Finding Your American Indian Tribe Using DNA

If I had a dollar for every time I get asked a flavor of this question, I’d be on a cruise someplace warm instead of writing this in the still-blustery cold winter weather of the northlands!

So, I’m going to write the recipe of how to do this.  The process is basically the same whether you’re utilizing Y or mitochondrial DNA, but the details differ just a bit.

So, to answer the first question.  Can you find your Indian tribe utilizing DNA?  Yes, it can sometimes be done – but not for everyone, not all the time and not even for most people.  And it takes work on your part.  Furthermore, you may wind up disproving the Indian heritage in a particular line, not proving it.  If you’re still in, keep reading.

I want you to think of this as a scavenger hunt.  No one is going to give you the prize.  You have to hunt and search for it, but I’m going to give you the treasure map.

Treasure mapI’m going to tell you, up front, I’m cheating and using an example case that I know works.  Most people aren’t this lucky.  Just so you know.  I don’t want to misset your expectations.  But you’ll never know if you don’t do the footwork to find out, so you’ve got nothing to lose and knowledge to gain, one way or another.  If you aren’t interested in the truth, regardless of what it is, then just stop reading here.

DNA testing isn’t the be-all and end-all.  I know, you’re shocked to hear me say this.  But, it’s not.  In fact, it’s generally just a beginning.  Your DNA test is not a surefire answer to much of anything.  It’s more like a door opening or closing.  If you’re looking for tribal membership or benefits of any kind, it’s extremely unlikely that DNA testing is going to help you.  All tribes have different rules, including blood quantum and often other insurmountable rules to join, so you’ll need to contact the tribe in question. Furthermore, you’ll need to utilize other types of records in addition to any DNA test results.

You’re going to have some homework from time to time in this article, and to understand the next portion, it’s really critical that you read the link to an article that explains about the 4 kinds of DNA that can be utilized in DNA testing for genealogy and how they work for Native testing.  It’s essential that you understand the difference between Y line, mitochondrial and autosomal DNA testing, who can take each kind of test, and why.

Proving Native American Ancestry Using DNA

For this article, I’m utilizing a mitochondrial DNA example, mostly because everyone has mitochondrial DNA and secondly, because it’s often more difficult to use genealogically, because the surnames change.  Plus, I have a great case study to use.  For those who think mito DNA is useless, well all I can say is keep reading.

Y and mito

You’ll know from the article you just read that mitochondrial DNA is contributed to you, intact, from your direct line maternal ancestors, ONLY.  In other words, from your mother’s mother’s mother’s mother and on up that line.

In the above chart, you can see that this test only provides information about that one red line, and nothing at all about any of your other 15 great-great grandparents, or anyone else on that pedigree chart other than the red circles.  But oh what a story it can tell about the ancestors of those people in the red circles.

If this example was using Y DNA, then the process would be the same, but only for males – the blue squares.  If you’re a male, the Y DNA is passed unrecombined from your direct paternal, or surname, ancestor, only and does not tell you anything at all about any of your other ancestors except the line represented by the little blue squares.  Females don’t have a Y chromosome, which is what makes males male, so this doesn’t apply to females.

First, you’ll need to test your DNA at Family Tree DNA.  This is the only testing company that offers either the Y (blue line) marker panel tests (37, 67 or 111), or the (red line) mitochondrial DNA full sequence tests.

For Y testing, order minimally the 37 marker test, but more is always better, so 67 or 111 is best.  For mitochondrial DNA, order the full sequence.  You’ll need your full mitochondrial haplogroup designation and this is the only way to obtain it.

I’m also going to be talking about how to incorporate your autosomal results into your search.  If you remember from the article, autosomal results give you a list of cousins that you are related to, and they can be from any and all of your ancestral lines.  In addition, you will receive your ethnicity result estimate expressed as a percentage.  It’s important to know that you are 25% Native, for example.  So, you also need to order the Family Finder test while you’re ordering.

You can click here to order your tests.

After you order, you’ll receive a kit number and password and you’ll have your own user page to display your results.

Fast forward a month or so now…and you have your results back.


I hope you’ve been using that time to document as much about your ancestors as you can in a software program of some sort.  If so, upload your GEDCOM file to your personal page.  The program at Family Tree DNA utilizes your ancestral surnames to assist you in identifying matches to people in Family Finder.

It’s easy to upload, just click on the Family Tree icon in the middle of your personal page.

Family Tree icon

Don’t have a Gedcom file?  You can build your tree online. Just click on the myFamilyTree to start.

Having a file online is an important tool for you and others for ancestor matching.

Your Personal Page

Take a little bit of time to familiarize yourself with how your personal page works.  For example, all of your options we’re going to be discussing are found under the “My DNA” link at the top left hand side of the page.

My dna tab

If you want to join projects, click on “My Projects,” to the right of “My DNA” on the top left bar, then click on “join.”  If you want to familiarize yourself with your security or other options, click on the orange “Manage Personal Information” on the left side of the page to the right of your image.

Personal info

Preparing Your Account

You need to be sure your account is prepared to give you the best return on your research efforts and investment.  You are going to be utilizing three tabs, Ancestral Origins, Haplogroup Origins and various projects, and you need to be sure your results are displayed accurately.  You need to do two things.

The first thing you need to do is to update your most distant ancestor information on your Matches Map page.  You’ll find this page under either the mtDNA or the Y DNA tabs and if you’ve tested for both, you need to update both.

matches map

Here’s my page, for example. At the bottom, click on “Update Ancestor’s Location” and follow the prompts to the end.  When you are finished, your page should like mine – except of course, your balloon will be where your last know matrilineal ancestor lived – and that means for mitochondrial DNA, your mother’s mother’s mother’s line, on up the tree until you run out of mothers.  I can’t tell you how many men’s names I see in this field…and I know immediately someone is confused.  Remember, men can’t contribute mtDNA.

For men, if this is for your paternal Y line, this is your paternal surname line – because the Y DNA is passed in the same way that surnames are typically passed in the US – father to son.

It’s important to have your balloon in the correct location, because you’re going to see where your matches ancestors are found in relationship to your ancestor.  Your most distant ancestor’s location is represented by the white balloon.  However, you will only see your matches balloons that have entered the geographic information for their most distant ancestor. Now do you see why entering this information is important?  The more balloons, the more informative for everyone.

The second thing is that you need to make sure that the information about the location of your most distant ancestor is accurate.  Most Distant Ancestor information is NOT taken from the matches map page, but from the Most Distant Ancestors tab in your orange “Manage Personal Information” link on your main page.  Then click on to the Genealogy tab and then Most Distant Ancestors, shown below.

genealogy tab

If your ancestral brick wall in in the US, you can select 2 options, “United States” and “United States (Native American).”  Please Note – Please do not, let me repeat, DO NOT, enter the Native American option unless you have documented proof that your ancestor in this specific line is positively Native American.  Why?  Because people who match you will ASSUME you have proof and will then deduce they are Native because you are.

This is particularly problematic when someone sees they are a member of a haplogroup that includes a Native subgroup.  Haplogroup X1, which is not Native, is a prime example.  Haplogroup X2 is Native, but people in X1 see that X is Native, don’t look further or don’t understand that ALL of X is not Native – so they list their ancestry as United States (Native American) based on an erroneous assumption.  Then when other people see they match people who are X1 who are Native, they assume they are Native as well.  It’s like those horrible copied and copied again incorrect Ancestry trees.

distant ancestor US optionsIt’s important to update both the location and your most distant ancestors name. This is the information that will show in the various projects that you might join in both the “Ancestor Name” and the “Country” field.  As an example, the Estes Y project page is shown below.  You can see for yourself how useless those blank fields are under “Paternal Ancestor Name” and “Unknown Origin” under Country when no one has entered their information.

estes project tab

While you are working on these housekeeping tasks, this would be a good time to enter your ancestral surnames as well.  You can find this, also under the Genealogy Tab, under Surnames.  Surnames are used to show you other people who have taken the Family Finder test and who share the same surname, so this is really quite important.  These are surnames from both sides of your tree, from all of your direct ancestors.

surnames tab

Working With Results

Working with mitochondrial DNA genetic results is much easier than Y DNA.  To begin with, the full sequence test reads all of your mitochondrial DNA, and your haplogroup is fully determined by this test.  So once you receive those results, that’s all you need to purchase.

When working with Y DNA, there are the normal STR panels of 12, 25, 37, 67 and 111 markers which is where everyone interested in genealogy begins.  Then there are individual SNP tests you can take to confirm a specific haplogroup, panels of SNPs you can purchase and the Big Y test that reads the entire relevant portion of the Y chromosome.  You receive a haplogroup estimate that tends to be quite accurate with STR panel tests, but to confirm your actual haplogroup, or delve deeper, which is often necessary, you’ll need to work with project administrators to figure out which of the additional tests to purchase.  Your haplogroup estimate will reflect your main haplogroup of Q or C, if you are Native on that line, but to refine Q or C enough to confirm whether it is Native, European or Asian will require additional SNP testing  unless you can tell based on close or exact STR panel matches to others who are proven Native or who have taken those SNP tests.. 

Y Native DNA

In the Y DNA lines, both haplogroups Q and C have specific SNP mutations that confirm Native heritage.  SNPs are the special mutations that define haplogroups and their branches.   With the new in-depth SNP testing available with the introduction of the Big Y test in 2013, new discoveries abound, but suffice it to say that by joining the appropriate haplogroup project, and the American Indian project, which I co-administer, you can work with the project administrators to determine whether your version of Q or C is Native or not.

Haplogroups Q and C are not evenly distributed.  For example, we often see haplogroup C in the Algonquian people of Eastern Canada and seldom in South America, where we see Q throughout the Americas.  This wiki page does a relatively good job of breaking this down by tribe.  Please note that haplogroup R1 has NEVER been proven to be Native – meaning that it has never been found in a pre-contact burial – and is not considered Native, although speculation abounds.

This page discusses haplogroup Q and this page, haplogroup C.

Haplogroup C in the Native population is defined by SNP C-P39 and now C-M217 as well.

Haplogroup Q is not as straightforward.  It was believed for some time that SNP Q-M3 defined the Native American population, but advanced testing has shown that is not entirely correct.  Not all Native Q men carry M3.  Some do not.  Therefore, Native people include those with SNPs M3, M346, L54, Z780 and one ancient burial with MEH2.  Recently, a newly defined SNP, Y4273 has been identified in haplogroup Q as possibly defining a group of Algonquian speakers.  Little by little, we are beginning to more clearly define the Native American genetic landscape although there is a very long way to go.

With or without the SNP tests, you can still tell a great deal based on who you match.

For Y and mitochondrial DNA (not autosomal), at the highest levels of testing, if you are matching only or primarily Jewish individuals, you’re not Native.  If you’re matching people in Scandinavia, or Asia, or Russia, nope, not Native.  If you’re matching individuals with known (proven) Native heritage in Oklahoma or New Mexico, then yep….you’re probably Native

We’ll look at tools to do this in just a few minutes.                              

Mitochondrial Native DNA

There are several Native founder mitochondrial DNA lineages meaning those that are believed to have developed during the time about 15,000 years ago (plus or minus) that the Native people spent living on Beringia, after leaving continental Asia and before dispersing in the Americas.

Those haplogroups (along with the Native Y haplogroups) are shown in this graphic from a paper by Tamm, et al, 2007, titled “Beringian Standstill and the Spread of Native American Founders.”

beringia map

The founder mitochondrial haplogroups and latecomers, based on this paper, are:

  • A2
  • B2
  • C1b
  • C1c
  • C1d
  • C4c
  • C1
  • D2
  • D2a
  • D4h3
  • X2a

Subsequent subgroups have been found, and another haplogroup, M, may also be Native.  I compiled a comprehensive list of all suspects.  This list is meant as a research tool, which is why it gives links to where you can find additional information and the source of each reference.  In some cases, you’ll discover that the haplogroup is found in both Asia and the Americas.  Oh boy, fun fun….just like the Y.

Be aware that because of the desire to “be Native” that some individuals have “identified” European haplogroups as Native.  I’ll be writing about this soon, but for now, suffice it to say that if you “self-identify” yourself as Native (like my family did) and then you turn up with a European haplogroup – that does NOT make that European haplogroup Native.  So, when the next person in that haplogroup tests, and you tell them they match “Native” people with European haplogroups – it’s misleading to say the least.

When working to identify your Native heritage, some of your best tools will be the offerings of Family Tree DNA on your personal page.  The same tools exist for both Y and mitochondrial DNA results, so let’s take a look.

Your Results

If your ancestor was Native on your direct matrilineal line, then her haplogroup will fall within one of 5 or 6 haplogroups.  The confirmed Native American mitochondrial haplogroups fall into major haplogroups A, B, C, D and X, with haplogroup M a possibility, but extremely rare and as yet, unconfirmed.  Known Y haplogroups are C and Q with O as an additional possibility.

Now, just because you find yourself with one of these haplogroups doesn’t mean automatically that it’s Native, or that your ancestors in this line were Native.  If your haplogroup isn’t one of these, then you aren’t Native on this line.  For example, we find male haplogroup C around the world, including in Europe.

Here is the list of known and possible Native mitochondrial DNA haplogroups and subgroups.

If your results don’t fall into these haplogroups, then your matrilineal ancestor was not Native on this particular line.  If your ancestor does fall into these base groups, then you need to look at the subgroup to confirm that they are indeed Native and not in one of the non-Native sister clades.  Does this happen often?  Yes, it does, and there are a whole lot of people who see Q or C for the Y DNA and immediately assume they are Native, as they do when they see A, B, C, D or X for mitochondrial.  Just remember about assume.

Scenario 1: 

Oh No! My Haplogroup is NOT Native???

Let’s say your mitochondrial ancestor is not in haplogroup A, B, C, D, X or M.

About now, many people choke, because they are just sure that their matrilineal ancestor was Native, for a variety of reasons, so let’s talk about that.

  1. Family history says so. Mine did too. It was wrong. Or more precisely, wrong about which line.  Test other contributing lineages to the ancestor who was identified as Native.
  2. The Native ancestor is on the maternal line, but not in the direct matrilineal line. There’s a difference. Remember, mitochondrial DNA only tests the direct matrilineal line. What this means is that, for example, if your grandmother’s father was Native, your grandmother is still Native, or half Native, but not through her mother’s side so IT WON’T SHOW ON A MITOCHONDRIAL DNA TEST. In times past, stories like “grandma was Indian” was what was passed down. Not, grandmother’s father’s father’s mother was Waccamaw. Any Indian heritage got conveyed in the message about that ancestor, without giving the source, which leads to a lot of incorrect assumptions – and a lot of DNA tests that don’t produce the expected results. This is exactly what happened in my family line.
  3. Your ancestor is “Native” but her genetic ancestor was not – meaning she may have been adopted into the tribe, or kidnapped or was for some other reason a tribal member, but not originally genetically Native on the direct matrilineal line.  Mary Jemison is the perfect example.
  4. My ancestor’s picture looks Native. Great! That could have come from any of her other ancestors on her pedigree chart. Let’s see what other eividence we can find.

At this point, you’re disappointed, but you are not dead in the water and there are ways to move forward to search for your Native heritage on other lines.  What I would suggest are the following three action items.

1. Look at your family pedigree chart and see who else can be tested to determine a haplogroup for other lineages. For example, let’s say, your grandmother’s father. He would not have passed on any of his mother’s mitochondrial DNA, but his sisters would have passed their mother’s mitochondrial DNA to their children, and their daughters would pass it on as well. So dig your pedigree chart out. and see who is alive today that can test to represent other contributing ancestral lines.

2. Take a look at your Family Finder ethnicity chart under myOrigins and see how much Native DNA you have.

FF no Native

If your ethnicity chart looks like this one, with no New World showing, it means that if you have Native heritage, it’s probably more than 5 or 6 generations back in time and the current technology can’t measurably read those small amounts.  However, this is only measuring admixed or recombined DNA, meaning the DNA you received from both your mother and father.  Recombination in essence halves the DNA of each of your ancestors in each generation, so it’s not long until it’s so small that it’s unmeasurable today.

You can also download your raw autosomal data file to and utilize their admixture tools to look for small amounts of Native heritage.  However, beware that small amounts of Native admixture can also be found in people with Asian ancestors, like Slavic Europeans.

The person whose results are shown above does have proven Native Ancestry, both via paper documentation and mitochondrial DNA results – but her Native ancestor is back in French Canada in the 1600s.  Too much admixture has occurred between then and now for the Native to be found on the autosomal test, but mtDNA is forever.

If your Y or mtDNA haplogroup is Native, there is no division in each generation, so nothing washes out. If Y or mtDNA is Native, it stays fully Native forever, even if the rest of your autosomal Native DNA has washed out with succeeding generations.  That is the blessing of both Y and mtDNA testing!

FF native

If your myOrigins ethnicity chart looks like this one, which shows a significant amount of New World and other areas that typically, in conjunction with New World, are interpreted as additional Native contribution, such as the Asian groups, and your Y and/or mtDNA is not Native, then you’re looking at the wrong ancestor in your tree.  Your mtDNA or Y DNA test has just eliminated this specific line – but none of the lines that “married in.”

You can do a couple of things – find more people to test for Y and mtDNA in other lines.  In this case, 18% Native is significant.  In this person’s case, she could eliminate her father’s line, because he was known not to be Native.  Her mother was Hispanic – a prime candidate for Native ancestry.  The next thing for this person to do is to test her mother’s brother’s Y DNA to determine her mother’s father’s Y haplogroup.  He could be the source of the Native heritage in her family.

3. The third thing to do is to utilize Family Finder matching to see who you match that also carries Native heritage. In the chart below, you can see which of your Family Finder matches also carry a percentage of Native ancestry. This only shows their Native match percent if you have Native. In other words, it doesn’t’ show a category for your matches that you don’t also have.

ff native matches

Please note – just because you match someone who also carries Native American heritage does NOT mean that your Native line is how you match.

For example, in one person’s case, their Native heritage is on their mother’s side.  They also match their father’s cousin, who also carries Native heritage but he got his Native heritage from his mother’s line.  So they both carry Native heritage, but their matching DNA and ancestry are on their non-Native lines.

Lots of people send me e-mails that say things like this, “I match many people with Cherokee heritage.”  But what they don’t realize is that unless you share common proven ancestors, that doesn’t matter.  It’s circumstantial.  Think about it this way.

When measuring back 6 generations, which is generally (but not always) the last generation at which autosomal can reliably find matches between people, you have 64 ancestors.  So does the other person.  You match on at least one of those ancestors (or ancestral lines), and maybe more.  If one of your ancestors and one of your match’s ancestors are both Native, then the chances of you randomly matching that ancestor is 1 in 64.  So you’re actually much more likely to share a different ancestor.  Occasionally, you will actually match the same Native ancestor.  Just don’t assume, because you know what assume does – and you’ll be wrong 63 out of 64 times.

Sharing Native ancestry with one or several of your matches is a possible clue, but nothing more.

Scenario 2:

Yippee!!  My Haplogroup IS Native!!!

Ok, take a few minutes to do the happy dance – because when you’re done – we still have work to do!!!

happy dance frog

Many people actually find out about their Native American heritage by a surprise Native American haplogroup result.  But now, it’s time to figure out if your haplogroup really IS Native.

As I mentioned before, many of the major haplogroups have some members who are from Europe, Asia and the America.  Fortunately, the New World lines have been separated from the Old World lines long enough to develop specific and separate mutations, that enable us to tell the difference – most of the time.  If you’re interested, I recently wrote a paper about the various European, Jewish, Asian and Native American groups within subgroups of haplogroup A4.  If you’re curious about how haplogroups can have subgroups on different continents, then read this article about Haplogroups and The Three Brothers.  This is also an article that is helpful when trying to understand what your matches do, and don’t, mean.

So, before going any further, check your haplogroup subgroup and make sure your results really do fall into the Native subgroups.  If they don’t, then go back to the “Not Native” section.  If you aren’t sure, which typically means you’re a male with an estimated haplogroup of C or Q, then keep reading because we have some tools available that may help clarify the situation.

Utilizing Personal Page Y and Mito Tools to Find Your Tribe

Much of Y and mitochondrial DNA genetic genealogy matching is “guilt by genetic association,” to quote Bennett Greenspan.  In other words we can tell a great deal about your heritage by who you match – and who you don’t match.

Let’s say you are haplogroup B2a2 – that’s a really nice Native American haplogroup, a subgroup of B2a, a known Beringian founder.  B2a2 developed in the Americas and has never been found outside of the Native population in the Americas.  In other words, there is no controversy or drama surrounding this haplogroup.

It just so happens that our “finding your tribe” example is a haplogroup B2a2 individual, Cindy, so let’s take a look at how we work through this process.

Taking a look at Cindy’s Matches Map tab, which shows the location of Cindy’s matches most distant ancestor on their matrilineal line (hopefully that’s what they entered.)  Only one of Cindy’s full sequence matches has entered their ancestor’s geographic information.  However, it’s not far from Cindy’s ancestor which is shown by the white balloon.

Cindy full seq match

Please note that Cindy, who is haplogroup B2a2, has NO European matching individuals.  In fact, no matches outside of North and South America.  Being Native, we would not expect her to have matches elsewhere, but since the match location field is self-entered and depends on the understanding of the person entering the information, sometimes information provided seems confusing.  Occasionally information found here has to be taken with a grain of salt, or confirmed with the individual who entered the information.

For example, I have one instance of someone with all Native matches having one Spanish match.  When asked about this, the person entering the information said, “Oh, our family was Spanish.”  And of course, if you see a male name entered in the most distant ancestor field for mtDNA, or a female for Y DNA, you know there is a problem.

While the full sequence test is by far the best, don’t neglect to look at the HVR1 and HVR2 results, because not everyone tests at higher levels and there may be hints waiting there for you.  There certainly was for Cindy.

Cindy HVR1 match

Look at Cindy’s cluster of HVR1 matches.  Let’s look at the New Mexico group more closely.

Cindy HVR1 NM matches

Look how tightly these are clustered.  One is so close to Cindy’s ancestor that the red balloon almost obscures her white balloon.  By clicking on the red balloons, that person’s information pops up.

You will also want to utilize the Haplogroup and Ancestral Origins tabs.  The Haplogroup Origins provides you with academic and research data with some participant data included.  The Ancestral Origins tab provides you with the locations where your matches say their most distant ancestor is from.

Cindy’s Haplogroup Origins page looks like this.

Cindy haplogroup origins

Keep  in mind that your closest matches are generally the most precise – for mitochondrial DNA meaning the group at the bottom titled “HVR1, HVR2 and Coding Region Matches.”  In Cindy’s case, above, at both the HVR1 and HVR2 levels, she also matches individuals in haplogroup B4’5, but at the highest level, she will only match her own haplogroup.

Next Cindy’s Ancestral Origins tab shows us the locations where her matches indicate their most distant ancestor is found.

Cindy ancestral origins

These people, at least some of them, identified themselves as Native American and their DNA along with genealogy research confirmed their accuracy.

Now, it’s time to look at your matches.

Cindy fs matches

If you’re lucky, now that you know positively that your results are Native (because you carry an exclusive Native haplogroup), and so do your matches, one of them will not only list their most distant ancestor, they will also put a nice little heartwarming note like (Apache) or (Navajo) or (Pueblo).  Now that one word would just make your day.

Another word of caution.  Even though that would make your day, that’s not always YOUR answer.  Why not?  Because Native people intermarried with other tribes, sometimes willingly, and sometimes not by choice.  Willingly or not, their DNA went along with them and sometimes you will find someone among the Apache that is really a Plains Indian, for example.  So you can get excited, but don’t get too excited until you find a few matches who know positively what tribe their ancestor was from.


So let’s talk about what positive means.  When someone tells me they are a member of the Cherokee Tribe for example, I ask which Cherokee tribe, because there are many that are not the federally recognized tribes and accept a wide variety of people based on their family stories and little more except an enrollment fee.  I’m not saying that’s bad, I’m saying you don’t want to base the identity of your ancestor’s tribe, unwittingly, on a situation like that.

If the answer is the official Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma, for example, whose enrollment criteria I understand, then I ask them based on which ancestral line.  It could well be that they are a tribal member based on one relative and their mitochondrial DNA goes to an entirely different tribe.  In fact, I had this exact situation recently.  Their mitochondrial DNA was Seminole and they were a member of a different tribe based on a different lineage.

If the match is not a tribal member or descended from a tribal member, then I try, tactfully, to ask what proof they have that they are descended from that particular tribe.  It’s important to ask this in a nonconfrontional way, but you do need to know because if their claim to Native heritage is based on a family story, that’s entirely different than if it is based on the fact that their direct mitochondrial ancestor was listed on one of the government rolls on which tribal citizenship was predicated.

So, in essence, by your matches proving their mitochondrial lineage as Native and affiliated with a particular tribe, they are, in part, proving yours, or at least giving you a really big hint, because at some point you do share a common matrilineal ancestor.

You may find that two of your matches track their lineage to different tribes.  At that point, fall back to languages.  Are the tribes from the same language group?  If so, then your ancestor may be further back in time.  If not, then most likely someone married, was kidnapped, adopted or sold into slavery from one tribe to the other.  Take a look at the history and geography of the two tribes involved

Advanced Matching

It’s difficult to tell with any reasonable accuracy how long ago you share a common ancestor with someone that you match on either Y or mtDNA.  Family Tree DNA does provide guidelines, but those are based on statistical probabilities, and while they are certainly better than nothing, one size does not fit all and doesn’t tend to fit anyone very well.  I don’t mean this to be a criticism of Family Tree DNA – it’s just the nature of the beast.

For Y DNA, you can utilize the TIP tool, shown as the orange icon on your match bar, and the learning center provides information about mitochondrial time estimates to a common ancestor.  Let me say that I find the 5 generation estimate at the 50th percentile for a full sequence match extremely optimistic.  This version is a bit older but more detailed.

mtdna mrca chart

However, you can utilize another tool to see if you match anyone autosomally that you also match on your mitochondrial or Y DNA.  Before you do this, take a look at your closest matches and make note of whether they took the Family Finder test.  That will be listed by their name on the match table, by the FF, at right, below.

mtdna matches plus ff

If they didn’t take the Family Finder test, then you obviously won’t match them on that test.

On your mtDNA or Y DNA options panel, select Advanced Matching.

advanced matching

You’ll see the following screen.  Select both Family Finder and ONE Of the mtDNA selections  Why just one?  Because you’re going to select “show only people I match on selected tests” which means all the tests that you select.  Not everyone takes all the tests or matches on all three levels, so search one level of mtDNA plus Family Finder, at a time.  This means if you have matches on all 3 mitochondrial levels, you’ll run this query 3 times.  If you’re working with Y DNA, then you’ll do the same thing, selecting the 12-111 panels one at a time in combination with Family Finder.

The results show you who matches you on BOTH the Family Finder and the mtDNA test, one level at a time.  Here are the results for Cindy comparing her B2a2 HVR1 region mitochondrial DNA (where she had the most matches) and Family Finder.

advanced matches results

Remember those clusters of people that we saw near Cindy’s oldest ancestor on the map?  It’s Cindy’s lucky day.  She is extremely lucky to match three of her HVR1 matches on Family Finder.  And yes, that red balloon overlapping her own balloon is one of the matches here as well.  Cindy just won the Native American “find my tribe” lottery!!!!  Before testing, Cindy had no idea and now she has 3 new autosomal cousins AND she know that her ancestor was Native and has a very good idea of which tribe.  Several of the people Cindy matches knew their ancestor’s tribal affiliation.

So, now we know that not only does Cindy share a direct matrilineal ancestor with these people, but that ancestor is likely to be within 5 or 6 generations, which is the typical reach for the Family Finder matching, with one caveat…and that’s endogamous populations.  And yes, Native American people are an endogamous group.  They didn’t have anyone else to marry except for other Native people for thousands of years.  In recent times, and especially east of the Mississippi, significant admixture has occurred, but not so much in New Mexico at least not across the board.  The message here is that with endogamous populations, autosomal relationships can look closer than they really are because there is so much common DNA within the population as a whole.  That said, Cindy did find a common ancestor with some of her matches – and because they matched on their mitochondrial DNA, they knew exactly where in their trees to look.

Identifying your Tribe

Being able to utilize DNA to find your tribe is much like a puzzle.  It’s a little bit science, meaning the DNA testing itself, a dose of elbow grease, meaning the genealogy and research work, and a dash of luck mixed with some magic to match someone (or ones) who actually know their tribal affiliation.  And if you’re really REALLY lucky, you’ll find your common ancestor while you’re at it!  Cindy did!

In essence, all of these pieces of information are evidence in your story.  In the end, you have to evaluate all of the cumulative pieces of evidence as to quality, accuracy and relevance.  These pieces of evidence are also breadcrumbs and clues for you to follow – to find your own personal answer.  After all, your story and that of your ancestors isn’t exactly like anyone else’s.  Yes, it’s work, but it’s possible and it happens.

In case you think Cindy’s case is a one time occurrence, it’s not.  Lenny Trujillo did the same thing and wrote about his experience.  Here’s hoping you’re the next person to make the same kind of breakthrough.

50 thoughts on “Finding Your American Indian Tribe Using DNA

  1. Good article.
    But I wonder if and when Family Tree DNA is going to come to their senses put back their non-European reference populations for “myOrigins”. FTDNA did improve their European references for “myOrigins”, but the regressed their non-European references. They are the only company to do this as far as I know. What were they thinking?

    I asked them why did they do this, and they told me that the references on the previous admixture test, Population Finder, had “old data”. So what? Just because you may not be able to get any new reference populations for non-Europeans doesn’t mean you should TAKE AWAY some of the very few that you do have. The Native American for example had just five reference populations from the public database HGDP, and FTDNA took away THREE of them and kept only two for myOrigins. Same with the West African, there were only two West African references available from HGDP (which is sad considering that Africa has so much genetic diversity, HGDP should have gotten at least five or six West African references instead of just two), and FTDNA took away one of them.

    I understand that Family Tree DNA isn’t the only company which an admixture test, there are others like 23andme, AncestryDNA, and now this new company called “Tribecode”, and I have done them except the new Tribecode company. But still I don’t understand why FTDNA thought that regressing their reference populations was going to be a good idea. Why couldn’t they have just kept the references?

    • my native is 3.72, IT WAS A SHOCKER , i was born in england , what i want to know is this, how do these fit in ,Ancestral_Altaic 1.80%, Paleo_Siberian 0.78%, i do not understand what i am seeing , these are my other shockers , East_African 0.65% East_Siberian 0.05%, i have Spanish and Portuguese , too i was told that this inferred i was descended from slaves brought to Europe by the Spanish and Portuguese , from Mexico and Brazil , but i match to Kennewick man and clovis child , have a dash of Arctic native too , i am left distraught , i have no one that understands to explain , btw the 3.72 includes the s.e.asian , i am told that these two bloods confirm the Brazilian blood …Australoid – Austronesian 0.66%, Australoid is a dash like the artic american indian

  2. yeah ftdna does a lousy job on non european dna. they gave my mom overly high east asian and central asian dna estimates.

    on another note, not everyone can figure out what tribe their amerindian ancestors came from. for example it’s impossible for me to figure out which tribe(s) my mom’s amerindian ancestors came from.

  3. Roberta, nice information here. I’m probably an exception and lucky to boot. When I tested with FTDNA I received a few matches that have Choctaw ancestry. Initially, I didn’t know what to expect but the results were not out of the blue considering I’m a Choctaw Freedmen descendant. Later, testing with 23andMe and AncestryDNA I received additional matches from descendants whose ancestors were our Choctaw slaveowners. Using Gedmatch, 23andMe, & FTDNA tools I see we’re matching on Euro and Native American segments.

  4. My adopted son Sam (mtdna C1) has known (verified via tribal records and birth/marriage records) descendency from a Modoc ancestress. If she is his only Native American link (4th great grandmother), he would not have much Native American dna, but has 8-14% (8 on ftdna plus another 6% East/South Asian, other sites show him as 14%). His birthmother has 26% Native American dna. He has had the full mtdna sequence but has only one mtdna match with no associated information, a woman from Chile (elderly, sez Google) who will not respond to my request for information. What next steps are there for verifying tribal relationships, other than waiting for some possible relatives to test at some point? (I am also trying to upload his info to mtdna). He has a fairly comprehensive tree on birthmother’s side with the usual brick walls, but more ancestors than not. He has a complete brick wall on birthfather’s side, with haplogroup Z30, no close relatives. I enjoy your articles, looking forward to learning more.

  5. I am waiting on the results on DNA tests. In our case, it’s very frustrating because the true Native Indian was “adopted” by a white family. My husband is 1/8th and my children are 1/16th. We know the name and her “parents”, but the census records show that they are her parents and not who her biological parents are. We just know she was born in 1862. We don’t know the circumstances around the adoption and therefore the tribe. We are in VA and it was most likely some version of Powhatan, but there were several in the area at the time. I believe there are only 2 of the original 8 tribes remaining from the Powhatan confederation. Any suggestions on how to research this?

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  10. my grandfather was indian but was taken from his family at age 9 and given to a American family in Indiana that was to teach him white mans ways I guess they took a lot of these Cherokee children tried to get information but courthouse in Brazil Indiana burnt to the ground and all records lost I am a Girl so how do I prove my heritage from my fathers side . the name they gave my grandfather was Harry Richard Morris now what can I do

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  13. hi i just did my ancestry DNA test and i have 59% navité american indian but trying to find what tribal my blood belongs any help where can i take a test again …….

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    • I’m C1c as well and trying to decide if it’s worth the money to do a full mtDNA on FTDNA. I have about 1800 matches on 23andme and only one other match is C1c, but their ancestry seems to point to central america, so probably not the same mtDNA source. On gedmatch, out of the 1500 listed matches, zero list C1c. So my worry is that I spend the money, but have no meaningful C1c matches on FTDNA.

      I can trace back my maternal ancestor to someone born in Indiana in the 1820’s whose parents were both listed as being born in Tennessee.

      • That’s very interesting. What is your ancestor’s name? Regarding testing, you’ll never know if you don’t test and it’s these kinds of discoveries that help write the history of the Native people.

      • HI Roberta, Russ, I have Rogers on my maternal line would love to be in the loop. Roberta I may have an Estes match on my Autosomal (FF). 3rd great grandmother was Sealy Ann Rogers. who married Archibald M Harmon. both born early 1800’s. No native showing in my DNA as far as I know, Haplo is M1b1a. Other researchers say that Sealy is the daughter of Dew Rogers, but I question this. Dew named a Celia in his Last Will and Testament but I think the Celia named is too young to be Sealy Ann. The earliest Census in which Archibald and Sealy are found is 1850. St James Goose Creek SC. He may be the 2nd male listed on 1830 census with Enoch Harmon Marion County SC. We know he had a brother Enoch from a family tree outline someone did several years ago. Archi and Sealy are 3grt grandparents through my grandmother’s father and mother. They were 1 cousins once removed. James was son of Jeremiah and Olivia was daughter of John who was son of Seymour. Both Jeremiah and Seymour were sons of Archi and Sealy. Any help would be much appreciated.

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  17. I show native American and Asian ancestery on the 23 and me DNA test. I know it is on my dad’s side because of family confirmation and the fact that his father looks full-blooded native. Since we are Canadian, I think it would be difficult to find my tribe which is all I want to do. My grandfather got a farm in Vermont and I believe he got free land as a grant. Any suggestions?

      • Thank you, but the issue is that the family is so secretive. I know my grandfather’s father is from 3 Rivers Reservation in Quebec; the problem is I do not speak French or Algonquin languages.

  18. I have a picture of my fathers grandmother . She looks very much Native American . But no one is completely positive she is though . I suppose she could’ve been basque or sammi . My father and I are R1b1 . We tested with 23 and me . No Native American ancestry was shown . I know a certain test would be required to test for female native ancestry in makes . I just don’t know which one it is . It’s pretty confusing . Her name was Mary Caroline Patterson from Alabama and North Carolina. Can anyone tell me which test to get . Thanks for any help

  19. This article goes into great detail, most of which I understand. The reason I looked this up is because I was adopted by my maternal grandparents. My biological mother told me my father’s name and that he was 3/4 Native American, but she did not know what tribe. My maternal side of the family holds lineage from Hesse Kassel all the way to 1951 where the first split was and my grandmother was of English and Cherokee decent. There are two reason I want to find out what my heritage is. One is I want to learn about who I am, where I came from. Second is I am hoping it will help me find my biological father. If he is registered with one of the tribal communities this may point me in the right direction. I’m 36 years old, I’d like to be able to say hi and I exist (my bio mother) told him I died at birth. This is the only reason I want to know. I want to add another chapter to my book of life. 🙂

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