Elizabeth Warren and I have something in common, something kind of deep and personal.
No, I’m not talking about disdain for the current ravaging of the country by those running the Republican Party.
To begin with, Sen. Warren was born and grew up in Oklahoma, about 125 miles from where my mother was born and raised some years before. Growing up, I visited often at my grandmother’s house in Wilburton. One of the things I remember was a framed document noting that my grandmother was a resident of the Indian Territory when Oklahoma became a state.
That was meaningful because she was part Cherokee.
My grandmother’s maiden name was Bright and even Donald Trump would have looked at her and her brothers and recognized their native American bloodline. I never questioned it. We were told we were part Cherokee and I always treasured that.
It wasn’t until I was 40-something that Leah and I, with our even-thinner-blooded-Cherokee daughter in tow, tried to nail down the lineage. My grandmother was gone by then and all my mother had was names in the family tree.
My inspiration came from a friend who showed me her Cherokee citizenship card. I had never considered it because it had been my impression one must be at least a quarter Cherokee, but Marti told me the only requirement was to prove direct lineage to someone who had signed the Dawes Roll around the turn of the 20th century.
(Martha Berry, I must add, became involved with the nation, served as a delegate to the 1999 Cherokee Nation Constitution Convention, has become an accomplished beadworker and was designated in 2013 as a Cherokee National Living Treasure. I call her my Cherokee sister, even though … wait, I’m getting ahead of myself.)
Leah, Erin and I ended up visiting the capital of the Cherokee Nation near Tahlequah, Okla., in the late ’90s, armed with my mother’s family tree and hopes of tracking down my heritage.
The complex was closed.
We knew it shouldn’t have been and banged on the door until a law enforcement officer opened and explained they were under lockdown because of a protest taking place at the courthouse or somewhere. He advised us to go to the Bureau of Indian Affairs in nearby Muskogee.
There, an amazing woman listened to our story, took our information and told us to have a seat. A fair amount of time passed before she returned with bad news. She was not able to find any link between my forebears and the rolls.
“Listen to me,” she said. “Do not doubt for an instant your Cherokee heritage. There were a great many people who did not trust the government and refused to sign the rolls.”
That is what Elizabeth Warren and I have in common.
She had always trusted what she called “family lore” in this article by The Atlantic. Apparently, it never occurred to her to substantiate the anecdotes of her family.
“These are my family stories,” she was quoted as saying. “This is what my brothers and I were told by my mom and my dad, my mammaw and my pappaw.”
For the record, the article also explains there is no evidence she used her supposed heritage to gain any preferential treatment, except for submitting recipes for a cookbook published by the Five Civilized Tribes Museum in Muskogee.
So, I’m proud to also call Elizabeth my Cherokee sister. I trust family stories, especially when they are rooted in a time when claiming to be of native blood was not considered by most Americans to be all that desirable.
Which, if you listen to some of what’s coming out of Washington these days, may still be true.
2 thoughts on “Elizabeth and me”
Our family has a dubious Indian heritage. It was passed down that a multi-great grandmother was full blood Cherokee. A look at her photograph disagreed. We’ve come to believe she was born to non-native parents while living on an Indian reservation. My grandmother was born an Okie while it was still the Indian Territory before her parents moved to Texas.. Here’s hoping the Ancestry membership I gave my sister clears up some of our murky (really, deeply murky) family history.
Well, really deeply murky family history can be fun, too! 😉