The Bureau of Indian Affairs

Author: Carolyne Gould
Published on: August 2, 2000 at

Articles on Native American research would not be complete without at least some reference to the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). Established in 1824, the BIA was under the jurisdiction of the War Department. Much of the Bureau's activities focused on treaty making/breaking and assimilation or removal of tribes from one area of the country to another. The BIA was transfered to the Department of the Interior in 1849 and several geographical offices were later set up to oversee varous tribes. But most records of rolls and census information formerly kept by the BIA have now been transfered to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).

According to the BIA, they do not have a "national Indian registry or comprehensive computer database." They also do not do genealogy research, which they will tell you without mincing words if you visit their web site. Although their main page offers a link to "Tracing your Native American Ancestry" and you'll find other links titled "ancestry" and "genealogy," you'll be given basic information on how to do genealogy.

You will be told that "offices in selected areas throughout the United States may have some records concerning Indian ancestry" while they reiterate there are no lists. At the same time that the BIA says there is no national registry, the BIA will say they have "current" records on "lists commonly called rolls," but that this data does not have supporting documentation for each tribal member. What this tells me personally, is that, yes, the BIA has a list of indigenous peoples and, no, they are not going to make our research easier by sharing the information. You'll find that the content of the site runs along extremely ambiguous lines that seems to stress they have no records that will help your research. Then, out of the blue, the BIA offers the following advice:

"When you contact a BIA field office, be prepared to give the name of the tribe, the name(s) and birth dates of ancestor(s), and relationships. You must provide specific information otherwise, field offices (and other institutions) probably cannot provide much useful information." After you've digested this part of the BIA's message, they throw in a privacy act passed by Congress that " protects the current tribal membership rolls and lists that the BIA maintains." (Native Americans have a name for people who talk out of both sides of their mouths at once.)

I've gone through all this discussion not to discourage you from trying the BIA, but to warn you that this will probably not be your favorite government office to deal with and most likely not your most fruitful. If you somehow obtain genealogically useful information from the BIA, please let me know how you did it so we can tell the rest of the world. I'll plant a tree in your honor.

A recent addition to BIA offerings on the web is the office that "services" Indian trust fund monies. They had a nice little website called Whereabouts Unknown that listed all the names of Indians to whom the government owes money -- but they can't find them. My thought is: if they know who they owe money to, they must know who they paid. Guess there could be a master roll somewhere, eh? To visit the BIA website go to the BUREAU OF INDIAN AFFAIRS.