Native American DNA Test - Which DNA Test is Best and How to Choose
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Best DNA Test for Native American Ancestry

In North America, many families believe they have Native American ancestors.

Paper records can be near impossible to track down. That’s why many people are turning to DNA for the answer.

DNA can’t be faked, and it can’t be lost.

It is a permanent, testable link to your family’s past. And it can help you connect with your Native American ancestors, too.

Want to know if you're Native American? This article will show you how to find out through DNA testing.

For those who don't want to read this article and just want to know the best DNA test for Native American ancestry, we highly recommend FamilyTreeDNA (view website and see pricing).

What is Your Goal?

First things first - what is your goal? What are you hoping to find out or prove?

A DNA test can help you:

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    Establish a direct paternal or maternal lineage
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    Find out how large a portion of your ancestry is Native American
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    Connect with distant family member to expand your research
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    Focus your research on particular regions or family lines

So, if your goal is to discover your ethnicity or to further your genealogical research, a DNA test is perfect for you.

However, if your goal is actually to become an enrolled member of a federally recognized tribe, a DNA test is not going to do that for you all by itself.

Even if your test shows a very high percentage of Native American ancestry, it can never identify a particular tribe or combination of tribes.

For that, you still have to do it the old-fashioned way, with solid research and documentation.

But your DNA test can give you the clues you need to get you pointed in the right direction.

Ultimately you'll need to show documentation of your direct lineage to apply to any tribe. DNA tests can help you get started in your search from those documents.

Types of DNA Tests

There are three major DNA tests used in genealogy today. Each one examines a different part of your DNA, and each one can tell you different things.

Autosomal DNA

By far the most popular and the one you see advertised on TV all the time.

This is passed on to you from all of your ancestors and can tell you about your entire family tree.

But it can’t help you trace back more than five to seven generations. Still, if you’re looking to affiliate with a tribe, that may be enough to help.

mtDNA

This gets passed on intact and nearly unchanged from mothers to all of their children, both male and female.

It may let you trace your direct maternal line back 50 generations or more, but it tells you nothing about your ancestors outside your direct maternal line.

YDNA

This is passed on intact and almost unchanged from father to son.

That means it can let you trace your direct paternal line back a very long way, often two or three dozen generations, but it tells you nothing about your other ancestors.

Also, YDNA tests can only be done on males.

Females wanting a YDNA test would have to ask a male relative in the same paternal line to take the test for them (i.e. grandfather, father, brother, cousin, nephew).

Which Test to Choose?

Each test has its benefits and uses in genealogy. All three tests can help you connect with distant family members.

An autosomal DNA test is going to tell you roughly what percentage of your DNA comes from Native American ancestors, but it is only an estimate.

If you want to be certain that you have Native American ancestors, the mtDNA and YDNA tests are the way to go.

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Use common sense when choosing a test, too. If it is your mother’s family that has Native American ancestry, taking a YDNA test will be worthless for proving the connection since you’d be testing your paternal line. Likewise, an mtDNA test won’t tell you anything about your father’s ancestry.

Autosomal DNA Test

An autosomal DNA test is better for ruling out Native American ancestry than it is for proving it.

Your autosomal DNA comes from all of your ancestors and gets mixed with every generation.

That means you get half of it from your father and half from your mother. Your dad got half from his father and half from his mother, and so on back through the generations.

That means that by the time go you back four generations, to your 3x great-grandparents, you are only getting about 1/16, or 6%, of your DNA from each.

For many federally recognized tribes, 1/16 ancestry is also the bare minimum for being accepted as a registered member of the tribe.

Even if your 6x great-grandparent born in 1790 was 100% Native American (and their spouse was European), the most Native ancestry you could show is less than 1% which is less than what most DNA companies will report on.

That’s why autosomal DNA tests aren’t all that great once you get beyond 5-6 generations.

Ethnicity Estimate

When you get your autosomal DNA tested, it will provide you with an ethnicity report that estimates what percentage of your ancestry comes from various regions around the world. For example, one person’s report might say:

If your report comes back with less than 6% Native American, chances are you won’t qualify to become an enrolled member of any tribe.

But if you’re more interested in just finding out who your ancestors were, it’s a definite indicator that you’re looking in the right place.

Even if your Native American estimate is much higher than 6%, that still doesn’t mean you are a shoo-in for tribal membership.

That contribution may have come from several different tribes. You still have to have solid to research and documentation back it up.

On the other hand, if your test comes back at 2% or less Native American, you may not have any native ancestors at all.

Remember, these numbers are just estimates. They are backed by a lot of science and research, but they aren’t perfect. You can get false positives.

The purpose of an autosomal test for Native American ancestry is to provide clues and point you in the right direction for additional genealogical research.

Finding Cousins

One of the best uses for an autosomal DNA test is finding your relatives online.

Autosomal DNA testing is going to find matches out to third, fourth, and sometimes fifth cousins.

Different companies that offer the test have various methods for connecting with DNA matches.

FamilyTreeDNA offers the widest set of results because it lets you connect with all of your matches.

Other companies, like AncestryDNA, have larger databases of matches, but each person has to opt-in to share their results, and you can only contact matches anonymously to start.

Either way, connecting with your cousins is an excellent way to expand your research.

Because your cousins are fairly closely related to you, there is a good chance they are studying the same family lines as you.

They may already have the proof you are looking for to connect you with your Native American ancestry.

mtDNA Test

An mtDNA test looks at a piece of DNA (the mitochondria) that is passed on directly from a mother to all of her children.

That makes it perfect for investigating a direct maternal line.

Because mtDNA changes so slowly, the test results tell you more about the distant past than the recent past.

That’s a good thing.

If your test shows a haplogroup that is found primarily in Native Americans, it can be a powerful indicator that you’re on the right track, and you should focus your research on your maternal line.

Even within mtDNA tests, different tests look at a portion of the DNA strand or the entire strand.

The tests that examine the entire mtDNA strand are going to be more precise and informative, but also more expensive. If you’re going to get an mtDNA test, you should test the full strand.

Both males and females can take mtDNA tests.

YDNA Test

It is the Y-chromosome that makes men different from women.

Men have a Y-chromosome, women don’t. That means that only men can take a YDNA test.

With that being said, a woman can still test her direct paternal line by asking a male relative in the same paternal line to take the test for them.

YDNA changes very slowly over time, so it helps us look far back into the past, but only in a direct paternal line.

There are different levels of YDNA tests you can get based on how many specific genetic markers they examine.

FamilyTreeDNA, for example, offers tests that look at 37, 67, or 111 different genetic markers (which they call Y-37, Y-67, and Y-111).

The most popular YDNA test is the 37 marker from FamilyTreeDNA.

The more markers the test looks at, the more detailed and accurate your results will be.

Some companies may offer less expensive tests that look at fewer markers, but generally, you want the test to cover a minimum of 37 markers.

Like with mtDNA, a YDNA test is going to determine your haplogroup.

Just like mtDNA haplogroups, YDNA haplogroups provide information on who our ancient ancestors were and how they traveled.

And in the same way, the YDNA haplogroups found in North and South America are distinct from the rest of the world.

Belonging to a Native American haplogroup is a solid indicator of Native American ancestry.

What is a Haplogroup?

Tens of thousands of years ago, humans moved out of Africa to migrate throughout the world in small groups.

As they became separated from each other, each of these groups developed unique mutations in their DNA that makes them different from the other groups.

A haplogroup is simply a particular set of genetic mutations.

They can be used to help us identify how our ancestors migrated and where they settled.

An mtDNA test is going to tell you your maternal haplogroup. Some haplogroups are relatively common and spread across large parts of the world.

Others are limited historically to small regions or specific migration routes.

Humans arrived in North and South America thousands of years ago and were isolated from the rest of the world for most of that time.

That means that the haplogroups common to Native Americans are somewhat distinct from those found in other regions of the world.

If you are linked to one of these haplogroups, it is a very strong indicator of Native American ancestry.

Surname Projects

YDNA runs in direct paternal lines, and most of the time, so do surnames.

Surname projects take advantage of this fact. A surname project is a group of people who share the same surname, and who want to connect with relatives and fellow researchers.

By joining a surname project and sharing your YDNA results, you can become instantly connected to dozens or even hundreds of relatives who share your DNA and your interest in genealogy.

Surname projects can be a great boon to anyone, including those researching their Native American ancestry.

The other members of the project may have already done tons of research that you can incorporate into your family tree right away.

Expanding Your Search

The greatest drawback to the mtDNA and YDNA tests is that they only provide information about a single family line. If that’s the line, you want to test, great.

But what if it isn’t?

Say for example your Native American ancestry comes from your mother’s father.

That puts the Native ancestry in a male line, so a YDNA test is needed.

But your mother didn’t get a Y-chromosome from her father, so can’t take a YDNA test.

And you did not inherit the YDNA of your maternal grandfather.

What can you do?

The answer is to use your extended family. Your mother can’t be tested for YDNA, but her brother (your uncle) can.

So can his sons (your cousins). They all have the same YDNA your maternal grandfather did.

Similarly, you can get results for your father’s maternal line the same way using an mtDNA test.

You can either have him tested directly, testing any of his brothers or sisters or by testing anyone else in that direct maternal line.

By reaching out to second and third cousins, you may be able to get results for the maternal and paternal line of every one of your great-grandparents.

Every company that does DNA testing will let you buy test kits as gifts for your relatives.

Just be sure they are willing to take the test and share their results before you start spending money.

Not sure which line in your tree carries the Native American DNA?

In this scenario, you might consider first taking the standard autosomal test to narrow your search. Hopefully, through cousin-matching, genealogical research, and processes of elimination, you’ll be able to narrow your focus on a few lines.

Then just figure out who you can have tested from those direct paternal or maternal lines with YDNA/mtDNA testing.

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The section above can be hard to understand at first, but it's quite simple. I highly recommend you read this section multiple times.

FamilyTreeDNA Projects

Several websites offer projects that you can join based on your DNA results. FamilyTreeDNA offers some of the best support in this area.

FamilyTreeDNA has nearly 10,000 active projects based on surnames, mtDNA lineage, and geography projects based on both YDNA and mtDNA results.

These projects are run by volunteers who will help you connect with other researchers, share information with each other, and answer questions.

They’re an excellent way to help you smash through brick walls in your research by sharing your problems with others and getting their feedback on solutions. They may even already have exactly the piece of evidence you’re looking for!

I Know I’m Native American, but the Test Says I’m Not!
What happens if you don’t get the results you expected?

It means it’s time for more research.

There are a couple of reasons your test might be telling you something unexpected.

You Might Be Looking at the Wrong Line

Remember that YDNA and mtDNA tests only look at a single direct line going back in time.

If the ancestor you seek isn’t in one of those lines, he or she might be harder to locate.

Check the Expand Your Search section above for ways to get past this.

Your Family May Have Lied or Were Misinformed

I’m sure that’s not what you want to hear, but in some cases, those stories about a Native American ancestor are complete fabrications.

Why would your ancestors have lied?

There are a couple of reasons:

First, there is the mystique aspect. While Native Americans remained second-class citizens for a long time, there was still an air of mystery and awe about the “noble savage.”

Claiming such a heritage might have helped bolster an ancestor’s reputation.

More often, though, “Grandma was a Cherokee princess” was used to cover up some other ancestry.

In many cases, Grandma wasn’t Native American; she was African or Asian. There was so much discrimination against mixed-race children of African Americans in particular that claiming any other ancestry was considered better.

So if your YDNA/mtDNA results don’t show Native American, but do show African, Asian, or Middle Eastern, trust the DNA, not the family legend.

Summary

If your goal is to become a registered member of a federally recognized tribe, a DNA test by itself will not be enough.

You always have to back it up with good old-fashioned documentation and research.

But DNA testing is a great place to begin your hunt for your Native American ancestors and can prove/disprove that you’re looking in the right place.

Even better than that, it can connect you with distant relatives who are researching the same families, saving you countless hours of work and frustration.

Mark Orwig
 

My name is Mark Orwig and I am obsessed with keeping my mind busy, keeping active, and staying healthy.

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Grady Dagnan

hardy

Location
Chattanooga Tn
Larry

Hi mark my wife’s grandma said she was Cherokee what kind of dna test does she need to take to check this?

Melody Card

I screwed up it was my paternal great grandma that was Native not maternal but my maternal was gypsy. So I guess I should get my other brother or cousin to take the test…

Luz Bernard

Hi, I have done the Ancestry.com DNA test and it came back I’m 58% Native American. What is the best way to find out what tribe(s) speficially I may belong to?

Allison Norwood

Hello, I have completed the Ancestry DNA and it includes < 1% Native American. I would like to find out, if possible, what that might be. Since I have already done an autosomal test, do you recommend others or can I find out. Thanks. Allison

Jennifer

Hi Mark,

I am not sure what test to take, I am trying to do a cpl different things, One is find my half siblings or any family in my fathers side (he has passed away since 92) I am also trying to find out approximately how much Native American I am. I have been told my father was 1/2 Cherokee and half Suix. Grandfather was Suix (100%), Grandma Cherokee (100%) Kinda confused which one would be best to help with both situations.
Thank you
Jennifer

Kendra newborn

Hi mark, I’m trying to determine Indian heritage, my mom’s mom ( my grandma) was suppose to be Cherokee, sue and Blackfoot . I want to know what I am, which test would be good to do?

Gayle

Hi Mark. Hope you can help. We have always been told that our Great Great Grandmother on my Mother’s side was Native American. Problem is the blood line goes GG Grandmother, G Grandmother, Grandfather, Mother, me. I’m only looking to confirm the information and I’m not sure which DNA test would be best. Autosomal or mtDNA? I do have a female relative who is the daughter of my Grandfather’s sister. What would you suggest? Thanks for the information.

tammy

Ok, I will read this again, but still a little confused. My husbands GGGG grandmother on his fathers side was full blooded Indian. So which test is best?

Shirley Schou

Hi was wondering what to check out my great great grandmother on my mother’s side of family again was suppose to have Indian heritage Born in 1847. Was wondering what kit to look at. Thanks

John

Hey Mark,
In your article, you say that if I’m “Not sure which line in your tree carries the Native American DNA? In this scenario, you might consider first taking the standard autosomal test to narrow your search.”

My question is: How would an autosomal test ‘narrow down’ my search? It will not list specifics about which family line (father or mother) contains any Native American DNA, will it?

Thanks much,
John

Drew

Unable to research direct or even indirect family line for 100% confirmation of Native American ancestry due to Michigan Court Seal on Adoption records.

I don’t want to read through 13,009 pages of Raw DNA DATA….but:

Is there a specific RSID and/or Position that would ring the bell so to speak?

I know about the AA vs TT identifiers…but only managed to get though 250 pages before Eyestrain set in.

It’s an Identity confirmation issue.

I do of course realized that you are “Just” the Blogger…but from the amount of research you seemed to put into this topic, I figured I’d throw you the question.

Dawn

Hello Mark,

My father’s side is known to be native american. However, I don’t have communication with him or his family. Could I do a YDNA on my son to get my father’s DNA?

AM

Mark I am from Louisiana. I know for certain that my father’s mother was a 1/2 blood Indian, and my great grandfather was a full blood. Contrary to popular belief…all Native Americans were/are not enrolled in tribes. I think my grandmother said my great grandfather was a Blackfoot. However, there are not many, if any blackfeet in Louisiana. I think she was mistaken. I contacted the tribe, and not surprisingly my grandmother’s original last name was not listed on the rolls. My great grandfather was with a black woman. They produced my grandmother. She married a black man, and produced… Read more »

Crystal

Ive been told that on my fathers side my great great grandmother i think thata the one. Was taken as a child by native americans. They killed her family and raiaed her as their own. She then had children an so on. I dont speak to any of my family. I want to know if its true an if so what percentage am i?

Brian

Would like to find out more info on signing up for the Indian heritage and what I need to do to get started when I was adopted and don’t know my biological family I know I have Indian in me but that’s all I know thank you

Andres

Hi Mark, I have Native American ancestors on both my mothers and fathers side. But on my dads side I have Afrocaribbean ancestry. Which tests do you suggest that I could take? Taking a test here is quite expensive since companys dont ship to the Duth Caribbean, I didnt find a company in South America/Caribbean that do DNA tests. Do you happen to know of a project or DNA company in my region? Also I would like to know from which region in South America my Amerindian ancestors are from. So, do I need to take multiple tests, and are… Read more »

Diana Aversa

Hi Mark, my father DNA shows he is 69% Native American and my mom DNA showed she is 47% Native American. I know my great great grandmother on my mothers side is Cherokee. I don’t know what tribe my father comes from. My brother and nephew did their DNA tests and showed over 40% on both. Which test to you recommend I take? I would very much like to know the tribe. Please advise.
Thank you
DianaAversa

Jill

My great uncle is almost 102. We think his mother was half Native American. The Native contribution would be her father. My great uncle has agreed to do a dna test to help prove or disprove this theory. What is the best type of test? Not Y, of course. Would a mtDNA test reveal more or less than an autosomal test? Thank you

Maria Ortiz

I have a (male) double cousin Our mothers were sisters and our dads were brothers (2 sisters married to 2 brothers)all are deceased Would I get a better result to find out about our native american ancestry if he did the DNA tests??? Thanks

Shannon Hall

Hi Mark,My father-in-law claimed Native American ancestry,his son,my brother in law disputes that claim.Said to have done testing about 30 yrs.ago. Now,my son’s want to be tested. Which company, and do they need both the male and female tests?? Father-in-law said N.A. line was from his mothers line. Thank you,
Shannon Hall P.S.He completed the National Geograhic Geneology test that didn’t show anything in North America.?? Nor did my own.

Jennifer

I want blood test for info on my Indian heritage. My great great grandma on moms side is supposed to be Cherokee. Hitting a break wall with proving it. Would also like to find family that’s a direct link to me that shows Indian in blood. What would be the best test. I also wanted to check Indian blood on grandfathers side and great grand fathers side which would be the best test for that? Thanks

Myrna Jean Rochat Madigan

Mark, I have several family lines that go back into the 1600s in this country. I’ve been told if your family has been here more than 200 years you probably have Indian blood. I don’t really need to know which tribe but I have a few brick walls mostly in the Northeast prior to 1800. I’m mainly interested in 5-8 generations including me. I believe an Indian forbears are entirely possible. Identifying a tribe isn’t necessary, I just want to know if I should research the American Indian possibility. I will appreciate your recommendations. Thank you, Myrna

Hilda

Mark: I had my MTDNA test and the result was a DNA J1b which could not give me a solid explanation of who I am. I kept checking over a period of time. Now that the update status of my dna I found out that I have a middle eastern dna and not a Native american ethnic background which is on my mother’s side of the family they are Native Americans from the Wampanoag tribe in Massachusetts with a cousin that is one of the chiefs in the tribe. My question is: Is there a chance of quite a bit… Read more »

Nancy Mervau

Hi Mark,
I had my daughter at 16. We have no contact with her biological father. She is now 43 and wants to prove her lineage. Her biological father is Indian from his mother. What test would you recommend? Thank you

Mary (Francoeur) Klempay

OK Mark, Where would you start with finding the Potawatomie Indian lineage in my mother’s father’s side of the family. My maternal grandfather came from French Canada and has been said by other members from Canada that they had Potawatomie Indian in my grandfather’s lineage. On my way to Novis Scotia driving through the Quebec providence I saw the Francoeur name sprawled across an old motel/hotel from the highway I was on. My concern is that it was probably one of the French Canadian men that married a female from the tribe. What is the best way to tackle this… Read more »

David

My dad always thought his mom what full blood Cherokee. Which DNA test would be best for me? Thanks!

carolyn

I was adopted. I am female. I am not interested in finding living relatives. I believe I have english, french, nativie americain etc. I would like the dna test to go back as far as possible and on both my mothers and fathers side. So I believe I need the auto…..and the mt…..test done. which site do you suggest.?
Carolyn