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.
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:
- Establish a direct paternal or maternal lineage
- Find out how large a portion of your ancestry is Native American
- Connect with distant family member to expand your research
- 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.
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.
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. More on the best mtDNA tests here.
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. Read more about the different types of DNA tests.
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.
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. Read more about this.
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.
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.
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.
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. See our complete review of FamilyTreeDNA here: https://www.smarterhobby.com/genealogy/family-tree-dna-review/
The more markers the test looks at, the more detailed and accurate your results will be.
Some Y-DNA testing 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.
FamilyTreeDNA will give you the most detailed haplogroup reporting. 23andMe (review here) also reports on haplogroups, but the level of detail is not the same as FTDNA.
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 American Indian 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.
The section above can be hard to understand at first, but it’s quite simple. I highly recommend you read this section multiple times.
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.
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.