Manataka American Indian Council

  Proudly Presents


Circles & Arrows

Native American

(Hidden) Heritage




Edited & Designed by Kathleen Riemenschneider






Family history is the one unifying thread that runs through everyone’s life. If all else seems to be in flux, your family heritage remains the same. No matter what you do in life, your family history belongs uniquely to you, yet makes you part of a tradition that goes beyond yourself and your own time. You can ignore your roots or even try to renounce them, but you can never change or destroy them.


Modern psychology now recognizes that learning about our past vastly improves our understanding of ourselves. We as individuals cannot be isolated from either the present or past generations of our family.


Families, it seems, transmit across many generations values, expectations, even sentiments and emotions. A fear of falling short of expectations or a feeling that family problems are your own fault can be passed on in a family as surely as brown hair, high cheekbones and broad shoulders.


Psychiatrists in clinical practice have suggested that the person who understands the patterns of thinking and feeling that emerge over generations of family history is likely to function better as a secure, responsible, self-directed person. For people with Native American heritage, this vital information has sometimes been lost, hidden and/or denied which can create cultural patterns of shame, denial and deception. In learning about the hidden history of [this country] and in uncovering our families’ hidden heritage, we begin the process of developing a sense of identity and pride. By using participatory songs, stories and other methods, participants immediately become involved in the process of discovering the hidden heritage of their families and communities.


In seeking the history of our family we experience the joys of discovering information long forgotten and the satisfaction of preserving memories that might otherwise be lost forever. As a family historian we recreate the lives of our ancestors. We unravel mysteries about our past, beginning to understand why family members act as they do, even how we came to be who we are. Studying family history brings us closer to parents, grandparents, children and other kin, while offering us a sense of continuity in a world of bewildering change. It’s no accident that genealogy is the most common hobby in US.







Those engaged in tracking Native American ancestors often cope with special problems of misdirection, hidden information and lost data. Thus, in addition to the normal routes of tracing genealogy, such as census records, birth, death, and marriage records, family bibles, and interviews with family members, the researcher of Native American families must develop a keen sensitivity to small discrepancies and clues. None of these clues, by themselves, constitute proof, of course; there were many reasons individuals chose to hide their tracks or confuse others about their identities, such as desertion from the military, commission of a crime, or flight from religious persecution. However, such clues may help the researcher know what individuals to investigate, and how to plan additional research. (For many people researching their family history the search may need to begin in the state where their parents and/or grandparents were born).


Immigration: Especially from Germany, the claim that a family member was from a foreign country frequently was enough to stop questions, and may stop the researcher as well. But do you really know this is true? Does the ship’s manifest record the name of your ancestor? What is stated on the census records as the place of birth? Who gave that information to the census taker? What evidence is there of foreign extraction? Use of a “foreign” language does not necessarily mean the language was European.


Adoption: Many Native American children were adopted. Court records usually detail legal action of this sort, even if the family doesn’t. Family photographs can sometimes be revealing for comparisons as well as written or verbal descriptions of the individual. Did the family take a trip and return with a newborn infant? There are cases where no legal adoption appears, but family records or stories will reveal that a child was actually sold to white parents.


Physical Characteristics: Many people identify those with Native American heritage based solely on hair and skin color. These are very permeable physical characteristics that can change after one generation or even in the same generation. Two children (including twins) of the same parents can exhibit stereotypical white or Indian characteristics.


The following physical characteristics are based on medical studies and are not intended to perpetuate stereotypes of Native

Americans. There are more than two dozen largely independent traits of teeth that can indicate American Indian ancestry. The structure of

teeth is genetically determined and their form is not as much influenced by a person’s diet, health, exercise, or sex as is bones. Dental

anatomy is also evolutionarily quite conservative; very little change takes place over several thousands years. A few of these distinguishing traits include: large and winged incisors (two front teeth) with a slight or more than slight gap between them, shovel-shaped incisors or incisors where the back surface is scooped out like a shovel instead of being completely flat on the back. (It has been suggested that teeth shaped in this manner are an adaptation in hunter-gatherers for processing foods).


Bone structure is another evolutionarily conservative characteristic, changing slowly. High cheekbones, crooked fingers, particularly the little finger. Inverted breast bone, often called a chicken breast. The bone actually makes an indentation in the chest. Little toes that lie under the next one. A second toe longer than the big toe. A wider space between the big toe and second one. An extra ridge of bone along the outside of the foot.


Other characteristics include: almond shaped eyes, lazy eyes in children, heavy fat eyelids where the eyelid appears to have an extra

fold, and a melanin (pigmentation) in the back of the eye on the retina.


Family Photographs: Look at family photos for the above physical characteristics.


Health Conditions: The following conditions tend to be more common in American Indians: Lactose intolerance, diabetes, degenerative arthritis including juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, gall bladder disorders, endometriosis, crossed eyes, chronic muscle pain, too much iron in the blood, certain skin conditions, and glaucoma. This is not a complete list.


Histories of Migrations and Settlements in Their Area: Making a map of your family’s migration routes and another map of the Native American settlements in their area from the same time periods can be instructive. Does your family always seem to move at the same times and places as the Native Americans?


Sudden Death/Disappearance: This is especially suspicious if it occurs during the years of removal (beginning in the1830s).


Nicknames or Middle Names Handed Down Through the Family which Sound Indian: (i.e. “White Buck” Van Hoose).


Foods: Food habits are one of the longest lasting cultural traits. Knowledge and use of traditional food items as well as traditional methods of preparation is often a sign that should be pursued, for studies have indicated a link between memory of these and Native American ancestry.


(Some examples would be parched corn, as well as other traditional corn dishes; use of dried beans and herbs, like sassafras).


Habits and Customs: Traits others have noted as unusual might be telling: praying outside at night, extensive knowledge of herbs and healing, a reputation for being a great hunter, the practice of planting white oak acorns on graves and so forth.


Linguistic Cues: Anthropologists talk about the practice of “verbal cuing” in which certain words or phrases can elicit connected stories or memories. If every time you ask Uncle John about your family’s Indian ancestor and if every time Uncle John answers by telling you a story about Indians, without affirming the background of a particular individual, he may be repeating a verbal cue which has been passed down in the family as a code for information.


Folk Sayings: Idiomatic expressions such as “This house is ready to walk,” (an expression initially used to signify that the Indian family was packed up and ready to move to the summer or winter location. In later years it was used as an expression that indicated the house was a mess and needed to be cleaned up.) “Go outside and get the stink blowed off ya,” (originally used to tell someone to leave the lodge to air out the smoke from the fire inside. Later used to tell a child to go outside and run around to release pent up energy.) “If you tell your dream before breakfast, it will come true,” “Never judge someone until you have walked in their moccasins.”


Shifting Your Interest into a Different Area: If you have asked a family member about your Native heritage and he tells you that there was another family in the area with the same name as yours who were Indians, but not related, probably it is all the same family. You should investigate both very carefully.


Small Towns Where Everyone Is Related: Native American in hiding tended to live and stay in groups of their own kind. If you were raised in a very small town where everyone is related, chances increase that the entire town was an Indian folk community.


Strange or Unusual Grave Markings: Markings on gravestones can often be a clue to the ancestry of the person in the grave. Oftentimes there will be carvings which resemble Native American beadwork patterns, certain types of trees, leaves on flowers that look more like feathers, etc. These may often indicate a tribal connection. Always photograph these stones or make rubbings of them.


Spiritual Beliefs: Such as these beliefs handed down to Ginny Frazier from her mother, “There are no coincidences. Everything happens for a reason (even if you don’t know the reason at the time). Life is for learning. We are here to learn the lessons of life and if we don’t learn them in our life time, we return and keep returning until we do. In other words, it’s ok to make mistakes, we have all the time we need to learn what life has to teach us. That what goes around, comes around.


“God is Mother Nature and she lives in the trees with the ancestors. Mother Nature is our teacher and the great outdoors is our church and every day living is how we practice our religion The body is the temple of the soul. There is no such thing as hell. People make their own hell and heaven on earth. All religions and people are good. Spiritual leaders such as Jesus, Buddha, and Mohammed were all good people. You don’t need a middle person to have access to God because God is everywhere.


“No religion or person is better than the other. Your beliefs should never be forced on someone. Everyone should be free to decide what they want in life and how they want to live their life. You create the kind of life you have by the power of your thoughts. It’s important to listen to your inner voice as you make decisions in your life. Dreams can guide your decisions.


“We are all connected. It is important to respect your elders and all forms of life. We can contact our ancestor through our dreams. If you tell your dream before breakfast, it will come true. Never judge someone until you have walked in their moccasins.”


We continually receive signs from the creator and our ancestors as to whether or not we’re on the path that will satisfy our deepest desires.  The most important thing we can do is that which makes our hearts sing!




After you have identified your ancestor and know where that person lived you should check county records first. Most county libraries will have a genealogical section. If the county was originally part of another county, you will need to check whichever existed when your ancestor lived there.


If you’re looking for a birth certificate before 1850, you are not very likely to find one. Those records would be in family bibles or family histories. The first year for which birth and death records exist for varies from state to state.


You should find records for servicemen of the Civil, and both World Wars locally. U.S. service discharge records are in the county recorder’s office.


Any record under 75 years old will be found in the probate court of the county of birth or death. They will also be found at the health department in [your state capitol]. Before that time, records are available at [your state] Historical Society.


Naturalization records can be found in probate court, common pleas court, and U.S. District Court. Even if you are certain that the ancestors are Native, but you find no records at all, check these—just to prove or disprove a theory.


Property transaction will be found in the recorder’s office. Probate court should have records of wills, administrations, and adoptions or legal guardianships.


If your ancestors are living in a certain [location] and suddenly disappear, be certain that this county was not formed from another. If it

was, then you will need to check the parent county to be certain they were or were not there.


When dealing with Native People, do not expect to find a written record stating “John Brown was Indian.” You would be very fortunate if

that were to happen, and it is not very common. Keep in mind that those people were subject to forceful eviction from their home country and loss of everything they owned if they were suspected of being Native American.


What you will be doing is placing your ancestor in an area known to be Native, at a time when it can be shown that Native people were here. Keep all family stories written down, and refer back to them from time to time. As you pursue this ancestry, you will come to realize certain types of behavior which will lead you on. What you missed on the first encounter will suddenly become clear as you research and learn.


Whenever an elder member of your family tells you a truth about a Native ancestor, ask them to write it down and have it notarized. Make

these a part of your records. Watch carefully from which areas of the country your ancestors came from. Learn what tribes lived in what states.


Source:  Cincinnati Arts Association