DNA test results are excellent starting places when you are trying to eliminate or prove the possibility of a Native American in your family’s genealogy. It can tell you if additional research is warranted and, if you used a gender-specific test, will tell you in which line of your family to focus your attention.
Regardless of what your DNA profile shows, you will still have to find documentation and evidence to prove your Native American ancestry if you wish to be considered for tribal enrollment. Most tribes require a significant paper trail to document your relationship with a tribe member.
These records include but are not limited to birth, death, and marriage documents. Each tribe has different requirements, so you should always check to be clear about what is needed before you begin your search, as it may save you countless hours of frustrating searches.
The most helpful thing you can do immediately to benefit your search for a Native American ancestor is to determine the location where that person may have lived. Because tribes are mainly confined to geographic areas, determining where and when the possible ancestor lived will be very helpful to narrowing the possible tribe affiliations as well as locating additional records.
If your family already has a family tree, start there. Try to narrow the time frame and location down as much as possible so you can begin searching city records, archives, tribal registries, and census documentation for clues about your family’s past.
When you test with certain companies, you get a list of DNA matches – from first cousins all the way out to sixth cousins. Examining their family trees and documentation is a great place to start your research.
Learn more about the Native American groups in that region during that period, which can help you rule out many tribal groups and narrow your search further. Contact state and local organizations that specialize in historical records and look online for archived documents.
Finding genealogical documentation can be tricky, and asking for help from others can be helpful. Keep reading to learn more about how to find information about your family’s history.
Expanding Your Search for Native American Ancestors
Once you have DNA evidence, it is time to consider your next steps. If your DNA profile does not provide sufficient evidence of a Native American connection, though, what should you do? Many of us have family stories about a Native American ancestor, or you may be confident some of your family’s physical traits are indicative of Native American genes. If your DNA test does not confirm this, should you give up searching for Native American family members? Maybe not.
First, consider your test results. If you tested autosomal DNA, it might be that the genetic code is too watered down with all your ancestors’ DNA in there – meaning your Native American connection is more than 5-7 generations back.
Trying the mtDNA or Y-DNA test may be an appropriate next step. When considering Y-DNA and mtDNA, remember you must test someone in the same direct paternal (Y-DNA) or maternal (mtDNA) line as the possible ancestor.
If you suspect your mother’s father’s line has Native American roots, you need to test a family member in that direct paternal line.. Uncles, great-uncles, and even remote cousins will still carry that DNA if they share the paternal line.
Reaching out to distant relatives could yield helpful DNA information, but you also may find helpful genealogical details, too. Others in your family may have already done some research on the family tree, so reach out to ask what others’ already know.
In some instances, starting with DNA testing may not be the best move. Instead, by starting with standard genealogical research to narrow down which part of your family contains the possible lineage, you will have a better idea where to begin DNA testing. You can then find an appropriate male or female from that line with whom to discuss possible DNA testing. This could save you some headache and money if you are not sure where the Native American ancestor lies on your family tree.
Additional Uses for DNA Information
Once you have completed your DNA test, you can use your results to find relatives online. Autosomal DNA is particularly helpful in finding cousins, even ones who are distantly related.
Most commercial DNA testing companies offer services that allow you to connect with others in their databases. Each has its own rules, opt-in/-out policies, and pricing structures, but many people find this an excellent way to connect with family members they have maybe never met or about whom they weren’t aware.
AncestryDNA currently has the largest database for DNA profiles, but FamilyTreeDNA, 23andMe, and MyHeritage also allow you to connect with people you match. Examine each company’s policies and procedures for match communication before selecting a DNA test.
Connecting with cousins, aunts, and other relatives is another good way to continue your research into possible Native American ancestors. Some may already be doing genealogical research for your family, while others may have records and documentation from their parents or grandparents. You may even find someone with the evidence you need to prove your Native American connection.
Family Tree DNA Projects
Many websites run family history projects. You can use your DNA test results to join any one of these to learn more about your family’s lineage and history.
If you select FamilyTreeDNA as your testing company, you will enjoy excellent support in this area. They have thousands of active genealogical projects you can participate in with your DNA results, and the helpful volunteers who man these programs can assist you with locating information, connecting you with others, and answering your questions.
Others who are also studying genealogy also have many resources they are likely to share with you. These projects are great ways to connect with others, and fellow genealogists may be able to offer you new ideas for how to find the information you seek.
Limitations and Benefits of DNA Information
DNA information can be a very convenient tool when exploring your ancestry, but it does have its limitations. DNA profiles from commercial companies give you estimated information. While they are calculated by using scientifically-proven methods, they aren’t infallible. Your results can sometimes include false positives and other misinformation.
If your DNA test comes back without any information about a Native American ancestor, you may be wondering about all those family tales. If the family lore includes a Native American ancestor, don’t give up. Try doing more research. There may be reasons why a DNA test does not support this story, so keep researching. Just know that it’s very likely the family story was false.
It is not uncommon for people to think, though, that they had a Native American relative when, in fact, it was someone of Asian or African descent. Family stories were sometimes fabricated to remove the stigma of a specific race or ethnicity within the gene pool, and claiming Native American blood was one way to do that. If your DNA profile indicates an ancestor from Africa or Asia or even the Middle East, you may have your answer.
Many families had reasons for creating stories about Native American ancestors, and you may never get to the bottom of your own family’s lore. Claiming Native American blood could have been a way to cover up other truths, or it could have been a guess on someone’s part back when records were not as accessible. Regardless, use the evidence and records you can locate rather than word of mouth if you want to uncover the facts.
Using DNA for Genealogical Research Can Be Powerful
The information that DNA testing can provide is an excellent tool for building your family’s historical record, but remember that DNA alone will not help you register with a tribe. The genealogical documentation and research you gain from your efforts are the only thing that will help you, if that is your main goal.
Remember, having Native American DNA does not mean you ARE Native American, nor does it mean your ancestor was Native American. Culture and genetic profiles are two very different things.