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."