*some names have been changed to respect privacy.
I know that this post will offend. Having grown up in once was what was Indian Territory, I am no stranger to the culture of exclusion the native tribes have towards those, like me, who cannot trace their lineage to the rolls. Some writers even claim the government had nothing to do with native families not signing. While that claim may be true for the Cherokee, as research has pointed, it is not true for all tribes. One must have a balanced and educated approach to this in order to understand how exclusionary this is to those of mixed blood.
The Cherokee Nation was and still is a powerful group. They had a highly organized political and educational system decades before their forced removal in the 1800’s. When they relocated to Park Hill in Indian Territory, they brought their schools and government with them. What is now Northeastern State University in Tahlequah, Oklahoma was the first recognized school west of the Mississippi. The tribe had a written language and a powerful organized band of politicians who were able to lobby and partition for tribal rights before many other civilized tribes were ever able to organize. To base all removal ideology on the history of that eastern tribe’s history is erroneous. But here is where the problem begins.
Map of Indian Territory
Other tribes did not have a written language or the powerful political machine that the Cherokee had and still have. They were the farmers of the Mississippi delta. Quiet and unassuming for the most part, instead of fighting their own tribe’s removal, they agreed to the march north and east to Indian Territory. The tribe I am specifically referring to is the Choctaw Nation. The Choctaw entered into treaty after treaty with the U.S. government to secede their lands in Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi. Each treaty was broken and subsequently, the first of three forced removals began in October of 1831 and resulted in the Choctaw’s version of the Trail of Tears. Thousands of Choctaw perished on that journey, and once the survivors arrived, they found that white settlers had already claimed the land that they were promised in Arkansas. They then settled in the southeast corner of what is now Oklahoma.
My own families’ oral tradition concerning our native heritage is scant at best. I remember my father telling me that his great grandmother was part of the Indian Removal, that she was the only survivor of her immediate family, and that she was 16 when she arrived. We, like many others whose ancestors arrived during this time in history, have very little evidence to go on. We have a picture of her, her last name, and the stories that were passed down for us to piece together. And when your lineage is maternal, as mine is, it is most definitely about the white man‘s laws. Women had no rights before 1920 regardless of your bloodlines. If you were female, you could not make decisions for your household. My family is not the only one whose decision regarding the signing of the rolls was made by the white male head of household. In fact, my husband, who is also of native decent that cannot be proven had the same fate befall his father’s family.
I was told as a child that we were Cherokee, and didn’t begin to question this until I was older and had studied tribal history on my own. I was also told that there were no records of our family as being registered on the Cherokee rolls. At the time I was a student at Northeastern State University in Tahlequah (the Cherokee Nation Capital) and spent hundreds of hours in the restricted section looking for anything that would link me to the past I longed for. Nothing. Just as my dad and my cousins had said. When my own sons began getting older, I revisited my search. By this time, the rolls had been preserved electronically and all one needed was access to the internet to do a search. I again started with the Cherokee rolls and again nothing. Because I knew that Redbud, Oklahoma in southeastern Oklahoma was where my grandfather was born and raised, I decided to try the Choctaw rolls. And lo and behold, there was my family surname, Lovelace. In fact, there were five Lovelace’s listed, but none of them were my great-great grandmother. I can only assume those listed were cousins or aunts or uncles to my great-great grandmother. And without birth certificates to link the bloodlines, I was out of luck.
But that doesn’t remove the longing I have. And it doesn’t displace the sadness I feel when I go to tribal functions and am considered an outsider. This began when I was a young girl growing up in the heart of Cherokee country. My family moved to Sequoyah County when I was 6 years-old. All my friends were native and I spent many summers with them as their guest going to gatherings. My oldest sister married a man who was half Cherokee, had two children, and lived with his mother who was a full-blood and spoke Cherokee. When I was 10, I moved in with them to help my sister raise her babies. I spent many hours with her mother-in-law, Marie, who would tell us stories and teach us how to speak a few words and sentences in Cherokee. I was enamored with the culture. To me, it felt unbelievably natural and even as a young child, I knew how honored I was to have this experience. I would go with Jeff’s family to their Indian land; I witnessed my niece and nephew receive their Cherokee names; I went to stomp dances as his guest; and I ate the beans and fry bread that his mom prepared.
When I was 15, my best friend, who is half Cherokee and on the rolls, invited me to go with her to her the gathering of her mother’s clan. Kelsey was gorgeous, being half Cherokee and half Irish, she had long, beautiful blond hair and big brown eyes. When we arrived and jumped out of the back of her brother’s pick-up truck, I remember being excited because there was a ballgame in session, and I loved any kind of team sport. We began walking towards the game. I had already spotted several girls I knew from school and was anxious to join. As we came closer, I noticed the girls moving towards each other, not smiling at us as I was smiling at them. Kelsey was hanging back, and it wasn’t long before I knew why. Zing! Something flew past my head. At first I thought it was a ball and that they were simply inviting us to play. Then I saw it. Each girl had a dirt clod in their hands and were aiming to hit us. “Cotton hair!” they shouted. By this time I was half way between them and my friend. I couldn’t believe what was happening. Kelsey turned around and headed back towards the truck with tears in her eyes. I was pissed, but knew that I was an outsider and had better go with my friend. “What the hell was that for?” I asked her when I came up. “That’s what they call me and my sister.”
“But that’s Vicki! We play on the same team at school! We eat lunch together!”
“We’re not at school.”
No we were not. We were on their land and we looked “white”.
Kelsey, her sister, and I spent the rest of that day playing in the creek by ourselves. Every now and then a young male would come down and try his best to get our attention, but that hoard of scowling girls were never far behind. And that’s when I got it. It was jealousy. Kelsey was able to traverse both worlds because of the simple way her DNA decided to pronounce itself. She was native, but looked white which afforded her opportunities they felt they were denied.
The Council Oak Tree in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
When I was 17 my sister’s family moved to Muskogee and I moved back to Tulsa where my mother, father and brother had moved years before. Tulsa was a tribal community long before statehood and takes it’s name from the Creek word “Tulasi,” meaning “old town” in their native language. Less than half a mile from where I work is the Council Oak Tree. This is where tribal leaders from the Five Civilized Tribes would meet each year to discuss business and the Lochapoka (Turtle Clan) continued to use the site as late as 1896 for ceremonies, feasts and games. The area surrounding the tree was turned into the “Creek Nation Council Oak Park” in 1929. Tulsa is a town of mingled heritages. White cattle men and ranchers often intermarrying with local natives.
We relocated to Skiatook, a small town north of Tulsa. And that is where I still live today. Skiatook sits half in Tulsa County and half on Osage land. For those unfamiliar with Native culture, the Osage are a Plains Indian who were forced to abandoned their customs to sit idle and depressed on a reservation. Unlike the Eastern tribes, the Osage were accustomed to moving freely across the expanse of the Great Plains. They were fierce warriors and hunted the bison that roamed America’s bread basket. To say they poised a challenge for the agrarian Eastern Tribes, is an understatement. The attitudes in this part of Oklahoma were very different from what I was used to. First of all, the Osage were very wealthy. The oil boom of the 1920’s had made them rich. Head rights were premium and some even lost their lives for the love of black gold. The Osage families that I went to high school with therefore, were revered. And it was very much a taboo for any white person to join their ceremonies.
It wasn’t long before I befriended a girl named Jessica. Jessica reminded me a lot of Kelsey. She too had native blood (Osage) and long blond hair. Jessica’s family owned a large amount of Osage land making her a wealthy young woman of 17. She drove a new car, had great clothes and always had money to spend on food, beer, or whatever else we needed to have a good time. She was literally a little Indian Princess, or at least acted as such and was treated that way by others in her community. But here’s the ironic part. Jessica was 1/64th native. But that didn’t seem to matter. She was given access to her heritage and was revered by her community. She had less tribal blood in her entire being than Kelsey had in her big toe.
I find it amusing that anyone who can claim Oklahoma as their native land, cannot claim their native heritage. If you are at least a third generation Oklahoman, chances are you are tribal. The odds that you aren’t, are far too remote. And as for myself, who can trace her family back five generations on both sides, I am Native American. So forgive me if your claims to tribal lore and customs seems a bit thin. You shut out those whose ancestors were unable to sign a piece of paper and give head rights to those who are no more deserving than others who you shun. You say the government had nothing to do with those difficult decisions of signing, as if the climate then was the same as it is now. You actually have fooled yourself into believing that everyone had a choice. They did not. I’m quite sure that if my great-great grandmother would have known that eventually the culture of acceptance would change, she would have, if she could have, signed that document. She would have been counted among her people.
And so would have I.