Rumors of Native Ancestry

Posted By BrokenClaw on February 15, 2007

I wrote my article, Are You Part Cherokee?, several years ago. I intended the message to be truthful, but with a touch of tongue-in-cheek humor. Most of the feedback I receive is from other native Americans who either agree with me or who thank me for publishing the idea online. Some even tell me about experiences they’ve noticed after reading my article. Sometimes I get email from people who tell me that they really are Cherokee and put names to their Cherokee heritage. Just today I got an email from someone who was doing serious research on his native ancestry, so that he could offer his children more than, in his words, the “Cherokee princess grandmother” story.

I wrote that original article after a series of coincidental experiences. In about one week’s time, I had heard four different people, in general conversation, claim to be part Cherokee. One was a character in a TV show, one was a professional athlete on TV, one was a person being interviewed on the radio (who said he was part Indian, and when the interviewer inquired what tribe, the person responded, “Cherokee, I believe”), and one was a person I met on the golfcourse. Naturally, I asked that last person to elaborate on his native ancestry, but he confessed that all he knew was that it was a family story about an unknown ancestor.

However, I also receive periodic emails from people who object to what they perceive as a disparaging attitude. They feel that I am belittling their efforts to make a connection with their native ancestry. In the article, I mention my mother’s ancestors of European descent and state that I feel no particular connection to those countries. That research also uncovered other facts about my maternal ancestors that no one in my family knew or, at least, had ever told me: that many of our ancestors were Mennonite who had emigrated from German Alsace to Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.

Now, no one in my direct lineage has been a member of a Mennonite church for at least four generations. While my Mennonite ancestry certainly gives me a greater appreciation for the religious persecution that drove people to emigrate to William Penn’s Commonwealth, I would never go into a Mennonite church and strike up a conversation by saying, “Hey, you know, I’m part Mennonite, too.”

Recently I received an email from someone who told me that my Cherokee article seemed to “defeat the open and generous nature” of the rest of my website. But it was her other statement that prompted me to write this blog entry. She said that “However silly their comment(s) or actions may seem to you, for them it may simply be a starting point of a larger journey – to make that connection.” As long as it is a journey in search of truth, and not a journey based on false sincerity, then I applaud the effort. But the person must understand that genealogy research requires a personal commitment and not just a few emails.

In my article about Native Ancestry I state that I already knew who my native ancestors were. True, but to uncover the whole story, or at least as much of the story that I have now, my research has taken a period of years. I visited the tribal cemetery in Oklahoma. I searched the online archives of the Smithsonian Institution and purchased photocopies of records. I subscribed to an online Census service. I went to the National Archives in Washington DC and searched and photocopied tribal records. I went to the University of Delaware to do research in their library. I wrote, phoned, and ordered records from the Franklin County (Kansas) Historical Society. I purchased and read every book I could find about my ancestors tribes, including those from rare book dealers. I sent letters and made phone calls to people I didn’t know, but who I thought might be related or might know something about my relatives. And of course I corresponded via email with dozens of other relatives. That is the type of commitment I made, so I hope you can understand why I may seem a bit cavalier about people who take pride in their flippant reference to their unknown native American ancestor.

Epilogue: While researching my mother’s ancestors, I discovered that my great-great-grandfather’s brother, Martin Shaffner, fought in the Civil War, including the Battle of Gettysburg, and was later killed in Virginia. Again, I did the footwork myself – finding his Regimental history at the Lebanon County (PA) Historical Society, finding his grave at the Ebenezer Cemetery, finding his name on the Regimental plaque at Gettysburg, finding his service record at the National Archives in Washington. But you see, the purpose of my efforts was to honor him, not to honor me.


4 Responses to “Rumors of Native Ancestry”

  1. Pamela M Reilly (Means) says:

    My maternal grandmother told me that she was part Cherokee (I think from her father’s side). I think she was 1/4 Cherokee and was born in Georgia. I believe that her father assimilated into the white man’s world to avoid the prejudice and also to just be able to live among them successfully. Eventually, they moved to Alabama. They were farmers. I have not been able to find my grandmother’s maiden name “Barefoot” on any of the roles (again probably due to the fact that they assimilated and were not registered. Too bad, because I am proud to be even 1/16 Cherokee.

  2. oklahoma records search…

    Can point me to other similar posts on oklahoma records search? Really appreciate it. Thanks….

  3. travis says:

    After just reading your article, I didn’t find your writing as disparaging at all. I agree with you in many ways. I do think that now it’s more excepted to be other then white. It’s not that these people don’t have Indian ancestry. Perhaps most do. It’s more the fact that as society becomes more open, it opens all those little family secrets that used to be considered cultural taboos – the gay uncle, the great grandmother that was Indian, etc.

    As for me, I’m one of those American “mutts” (I use that word with great effection) -Scottish, French, Irish, English, Choctaw, and Cherokee (maybe even a little Jewish). I have been contemplating Cherokee enrollment since my great-grandfather was on the Guion-Miller roll.

    But, my decision will not be so much about my own ancestry, but about the desire to maintain a culture that is in threat of disappearing. Cultural diversity is not just a cute little idea, it is necessary for human survival. Jsut like in genetics, the more diverse the population, the more chances for survival. Likewise, as many native cultures in the Americas fight for survival among the Anglo and Hispanic worlds, these langauges and cultures must be maintained.

    Thank you for everything.

  4. titanic wanga says:

    I am an african american who up untill recently always thought that i only had one grand mother who was part cherokee and part blackfoot . That was until my family and i started to do research and i am now starting to discover that my mother’s father was half cherokee -half white my mothers mother was half cherokee and part giggie gullah , my father’s father was part native american ,part african american and part english and my father’s mother was one-fourth cherokee one-fourth blackfoot and half white.

    I know that there are a lot of people who claim cherokee ancestory but for someone like me it makes me question my racial and ethnic idenity as well as feels robbed of any culture that i should have had if i had been raised within the native culture since i have had my african culture taken away by slavery and oppression. I am trying to reconnect to the culture of my ancestors that i can claim and i feel that i should have the right to claim it since it is part of me and be able to pass my heritage until my children and grandchildren. You are lucky to be native american and white and that you can pass both of your cultures on to your children but there are many people like me who’s cultre has been almost taken away and therefore we get lost in anger over the past because we are told that we have no culture we often feel that we do not have an identity other than what the goverment and the majority tells us who we are and how we should be. We are not africans no more that you are european but thats what we are supposed to identify ourselves as. This label tells us that we do not
    belong here and that we could be removed if they wanted us gone. you should consider this prospective the next time you make your comments about people claiming their native american heritage because it might be the only heritage they can try to reclaim.

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