National American Indian Heritage Month
By Kimberly Brown, Family Historian
One of the first proponents of an American Indian day was Dr. Arthur C. Parker, a Seneca Indian who directed the Museum of Arts and Sciences in Rochester, New York. As a result of his efforts the Boy Scouts of America adopted a "First American" day to honor the American Indians. In 1915 the Congress of the American Indian Association approved its president Sherman Coolidge, a member of the Arapahoe tribe, to lobby for a national "First American" day. It wasn't until 1990, however, that Congress, along with President George H. W. Bush, enacted a law to observe November as National American Indian Heritage Month.
American Indian heritage should be of interest to all Americans, whether or not they have Native American ancestry; after all, many of the place-names that we have today come from American Indian words. The state of Delaware takes its name from the Delaware tribe, and the city of Miami takes its name from the Miami Indians. The Chesapeake Bay takes its name from an Algonquin village that was nearby, and Niagara Falls was named after an Iroquois town. Nebraska comes from an Oto Indian word that means "flat water." Manhattan and Dakota are also American Indian words.
If you do have American Indian ancestry that you want to research, there are a few basic things that you should understand about American Indian history before you start. In 1830, Congress passed the Indian Removal Act, and the next twenty years marked a period of forced removal and mass-migration for the Indians. Many American Indians lost their tribal identity during this time, since Indians of many different tribes were all forced to migrate together to places like Oklahoma. From about 1850 to 1887, most Indians lived on reservations. All kinds of genealogical-type records were kept on the reservations during this time, including school records and censuses. In 1887, Congress passed the General Allotment Act with the goal of assimilating Native Americans into the rest of society and helping them become self-sufficient. As a result of this act, tribal lands were no longer held in common but were divided up and distributed for individual ownership. As a result, allotment records and land records are among the premiere resources that can be used to find your ancestors during this time period.
In 1920 the American Indians were finally granted United States citizenship. With this came the long-awaited rights to vote, to run for public office, and to own land off of the reservation. From this time on, finding one's ancestors is simply a matter of searching federal censuses, vital records, and other typical genealogical records.