A generation ago the BIA used to tell people to get in touch with the National Archives and give them the name and tribe and birthdate of an individual and we would look the name up on the Indian Census Rolls. We don’t do that anymore; we don’t do genealogy for people anymore, because now it is online and you can do it yourself.
There is no database of names of everybody who was Indian. The BIA only kept records of tribes that were under their supervision (that is what “federally recognized” means). For many years the BIA did not keep a list of names of everybody in a tribe either, or take censuses, unless there was a matter of removal, moving people around. In 1885, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs sent out a circular to all the agents telling them for now on, they needed to compile an actual census of everybody under their supervision. So from about 1885, to about 1940, there are census rolls that give the names and sex and ages and family relationships and even blood quantum for all those who were living with tribes that were under the supervision of the BIA.
If you think you had an ancestor who might be on those rolls, you can look them up yourself. The Indian census rolls are on both Fold3.com and Ancestry.com. You pay a small fee but it is worth it. In the past, you had to know ahead of time what tribe somebody was in because there were 692 reels of microfilm to look through and you had to start somewhere. Now that they are digitized you can simply put in a name. If you come to one of our facilities you can use our computers to do this for free.
To search the Indian Census Rolls:
Go to http://www.fold3.com/institution-index.php
Select All Titles, and choose Indian Census rolls. These are the censuses of all the tribes except the Five Civilized Tribes, from about 1885 to 1940. They do not include everyone who was an Indian, only those living on the reservations. You have a choice of putting a name, or you can click on Browse, choose the tribe and search individual rolls yourself. You can check out all their possibilities for the names, and see if any seem to be your relatives. Finding someone on the Indian Census Rolls does not entitle you to membership in an Indian tribe. You have to get in touch with the tribe and find out what the membership rules are and what documentation they want from you.
Or you can go to Ancestry.com and put in a name to search their copies of various Native American rolls
Find US Indian census rolls. You can put in a name and see the results.
You can also search the regular census records on Ancestry.
Finding an ancestor on one of the rolls may help you figure out what tribe your ancestor came from. But you must get in touch with the tribe for membership. They are the ones who determine if you meet their requirements for eligibility and they are the ones who will decide about membership, and issue you a card if they accept you. The government has nothing to do with this, and does not issue any cards.
If you do not find your ancestor on one of these rolls, there probably are not any federal records of them as an Indian. People who left their tribes and lived in the general public were just like other citizens. The best way to research them may be to start with the regular census records, and other local records. Sometimes the federal decennial census may list someone as IN, for Indian, but they do not identify the tribe. There are a few federal decennial censuses that do list some tribal members, and a good place to find out about that would be our pages about Indians in the census
and for other information on researching Indian ancestors, check our page
People who have an Indian heritage are not eligible for any benefits from the government. All benefits come through membership in a federally recognized tribe.