Updated: Mar 12, 2020
Wannabe. Fraud. Elizabeth Warren. Fake Indian?
These were the whispers that echoed against me by people hiding behind a computer screen who know nothing about me. They have never met me or my family. They don't know anything about my family's genealogy and history.
First off, if you are at all new to the indigenous culture, you should know that it's every Native’s favorite insult to say someone else is not Native. It also seems to be the favorite insult of non-Natives to give someone they don't like who is claiming Native heritage. Insanely enough, I have even known near full-blooded cousins who got mad at each other and began saying the other one wasn't Native. These critics and strangers always seem to scream the loudest, like the toddler pitching a temper tantrum in the store. You know - the one who you want to ignore, but after a while, it just begins to grate on your nerves. This Bible verse captures what I often felt.
Psalm 43:1 Vindicate me, O Creator, and plead my case against an ungodly gentile; O deliver me from the deceitful and unjust man!
But sometimes persecution can inspire, and that is just what it did - to my loving husband - who chronicled and researched my family history. To any casual observer, it is evident that both of my grandparents on my father's side were Native. But where was the paper proof? He was determined to find it. Most of my family lived in Georgia. Georgia was the home of the original Cherokee Phoenix newspaper, and many famous Cherokees - James Vann (a great leader of the Cherokee people), John Ross (the principal Chief during the removal), Major Ridge and his son, John Ridge, Elias Boudinot, Nancy Ward, Sequoyah (George Guess), Six Killer. They were all Cherokee from Georgia. The famous Vann House still stands.
The Trail of Tears took its toll on the Cherokee, Muscogee Creek, Choctaw, and Seminoles but there were many who fled or stayed behind denying their Native heritage by claiming they were “Black Irish or Black Dutch." This identity emerged after the removal and is a nonexistent ethnicity that explained away the dark hair, dark skin and dark eyes of an individual.
This fabricated identity was simply a method of survival but many kept the Native traditions, culture, and memories alive by passing down the stories in the family, while others did not in order to keep their children or grandchildren safe. The Chapman Rolls listed Cherokee who stayed in the east and was a foundational document for the Guion Miller Rolls. More Cherokees who remained appear approximately 30 years after the Trail of Tears where we find records of full-blooded Cherokee fighting in their own divisions in the Confederate Army and being the last Confederate units to surrender.
This collective written Cherokee history is still carried in the oral traditions of families throughout the southeast. Since my earliest memories, grandma was happy to tell me that she was Indian. Grandpa - well, that's another story. Grandpa would be quick to tell you that he was part Irish. Who isn't? When questioned about the other part, he would walk away and mumble something under his breath, denying full knowledge to the answer to my question.
"I was always puzzled, thinking that Grandpa was the darkest Irishman that I had ever seen. He also never sunburned, which I thought all good Irishmen knew how to do." ~ Dr. Laralyn RiverWind
One particularly curious exchange when grandma was talking to me about her heritage included a tag line aimed like an arrow at grandpa. "Well, I'm not afraid to say that I'm Indian…" followed quickly with blow darts from her black, almond-shaped eyes. Straight to my grandfather, who promptly and silently turned on his heel and made a beeline for the closest exit.
Grandpa was the best provider off of the land that I have ever known. He knew how to make the ancient, stone fish traps in the rivers; he and my uncle could bring home 100 fish in a day (pole fishing in a lake); he could put his hands in the earth and it would yield its bounty like no one else I've known. On his last hunting trip at age 83, he brought out five deer and one wild turkey in a single day. I grew up on grandpa's venison and watched him make fire the old way with a bow drill.
He enjoyed hunting on the Immokalee Seminole reservation. I considered him to be the best hunter, fisher, trapper, and farmer I have ever known. He learned from his uncle which is the traditional way. The land was made for him, and he was made for the land. He was a decorated WWII veteran, a warrior, and a pillar of our family. When visiting with close friends and older family in Americus, Ga one day we were told about grandpa and our family; "Everyone here knows you all were Indians."
But enough about my family, you may be reading this article to find out how you can get enrolled in a State or Federally recognized tribe. Perhaps, like me, you have been stuck not knowing how to navigate the paper trail of tears. Here is a list of recommendations I can make to you on your journey.
1. Pray: Ask Creator to reveal to you through documents, oral history, and paper proof your heritage. Pray that Creator will help your family members remember vital information.
2. Ask: Question your family and do so in different ways each time. Sometimes being in a different environment, around different people, or under different circumstances, they may remember things that they didn't the before - the name of this relative or the county of so and so's birth. Elders' memories are typically sharper in the morning, and some days are better than others. Especially helpful is when they get together and talk amongst themselves as one person's recollection will fill in the gaps of another.
3. Chronicle: Write everything down like data and stories passed down in the family. Get an excellent genealogy program or subscription like ancestry.com. Also, make an electronic copy of your information. I have known one dear native friend who had a single, treasured handwritten copy that was destroyed. It was devastating to her because she has no way of retrieving some of that information. Some tribes have their own genealogy departments that can help. I contacted the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians' genealogy department. Even though their tribal rolls are closed to adults other than adoptees, they proved helpful to me in my search.
4. Be Patient: Every day, old documents are being scanned and added to databases online. That is where breakthrough came into my family. The missing links were filled in and information flooded in, validating my family's oral history.
5. Be Understanding: Keep in mind that after the removal it was not a good thing to be "Indian" so if older family members are not as forthcoming with information and eager to discuss this as you, return to step #4.
6. Bear Up: Understand that on your journey to enrollment or self-discovery, you will have critics. Some may even be your own family. It's okay to grow a thick skin. After all, if grandma says she is Native and you know she doesn't spin wild tales, then believe her word and keep researching.
7. Be Thorough: Sometimes, it's tempting to only fill in the mothers and fathers in genealogies. Go the extra mile and fill in the siblings. Sometimes this proves helpful.
8. Beware: Many years ago, I was approached at a powwow by a man who offered to sell me a CDIB card. CDIB is a Certified Degree of Indian blood card issued by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The card is used to certify a specific degree of Native American blood of a member of a federally-recognized Indian tribe, band, nation, pueblo, village, or community. I was horrified, and without any consideration for his offer, I immediately refused him. I have never regretted that decision. If you don't have to go through an arduous process to prove and apply for enrollment to a tribe, then think twice about joining that tribe. There are numerous "tribes" fraudulently claiming state recognition. Do your homework and due diligence before putting in an application to a "tribe." Here is a link to an official listing of all federally-and-state recognized tribes in the United States.
9. Lay It Down: By this, I do not mean give up. What I mean is to thoroughly examine yourself to discover whether or not your cultural identity is an idol in your life. If your genealogy research time adds up to more than your prayer plus Bible study time, you might need to reprioritize. This may sound "preachy" to you, but consider this: Some researchers may tell you that you need good luck. I attest that you need Creator's good graces to reveal what has been hidden.
10. Be Humble: The acceptable term to use when you are not enrolled is "descendant.” This is the word that I used in describing myself while my search for evidence continued. This is the term that most traditional Natives accept when you are not an enrolled member of a federally or state-recognized tribe. Be aware that it doesn't mean that you won't draw fire.
But the people you will draw fire from will not be from a true traditionalist. The traditional Native view regarding descendants was best defined by Black Elk, a famous Lakota Holy Man who said, "If you have a drop of Indian blood in your veins, then you are Indian." This understanding was later echoed by Chief Wilma ManKiller of the Cherokee Nation.
"An Indian is an Indian regardless of the degree of Indian blood or which little government card they do or do not possess." Chief Wilma ManKiller - Cherokee Nation
11. Be Content: I came to a place where I had accepted that we would never find the proof that would convince the rest of the world of who I knew myself to be. The Creator knows who you are and do you really need the validation of man? It might seem that is easy for me to say now that I am enrolled. But I was saying it before and I am still saying it after.
As my father and I journey to protocol Chief Lucian Lamar Sneed of the Georgia Tribe of Eastern Cherokee, I reflect on my own genealogical journey. I can't say it is one of self-discovery. I already knew who I was and was already there. It is kind of akin to the fact that Columbus didn't discover America. My husband's Taino people were already there. Your DNA is there whether proof comes to you or not... but I pray that it does. I want to personally thank every full-blooded, federally recognized, card-carrying, elders, holy men and women, tribal leaders and dear friends who never questioned my identity or asked for proof. They accepted and loved me for who Creator made me.
May your identity be secure in our Creator and who He has created you to be. Because much of mankind will always be cruel. The slanderers who belittled me for not being enrolled in a federally or state-recognized tribe may very well continue looking for something else to criticize. It's just what they do, but they can't take from me who I am nor who Creator has made me to be.
I am an enrolled, card-carrying member of The Georgia Tribe of Eastern Cherokee, a State-Recognized Tribe: Georgia House Bill No. 265 & codified as OCGA 44-12-300.