I was raised away from all traditions and my family did not have their name on the Rolls. I know who and what I am, but I want to learn about my community and history. I want to be a part of the community. Where do I even begin? Should I even begin?
Let me answer your second question first—should you even begin? Yes, absolutely. If you know who you are and what you are, then do not let the fact that your family isn’t on “the Rolls” hold you back from your search. Being on the Rolls can be useful for things like establishing descent, for eligibility for enrollment in certain tribes, or for federal benefits; however, being Native isn’t about finding your ancestor’s name on a piece of paper or carrying an enrollment card. It’s more about being connected to your Native brethren.
Just in case you’re curious, the 2010 US Census says over 5.2 million Americans identify as American Indian or Alaska Native. About half—right around 2.3 million—also identify with one or more other race. To make it even more complex, only around 1.7 million people are enrolled members of a federally-recognized tribe. So, there are many people out there who also know they are Native, but won’t find their name on any official document.
You used two words that are important in your search–community and history. A community is brought together by things such as a shared history, traditions, culture, values, or language. Keeping these parts of your tribal community and the things you hope to learn from them in mind is essential, because along the way, you might encounter people that are skeptical or uncertain of your intentions. Do not let them deter you. You know who you are and what you hope to achieve in your search. Most people will recognize your good intentions and will welcome you into the community. But, it is important to always be aware of the history of the community, as it is this history that has brought it to where it is today.
There are several places you could begin your journey:
•Your own family – they might know much about your history and community. If not, they are at least a good starting point for understanding your personal history.
•Tribal cultural office, center, or organization – many tribes have offices, centers, or organizations that preserve and teach about the history and culture of the community.
•Tribal Elders – you can find rich information on culture/community history from an elder. They can have a lot to say if you’re willing to listen.
•Tribal college or university – if your tribe has a college or university, it could be a good resource for your search, as most will have a department or center dedicated to the tribal culture and history.
•Tribal publication – many tribes have newspapers or newsletters that keep their community updated on current news and cultural events.
•Tribal website – many tribes maintain websites where information for tribal offices and organizations can be found.
To become a part of your community, become actively engaged. This task can be daunting. You might be unsure if you’ll be welcomed, intimidated and overwhelmed with everything there is to learn, or concerned about making mistakes. No one gets everything right the first time. It’s the fact that you are getting involved that is truly important for both yourself and the Native community as a whole. Keep on brave soul!
Good luck, Auntie Manda