AN AMERICAN HERITAGE
THE STORIES OF OUR CHEROKEE-EUROPEAN FOREBEARERS
My Dear Children, Laurie and Christopher,
From the earliest part of my life I was told that I am “part Cherokee”and the great great great granddaughter of Chief John Ross, principle chief of the Cherokee tribe during the Trail of Tears. Now, I was a pretty quick study and I did not have to look long into the mirror to see that I was not like the
Indian girls I knew who had olive skin and long straight black hair. My hair, although black, was curly, and my skin was about as white as you could get.
How could I be Indian? Even when I told my friends, they looked rather puzzled, because they did not think I looked Indian either. I usually kept the part about Chief John Ross quiet because if I couldn’t pass for Indian, how could I possibly the be ggg granddaughter of the most noted chief of the Cherokee people?! We all knew what Indians “looked like” because we grew up in Oklahoma. Additionally, my parents, your grandparents, taught Indian children for the Bureau of Indian Affairs at Chilocco, Oklahoma; Shiprock, New Mexico; and Riverside Indian School in Anadarko, Oklahoma. All of these places were replete with Indians from many tribes including Navajo, Arapaho, Kiowa, Apache, Comanche, Choctaw, etc, etc. I knew the names for them all and I certainly did not resemble any of them in the least.
I was eight years old when we moved to Shiprock, New Mexico on the Navajo Indian Reservation. There were very few non-Navajo people in or around Shiprock. There certainly did not seem to be any Indians like me or our family. The Navajo kids in my third grade class pointed at me and talked about me in Navajo because I was not one of them. I learned early what it was like to be a minority. The problem was: I couldn’t figure out what type of minority I really was. There were non-Navajo employees who were Indian. There were even some Cherokees, but they were “full bloods” and we were not. Full Blood Cherokee was what I wished to be. I think your Aunt Martha Nell felt this way too. When a friend of our parents who was Choctaw was hurt, Martha Nell told him not to worry about bleeding, because he was “full of blood”! Now if we were bleeding, that could be a problem because we did not have so much blood. That incident became one of the many family stories that you have heard over and over before. It reflected our confusion about our status and identity.
We moved to Riverside near Anadarko, Oklahoma when I was in the sixth grade and I attended school at the Anadarko public school. I immediately noticed that there was a separation between white children and Indian children. Since I looked more white than Indian, I kept quiet about the Indian part and blended in with the white children. In Anadarko, the Indians were plains Indians who although not so primitive as the Navajo on the reservation had been, were in many ways not like us either. The adults were often not educated and not as prosperous as we were and consequently did not live or dress as well as we did. I began to think that maybe I was glad I did not look Indian.
During this time, I also began asking more questions. I wondered if our ancestors lived in tepees like the plains Indians or hogans like the Navajos. Did they dress in feathers and dance like those that did the beautiful dances? Maybe they wore the silver belts and jewelry. When my parents answered in the negative and showed me pictures of my grandparents and great-grandparents, they were dressed as white people and spoke English. They lived in typical white houses. I began to wonder how they got this way? What were they like before? What caused them to change so much? Why were we so light skinned? My parents had only vague answers and did not satisfy my question very well. They did tell me of our ancestry by showing me ancestral charts that traced who grandparents and great grandparents and
great great grandparents were. This was for most all of the family, although my mother claimed to know very little about her mother’s family. This did not really tell me how they became who they were and what they thought of being Indian. So the questions continued.
During the time I completed college at the University of Oklahoma, married your dad, lived in California and Virginia, and completed graduate studies at the University of California, Berkely, a number of issues regarding race, and identity surfaced in new ways I had never quite experienced. In California, Dad and I experienced the prejudice that many Californians have for “Okies” when O.U. classmates were refused housing in the apartments where we lived because they were from Oklahoma. We unknowingly had told
the landlady we came from San Diego, which we did! This apparently got us past the “Okie” issue. When we lived in Virginia, we learned that we were not legally married in Virginia because I was 1/4 Indian and hence considered “colored”. There was a law against white/”colored” marriages in those days. You can be sure I kept quiet about the Indian stuff there! I also believe I was admitted to highly competitive Berkeley not only because of my qualifications, but because I was Indian and stated so on my application. The sixties also brought many issues to the surface that were mostly unresolved. I did not
become a hippie, although, Grandma thought my skirts were too short and my long hair made me “look Indian”. I did not participate in the AIM movement, nor did I really understand its genesis. I had come to believe that Cherokees got a head start in the acculturation process and that explained our
differences. Other tribes just had a ways to go. I still did not know or understand just how this acculturation took place. There were so very many other new experiences, that during this time, I was really busy adjusting and keeping pace with changing environments both geographically and in terms of
culture. Also we were going to school and raising a young family.
When my parents retired to Tahlequah, Oklahoma, the capital of the Cherokee Nation, I was a young adult with a family. I had not been to Tahlequah for a few years and I began to notice things…