LYNNWOOD — Betty Gaeng has met dozens of Indian princesses.
Or so they thought.
Most often, she said, those desperately clutching brittle photographs of a distant ancestor have more hope than American Indian lineage.
There’s very little information for people who have too little Indian blood to enroll in a tribe, but just enough blood for a family tale to balloon into a legend of native royalty, said Gaeng, a research volunteer at the Sno-Isle Genealogical Society in Lynnwood.
“We get so many of those,” Gaeng said.
All family trees have mystery in their branches, but few more so than those of people with a small amount of Indian blood in their veins.
That’s what Gaeng and other volunteers at the genealogical society discovered last year, when they tried to purchase books on Coast Salish history and genealogies with a $2,000 grant from the Tulalip Tribes.
“We found nothing,” said Carol Thul, the society’s librarian.
That discovery was unthinkable to Gaeng, Thul and other society members, who have been known to travel around the country to rummage through dusty boxes stuffed with yellowed notes on who was born and when, who died and where.
“Every person, regardless of ethnicity, should have access to this information,” society member Teresa Verhey said.
Using decades of genealogical expertise, the group is working to develop a searchable database to be used by people who believe they may have Indian blood. Gaeng, Thul and others are collecting information about tribal members and their descendents that is of public record but difficult for the average person to track down and interpret.
“These are public records, but it’s hard for an ordinary person to figure out what they mean,” said Gaeng, secretary for the society. “There’s a certain method for extracting that information.”
Faulty information has led countless people to believe they have Indian blood or are even descended from Indian chiefs, said Kathleen Hinckley, executive director of the Association of Professional Genealogists in Colorado.
“It’s a common ancestral story in families that they descend from an Indian princess,” she said. “Some stories may be true, but it’s the task of the genealogist to filter out fact from fiction, especially when oral history is involved.”
Tracing Indian genealogies are more difficult than others because much of the pertinent information is closely guarded by tribal governments, Hinckley said.
Proof of Indian blood, especially if it leads to membership in an Indian tribe, can mean a potential windfall through casino revenues, college scholarships and other benefits.
“The tribe knows when someone died and was born, and all the connections,” Hinckley said. “They have it all pulled together, and it exists nowhere else. It’s a gold mine.”
Still, many Indians lost track of their ancestry because a grandparent or great-grandparent left their Indian community.
“There was so much discrimination that many people hid the fact that they were Indian,” Hinckley said. “It doesn’t even show up on records.”
Robin Carneen said her grandmother left the Swinomish Indian Reservation near La Conner some time last century and never shared anything about her home tribe.
Carneen, now 47, was born a year after her grandmother died.
Through an online chat room for American Indians, Carneen said, she stumbled upon a Tulalip tribal member who had heard of her grandmother’s name.
By 2004, Carneen said, she was working through the Swinomish tribe’s enrollment process.
Even though Carneen’s children don’t have enough Swinomish blood to enroll in the tribe, the discovery can get them a Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood. The certificate is often accepted as proof for minority scholarships and other benefits.
“We got really lucky,” Carneen said.
A database like the one the Sno-Isle Genealogical Society is creating could have saved years of research, Carneen said.
Indians who live off-reservation often have no resources to help them trace their family history, Thul said.
The society hopes to create its database using information gathered from a host of sources: records from the Roman Catholic Church, land allotment records, school registries – anywhere that might offer a bit of information. In bits and pieces, the information can easily be misinterpreted, Gaeng said, but together, and analyzed by an experienced genealogist, it can unlock secrets long hidden.
“We know this affects state history and the history of the northwest,” Verhey said. “But on a national level, this will provide the tools to help more people find their roots.”
Reporter Krista J. Kapralos: 425-339-3422 or firstname.lastname@example.org.