"Digging Up Your Indian Heritage" by Leslie Barker Thomas
Each time you pick up something that mentions Indians do you notice how generalized the information is? It has become the same with us as Americans. We have become a blank canvas onto which generalizations can be drawn and colored in with basic colors of red, black, brown, yellow, or shades of peach standing for “white”. Whatever identifying characteristics there may have been at one time seems to have been lost over the last 100 years as we have all been melded into one Nation dare I say it “under God”.
But there was a time when we were distinct individuals, with attributes of our distinct heritages. As someone with a variety of ethnicities, I try hard to be succinct as I teach others about who I am and to be precise in making those distinctions. Mention you are Cherokee to someone today and the first thing you hear back is that they are “part Indian” as well. If you were to say this to someone who claims to be a full blood Indian, they would laugh and ask you “what part of you is Indian – your toes, your nose, your right ear?” To them you either are Indian or you are not, there is no such thing as being a little bit or part Indian. I learned this distinction early on in my childhood when I questioned my grandmother about our Indian heritage and was told “we are not just Indian – we are Cherokee.”
So I prompt you to be precise in your distinction with your Indian heritage, call yourself who you are, be it Cherokee, Creek, Catawba, or Seminole. I am Cherokee/Irish with some English in there somewhere and maybe a touch of Holland Dutch, but I can’t prove it. We tend to lean towards the blood that calls us more loudly to be who we are. Should we feel more Indian than Irish? Perhaps not or maybe our heart is listening to the ancestors as they call us home to our roots. It is a choice we all make at some point. But before we make that choice we need to have researched all that we are, from our parents to our grandparents and their parents and grandparents as far back as we can go. And while our parents and grandparents are alive we must ask the questions and find the stories or they will be lost forever. The task is before you.
Finding your Indian roots is not as easy as it may sound unless you are a registered reservation Indian. Proof must be found in order to be registered and that is not always as easy as it sounds. The Cherokee Nation of Okalahoma requires that your ancestors be found on the Dawes Rolls. The Eastern Band of Cherokee in North Carolina at Qualla requires that your relationships be traced to the Guion Miller Rolls. These two tribes are federally recognized along with the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokees. After finding a connection to any of these tribes there is also the concern of blood quantum, which is a deciding factor as to whether or not you would qualify for recognition by the tribes of Cherokee to be included on their current rolls. Chances are that by now the blood lines are too thin to qualify for the government’s definition for being Cherokee.
And then there is the monkey wrench that most of us have found when talking about our mixed Cherokee heritage with family members. This nation is racist and for a long time being Indian was equated with being colored because this was the designation given by the government. It goes back to the one drop of colored blood indicating that you were not a pure European and something less than human. Many of our relatives were taught that if they could pass for being a white European that they should settle for that and forego acknowledging they were anything less. They even came up with false descriptions which included black Irish or black Dutch. Sometimes this meant changing the original surnames, as in our family which changed Maderis to McDaris to fit in with the Scotch/Irish ethnicity of Yancey County North Carolina.
Ah, but fear not, many states have state recognized tribes which would accept you if you find ancestors in a number of various ways, such as a marriage certificate that states your ancestor was Indian or some sort of other designation which could have included being classified as colored. Or you can use registrations on a number of other rolls such as the Swetland rolls or the Churchill rolls or even a rejected Guion Miller Roll application may qualify you for state recognition. There is a state recognized Eastern Cherokee Tribe of Cherokee of Georgia, along with a couple of unrecognized bands seeking recognition. What is all the fuss about recognition? Not much really, but sometimes with this recognition your children would qualify for scholarship monies set aside for indigenous peoples.
Otherwise you may just want to know more about your roots so hopefully this will give you some guidance and assistance in finding the research information. Nine years ago I put together a research page which can be found at http://www.members.tripod.com/~Wakaakta/Genealogy-1.html
This page includes some of the many helpful links to pages that may help you locate that elusive ancestor. Although there is much online that may help, nothing helps more than to actually do the foot work and visit the various locations you know that your ancestors came from. Don’t neglect those census and land records and always double check that your ancestors aren’t listed on the back of the census records under the colored designations. Don’t discount spellings of names and surnames as it is often the case that the census taker couldn’t spell or spelled names in familiar patterns, such as our Hutson name was also spelled Hudson.
Just as with any genealogy research, you must start with yourself and work backwards. Specifically looking in Gilmer County, the library here is the best of any. I have done research in across all of North Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia. The information contained in the library genealogy room is in-depth and the local genealogical society for Gilmer County Georgia is always adding something new to help you.
The book The Annuals of Upper Georgia Centered in Gilmer County, by George Gordon Ward is a wonderful book at a reasonable price of $20 it is a find well worth the money. The book tells a great deal about the county and its beginnings. Included in this book are many names of the pioneering families, some of which were here when the Cherokees lived here and they intermarried often. Mentions are made of some of those families. Aside from this, having the history of the county may guide you to your next step in your research.
The next book I would recommend is Whites Among the Cherokees, by Mary B. Warren and Eve B. Weeks. This book is a collection of papers from the Georgia archives that were researched by the authors covering the timeframe of 1828-1838 the time of the Cherokee removal from Georgia. The books lists a number of interesting facts such as those white men married to Cherokees and their offspring and who they married, along with the special censuses required in odd years to see what Indians were living where and what whites were living on their lands. These whites had to have government permission to do business with the Cherokees in their lands which covered most all of North Georgia before the removal.
Other books that may assist you in finding your allusive ancestors are:
Cherokee and Baptists in Georgia by Robert G. Gardner
Those Who Cried – The 16,000 , edited by James W. Tyner
A Little History of Gilmer, Lawrence L. Stanley *
Cherokee Georgia, The Enchanted Land, Lawrence L. Stanley*
Gilmer County Area of Georgia 200 Years Ago, Lawrence L. Stanley*
*these books are kept behind the librarians desk because they are irreplaceable… you must leave your driver’s license to read them.
Georgia Planters 1832-1838, by Don L. Shadburn
Indian Heritage of Georgia, by Marion R. Hemperley
Any book by the following authors in order to learn about the heritage of your Cherokee peoples:
Dr. Sarah Hill
But I might add that any book you find on Cherokee culture or heritage is worth reading as long as you stay in your Cherokee culture. You may never recapture the heritage or cultural influences but at least you will learn what your ancestors went through to get to where you are now. Like anything else that you read substantiate the information if it is in doubt. A visit to places of significant Cherokee culture is also worthwhile. The Funk Heritage Museum on the campus of Reinhardt College at Waleska Georgia is a must. This museum came about as a direct result of Wal-Mart’s habit of digging into burial grounds of our ancestors. New Echota, the Cherokee Nation’s headquarters after they were forced out of their lands in Tennessee is another place full of history of the Cherokees. There is a wealth of reading material available there. Chieftain’s Museum another site worth your attention is located at Rome, Georgia.
What about Gilmer County attractions? Well most all of these are gone as tourists claimed whatever was found on the grounds and destroyed many of the artifacts by defacing them or taking them from their original locations. Such is the case of the Whitepath house which was removed to Hall County Georgia not too long ago…
I must add a note here to say that visiting a PowWow is a worthy outing, but you must remember that these are relatively new and usually intertribal in their dance, dress and stories. You will be sorely disappointed if you choose to visit Qualla in Cherokee North Carolina, as it is highly commercialized with all things Indian and very little to be found that is specifically Cherokee. For many decades there was little pride to be found in the crafts and arts of our ancestors so much has been lost over time, including the language. Many are now trying to recapture what was lost to us and traditional arts are returning. There are books to tell about what these arts and crafts were available at books stores at Qualla and the Oconaluftee Village is a historic village that tells the ancient history of our peoples. The language is once again being taught in the schools.
Like you and I, today most all Cherokees look and act very much as we do. They live much the same in varying degrees of poverty to wealth depending on their circumstances. Many of our ancestors avoided being registered on any rolls but that doesn’t make them any less Cherokee. It does label them disenfranchised to their culture but no less Indian. Cherish the heritage, learn all you can about your history and document it for your children and grandchildren for they won’t have a future without their past.
Leslie Barker Thomas