Curiosity About my Native American Heritage
Growing up, my Dad’s Dad, called “Grampy” by his many grandkids, would randomly mention that his family in Oklahoma had some native heritage. As kids, we didn’t think much about it, but as I grew up, I found myself drawn to stories about family history and culture. I was the only 18-year old I knew who would spend hours on the new website www.ancestry.com (back when it was a new, and free! website). In addition to finding out I am a direct descendent of a woman who founded a Texas town, I found out that I’m also a direct descendent of a member of the Choctaw Nation.
The Process of Discovering My Heritage
In 2007 I started trying to piece together the particular branch of my family that I suspected had native ties. In my search, I found out that if I could prove I was a direct descendent of a tribal member, I could join the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. One way to prove this was to show a direct tie between you and a person who was on the Dawes Rolls, census lists of tribal members that were compiled in the late 1800 and early 1900s. After chatting with my Grampy it turned out he had a copy of the entry for his grandfather who had been listed on the rolls. My next step was to collect birth or death certificates for each person in the line leading back to that person: mine, my Dad, my grandpa, his mom, and her father. This took a bit of work!
A Sad, Surprising Discovery
I received the death certificates for my great-grandma, who I remembered from when I was a little girl, and her father on the same day. I looked at my great-grandma’s first. She had died of cardiac issues in a nursing home in Oklahoma in the 1980s, which I remembered. Next, I looked at her father’s (my great-grandfather’s) death certificate. It read:
“Murdered. Shot in the chest. Dead when I found him.” Signed by the county coroner on Halloween in the year 1915.
I called back my Grampy and said, “Grampy! Did you know your grandfather was murdered?”
“Oh yeah,” he said in his Oklahoma accent, “He was shot while he was walking to the outhouse. No one ever knew who did it.”
I reflected on the fact that this would have made my great-grandmother just a little girl when her father died, making her mother a single mom in the unforgiving American west of the early 1900s. Sometimes our family’s history isn’t glamorous. I wish I could have a conversation with her and ask her how she did it.
Joining the Tribe
So I applied for membership and joined The Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. Part of me thought, “Do I really have a right to do this?” Do I identify with the struggles of native people? And while it’s true that I identify as white, and for the most part my ancestors were the oppressors and not the oppressed, I also acknowledge that my life was also formed in part by this part of my Native American heritage. On that side of the family, there is a long history of struggle. My great-great-grandmother was a single mom, my grandmother (Grampy’s mom) was also a single mom, living in The Choctaw Nation. I likely wouldn’t live where I live if not for that branch of my family being forced to move to Oklahoma. I didn’t know if there was really a ‘right’ answer to that question of whether I belonged or not.
In 2015 we decided to take a trip to Talihina, Oklahoma to visit the birthplace of my great-grandmother. It is a gorgeous part of the country, nestled in the Ouachita Mountains. We enjoyed a day of good food, music, and appreciating beautiful handmade artisan crafts.
Misconceptions About the Benefits of Being in a Native Tribe
One thing I thought was important to note is that, contrary to popular belief, I did not start getting checks when I became a member of The Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. This is a common misconception. There are some limited benefits as far as small college scholarships and access to community healthcare clinics, but for the most part, nothing in my life drastically changed after becoming a member of The Choctaw Nation. I get tribal newsletters, a calendar, and a Christmas ornament every year. But I’m grateful to appreciate this small part of who I am and to pass this Native American Heritage and history onto my children.