When I was a kid our family took a trip to Cherokee, North Carolina. I don’t remember much about it, except the long car ride, Dad fussing, us kids looking out the window wondering when and if we were ever going to stop. The little tourist town was filled with the souvenir shops you expect in a place like that. All kinds of “Made in China” things could be bought including little plastic feather head-dresses and rubber tomahawks. I wanted to get my picture made with the Indian who sat in front of the big, colorful tepee, but my parents wouldn’t let me.
The place didn’t make much of an impression. As a small kid, you are usually in the moment and don’t care what you’re doing as long as you get some attention.
Years later I developed a strong interest in genealogy. I found out there was a tradition in my family of being descended from an Indian. Doing more research over the past thirty years, I have actually found about three documented lines that descend from native American ancestors. Knowing nothing about them, I’ve tried to learn about their lives, their tribal customs, and so forth. And I’ve tried to consider what in my life now is influenced by their blood being in my veins. My conclusion is inconclusive.
Every generation you trace back doubles the number of your ancestors. You have two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, sixteen great-great grandparents, and so forth. My Native American ancestors are so far back their influence has all but disappeared, with the possible exception that I go on the war path from time to time when I get my “dander” up.
There are a lot of us with Native roots. Many families have a “Cherokee” or some other ethnicity in our ancestral woodpile. A lot of research in recent years has centered around trying to understand “Melungeon” and other “mixed-race” groups. Research has opened up a multiplicity of explanations and influences that are grouped together and it really isn’t clear what it should be called. Dr. Brent Kennedy, who gave this research a resurgence beginning in the late 1990s, has suggested there is more of this mixing than we might once have known. It accompanies the history of our nation and the settlement of the continent by European groups.
Interesting studies are available on the history of Native American groups including some that focus on Pocahontas and her Powhatan people and how these native people interacted with the first settlers at Jamestown and subsequent colonial settlements. From the very beginning there was marrying and coupling that led to children of mixed race being brought forth. What is interesting about this is the strong denial of mixing the races that accompanied public policy in the early 1900s as a really restrictive racist movement developed, with roots in the Reconstruction era of American life.
I was a student at Emory & Henry College in the 1980s when a resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan was going on in the Bristol, Virginia/Tennessee area. An organizer moved there who was adept at getting press coverage. Only, the reporters found out he had a mixed racial background and belonged to an ethnic group the Klan was against. They had a field day with this news and he was kicked out of his own hate group.
There was a time when you had to hide your ancestral identity if you had anything other than European roots. Persons with any other genetic heritage were considered in some degree of lesser status than the “majority” of the population. Therefore families like mine had to hide their roots, whitewashing them with stories of origin that were nothing but fiction. Because of the intense scrutiny they were under, many took the secrets of their family’s origin to their grave. Documents were destroyed, and history was forgotten. It was a way to survive.
In the present age it is not so big a deal to be honest about one’s roots.
So, I continue on my journey to recover the past. I am not planning to “go native” in my dress, or my spirituality, but hope to learn and appreciate the contribution such people made to the family tree.
As a Methodist minister, it is somewhat ironic to me that one of my Native American ancestors left his tribe in the late 1700s to be taught the faith of the “white men” as he called them. He was later listed in the census as a Methodist “exhorter,” or lay preacher. So even though there was not continuity down to my time (his children joined Baptist churches), I feel some sort of connection with him. And I appreciate his willingness to follow his own path. Maybe that’s his contribution to my genetic heritage.
I also appreciate the struggle of these people who sought a place to live freely, even as they were forced to relocate from ancient tribal lands due to the continual westward advance of European groups, in which I have the majority of my ancestral background. There is evidence that these groups kept hovering in what Europeans considered “undesirable” places: hill country, hollows, mountain ridges, and along narrow stream beds. They traveled from the coastal plain up the rivers to places that we today call Louisa County, Virginia, and later Patrick, and Henry Counties in Virginia, and Stokes, Surry, Rockingham, Wilkes and other Counties in North Carolina, and back to the mountains of Virginia and East Tennessee, some going on over into eastern Kentucky. Through time they intermixed and became lighter and more like their European neighbors. They lost all vestiges of their previous lives. They adopted English names and language and Christian religion.
I don’t understand everything about them. Many facts about their lives are forever lost. I don’t need to know everything. I just want to honor them. They contributed to who I am today. Not exclusively, not overwhelmingly, but in some part, in some way, I would not be who I am without them.