Best DNA Test for Native American Ancestry
Taking a DNA test can be enlightening, offering you insight into your ethnic ancestry and connecting you with living relatives. For those with Native American roots, though, the tracing of an ancestry fraught with unrest and forced migration can be difficult — yet, being able to prove your roots on paper is the only way to access benefits that the government offers to Native American ancestors.
Understanding which genetic testing can offer real insight and which may not be helpful to your personal quest is the first step in this process, but we’ve also taken a look at other methods of tracing your Native American ancestry and the steps commonly required to enroll in many federally-recognized tribes.
Key Terms in DNA Testing
Before we break down the complex stuff, let’s start with the basics. There are a few scientific terms that it’s necessary to understand before starting out, because they’re used frequently in discussion of DNA tests and results.
- Autosomal DNA. This is the most commonly tested DNA; you receive half of your autosomal DNA from your mother, and half from your father. Each also received this DNA in the same fashion from their own parents, and your autosomal DNA can reveal your ethnic background and genetic relation to others within five generations.
- Mitochondrial DNA. Also called mtDNA, all babies receive this DNA from their mother, and it changes very little even over long periods of time. That makes mitochondrial DNA a helpful tool for tracking your maternal lineage and haplogroup.
- Y-chromosome DNA. Also called Y-DNA, fathers pass this DNA to offspring; however, as part of the Y chromosome, it can’t be passed on to females. Much like mt-DNA, it changes very little over time and is helpful in tracking paternal lineage and haplogroup. It’s not impossible for test takers without a Y chromosome to access the information, however — your father, brother, paternal uncle or paternal male cousin’s fatherline results are a relevant part of your lineage.
- Haplogroup. Indicated as one capital letter followed by a combination of lower-case letters and numbers, your haplogroups are codes which link your DNA to a single ancestor in both your maternal and paternal line; essentially, they are an indication of your branch on the human family tree. The larger letter in a haplogroup refers to a broad world region, while the lower-case letters and/or numbers refer to a specific line within that region. This information is revealed by mtDNA and Y-DNA tests, and is necessary to participate in genome projects.
Identifying Your Testing Goal
While DNA testing can be a helpful part of tracing your lineage, it’s important to keep your goal in mind when understanding the role they can play. For people who are trying to identify Native American heritage in their ancestry, there are two common goals. Some testers would simply like to identify the presence of Native American ancestry; others would like to enroll as members of a federally recognized tribe, which will require more legwork. Here’s a basic overview of what DNA tests can do for you:
- Autosomal DNA tests can help you obtain ethnicity estimates, which can tell you how much of your DNA is indigenous to the Americas
- They can also help you locate living family members, who may have information about your ancestry that you do not
- mtDNA and Y-DNA tests can help you track your maternal line and paternal line, which can help you zero in on specific relatives, areas inhabited by ancestors, and migratory paths as well as identify your maternal and paternal haplogroups
What DNA Tests Can Tell You — And What They Can’t
Though all these features can bring something to your journey, if your ultimate goal is enrolment in a tribe with federal recognition, you’ll require more documentation than your DNA test results.
Even though a DNA test can reveal Native American DNA, it cannot pinpoint your family’s tribe or tribes — a test can tell you if you have ancestry that’s indigenous to America, but not, for example, if you are Cherokee or Sioux. Tribes were formed by Native Americans based on proximity and politics, but they are not notably genetically distinct from one another. Documentation that links your lineage to a specific tribe is required for enrollment; though your DNA testing companies can’t offer that, they may point you in a direction that’s helpful.
Understanding what DNA testing kits can and can’t do for you is an important first step in your journey, because it will allow you to make an informed choice about which test can help you the most.
- Autosomal DNA tests offer results relating to both your maternal line and paternal line within five generations. They can reveal DNA matches from both sides of your family tree and offer insight into your genetic ethnicity. When it comes to determining Native American ancestry, these tests are only somewhat helpful. A minimum of 1/16th Native American ancestry is required for federal tribe enrollment, and if your Native American ancestors were further back in your line than five generations, test results will barely reflect it — if they do at all. Though they’re bad for proving lineage, they do offer helpful connections to other family members who may have already done research.
- mtDNA tests trace your maternal line, connecting you with your ancient ancestry and showing your line’s migratory path. They offer you access to your maternal haplogroup; if it turns out that it’s linked to Native Americans, you’ll know where to focus your attention and research. On the flip side, if you already know that your Native American ancestors come from only your father’s side, an mtDNA test won’t be helpful.
- Y-DNA tests trace your paternal line in much the same way that mtDNA tests trace the maternal line. They offer you insight into ancestry, migratory path, and your paternal haplogroup, but as we’ve established, only those with a Y chromosome can be tested. Again, much like the mtDNA test, it can be a revelatory part of your journey if your paternal haplogroup is linked to Native American ancestry, but if you already know it is not, a Y-DNA test isn’t what you need.
The DNA testing kit that is best for you will depend on your genealogy goals — what are you looking for and why? Find out about the best DNA tests and what distinguished them.
Which Type of Test do I Need?
One or more of my parents, great grandparents, or great great grandparents was Native American. Which test will give me ethnicity results demonstrating indigenous American ancestry?
If you’re absolutely certain that a relative of yours within the past three or so generations was Native American, then it’s likely that taking an autosomal DNA test will indicate that ancestry when breaking down your genetic ethnicity.
Again, this still isn’t sufficient evidence on its own to obtain tribal membership, but it’s an excellent resource to back up your claim and connect you to living relatives who may have already put time into tracing your family’s Native American history. This can be a major game-changer and time-saver if you find yourself hitting a wall in your quest for information.
I know for sure that there’s Native American ancestry in the far past on my MOM’S side of the family. Which test will help me find out more about it?
When you know with 100% certainty that your Native American lineage comes from your mother’s side, an mtDNA test is ideal. It will help you identify your maternal haplogroup and your motherline’s migratory path, which can help to demonstrate the presence of your ancestors in an area over time. If your Native American heritage is strong enough, you may even be part of a Native American haplogroup, which is a very clear indicator of your ancestry.
I know for sure that there’s Native American ancestry in the far past on my DAD’s side of the family. Which test will help me find out more about it?
If you’re fully certain that your Native American ancestry comes from your father’s side of the family, a Y-DNA can reveal the same information about your paternal line that an mtDNA test reveals about your maternal line. You’ll be able to identify your haplogroup, which may be Native American, and your line’s migratory path, which can potentially offer some insight if you’re not sure where to begin researching what tribe your ancestor(s) was a member of.
I ‘ve always been told that my family had Native American ancestry, but I’m not sure what side of the family it comes from or how many years ago it was. Is there any way to find out if it’s true?
Although it’s more complex and more expensive to start the process blind, you can certainly use DNA tests to help you determine if you have any Native American ancestry. It’s not a foolproof process, however, and if your Native American ancestor didn’t live within a few generations of you, you may not have the 1/16th Native American blood required to be admitted for most tribal membership.
If you’d just like to know more about your ancestry, an autosomal DNA test is a starting point that can help you see if you have any indigenous American ancestry within the past five generations. It can also help you link up with living relatives to compare results, some of whom may have information about your family line that you’re not privy to, including connections to Native American heritage.
For those willing to make the investment, taking a full sequence mtDNA and/or Y-DNA test can shed a great deal of light on your motherline and fatherline ancestry. This can detect a Native American maternal or paternal haplogroup if one is present, as well as offer information about your line’s migratory path and how it’s likely to line up with your ancient ancestry.
To summarize, this is where each test can excel at helping you trace your Native American ancestry:
- Autosomal DNA test. Reveals ancestry within five generations, connects tester with living relatives who may have access to helpful research on Native American connections
- mtDNA test. Reveals maternal line haplogroup and migratory path, can paint a clearer picture of indigenous American ancestry on the motherline
- Y-DNA test. Reveals paternal line haplogroup and migratory path, can paint a clearer picture of indigenous American ancestry on the fatherline
Tribal Enrollment and DNA Testing
One of the most common goals associated with testing for Native American ancestry is to take steps toward enrollment in a federally recognized tribe. Recapping what we learned when studying test types, while DNA can reveal the presence of indigenous American ancestry, your test results alone aren’t enough to get you admitted into a tribe.
As stated by the United States Department of the Interior, each tribe establishes its own membership criteria based on the customs they share, their traditions, their language, and their roots as a people. There is no set of uniform requirements, so you won’t officially know what will be asked of you until you identify the tribe you wish to join.
That said, two requirements frequently seen are as follows:
- You are descended from a member of a person on the tribe’s base roll — this is their list of original members as seen in their tribal constitution or similar document
- You are related to a descendant of someone on the base roll
Another common requirement is a tribal blood quantum, with required percentages varying from tribe to tribe. This is not a percentage that’s calculated via laboratory test; rather, it relies on genealogical documents that link your bloodline to a specific tribe, since DNA tests can’t distinguish tribal bloodlines. Relocating to tribal grounds and/or keeping in contact with the tribe are also commonly seen requirements.
Other Genealogical Methods to Unearth Your Native American Roots
One of the biggest obstacles in establishing membership in a federally recognized tribe is proving blood quantum, which is revealed through genealogical research rather than laboratory testing. It requires access to concrete records linking your bloodline to the tribe in question, a daunting request for an amateur researcher who’s starting from scratch. Here are some ways to get started:
Contact the Bureau of Indian Affairs
Based in Washington D.C., this subsection of the Department of the Interior handles federal tribe recognition and programs related to Native Americans. While they don’t actually have a database you can access, they can take birth certificates of Native American parents or grandparents (or names and estimated birth dates) and determine whether or not your ancestors’ names were present on census roles or in land conveyance records.
Their website also provides a full list of federally recognized tribes, as well as a list of the bureau’s regional offices. This can be a helpful step if you’ve already established Native American ancestry within your recent bloodline, but less so if you’re questioning its presence.
Purchasing Records Through the State Bureau of Vital Statistics
If you are able to provide the SBVS with the name, birthplace, and birth date of your ancestor as well as your relationship with them, you’ll have the option to purchase their available records through their website. This does come with caveats, namely that records may not be available for people who lived before 1900, and that purchasing existing records can be costly.
Being able to furnish these records can help you make big leaps in your research in some cases, so if you’re serious about the process and have concrete information on close living relatives, it may be worth looking into.
Exploring Census Records
Most people who’ve explored their family history in America have heard of census records, which offer some of the most concrete data linking families to places and dates in history. The Bureau of the Census Federal Center handles these records, and searching the phrase “Native Ancestry” on their site can help you get started.
Using Subscription-Based Genealogy Research Tools
For those willing to pay a monthly or yearly subscription fee, access to a large database of genealogical records including carefully-chronicled census data is available online. Ancestry.com offers one of the largest databases on the web, and though it is subscription-based, you don’t need to have taken the AncestryDNA test to use it. Simply inputting your closest known family line into their tree-building tool will allow the service to prompt you with “hints”, suggestions drawn from their records database about who your extended family members are likely to be.
To save a few dollars, those curious about an online records database might try archives.com, which is powered by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Their monthly fee is only $9.99 compared to Ancestry’s $25, and their connection to North American genealogical records is similar; that said, Ancestry does have a very user-friendly interface and offers suggestions and prompts that Archives doesn’t.
If you’re willing to make a serious investment in your research, Archives can also connect you with paid research firms specializing in Native American genealogy. American Genealogical Consultants and CW Enterprise are two of the choices the site suggests.
Start the Search at Home
Alas, most of us (or our parents, or grandparents) have an attic or basement packed to the gills with boxes of old family mementos, paperwork, other information that may prove valuable in your research. Marriage and death certificates, burial records, newspaper clipping, and other civil records and vital information can help to establish information that may link relatives to a tribe, and finding them may mean saving yourself a significant amount of money — ordering duplicates isn’t cheap, when it’s actually possible.
Scrapbooks, letters, diaries, baby books, and existing chronicles of family history may also offer clues that guide your research in a helpful direction. Local government offices, schools, and religious gathering places may also have old records available to you.
Why We Recommend Family Tree DNA
If a DNA test is part of your ancestry journey, you may be wondering which testing company is best for your needs. Whether you’re starting out with an autosomal DNA test or expanding your search via a mtDNA and/or Y-DNA test, Family Tree DNA (reviewed here) makes it easy to purchase what you need; their site even offers the option to bundle all three tests, which will give you access to your maternal and paternal haplogroups and migratory paths as well as your recent genetic ethnicity and a database of living relatives.
23andMe (reviewed here) also tests and provides data on haplogroups, but it only gives a broad overview and isn’t as granular as you likely will be needing.
Access to your haplogroups allows you to participate in genome projects, where you can learn more about your potential ancient links to Native American bloodlines.
Family Tree DNA’s cheek swab test is neat and easy to administer, and your results are user-friendly and easy to interpret. It’s a great starting point for those seeking admission into a federally recognized tribe, and may offer enough information to satisfy the curiosity of those simply wondering if they’re of Native American ancestry.
While AncestryDNA (reviewed here) does have a larger database of matches, you can only be connected with a person if they have opted to share their results.