Native American history is a vibrant and essential part of American history. Although populations were present in North America as far back as 15,000 years, it is usually only in the context of European contact that we truly consider Native American history. Yet even within these past five centuries, there is a marked lack of recognition, understanding, and consideration of this greater story. The designation of November as Native American Indian Heritage Month, and subsequently, the day set aside as Native American Heritage Day, was – perhaps – a start, and is a valuable opportunity to appreciate the powerful substance of the Native American narrative.
One of CANA’s own, Todd Allison, Principal Software Engineer, shared his thoughts this past week on his own Native American heritage and what it means for his family’s past and future generations. Todd’s story begins, more or less, with his maternal grandparents, and, specifically, his grandmother a member of the Cherokee Nation. Todd’s grandmother’s grandfather was listed on the Dawes Rolls, the federal census lists from 1898-1914, that validated tribal membership of the “Five Civilized Tribes” – Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Seminole. The ability to trace one’s lineage to a name on the rolls is still one of the few ways to initiate and/or verify tribal membership. You can read more about the complicated history of the “Five Civilized Tribes” and the Dawes Rolls here: archives.gov.
Through that tribal membership, Todd’s grandmother was born in Vian, Oklahoma, Sequoyah County, in the Cherokee Nation, and she and his grandfather later lived for many years on the Cherokee reservation in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, the
Cherokee Nation’s capital. This right was
one of the few future benefits conferred by the federal tribal enrollment process. The Cherokee reservation in Oklahoma remains an important piece of a brutally difficult history. Although the reservation’s 7,000 square miles and 14 counties are sovereign to the Cherokees, its establishment in the early 1800s was primarily the result of the government’s attempt to solve its ‘Indian Problem’: that of Native Americans’ continued existence on desirable land in the eastern United States.
The resulting enforced displacement of thousands of Cherokees from east of the Mississippi to Oklahoma is known, as many may know, as the Trail of Tears. Almost a third of Cherokees forced to travel to the new Indian lands, died. One of Todd’s most compelling observations was that his lineage and history rested on such a fine line between life and death. His grandparents would claim the reservation as home, but they, and future generations, would also recognize the price that was paid.
Todd was fortunate to be near his maternal grandparents when they lived for some time in Pennsylvania – his grandfather’s home state - and Todd has many fond memories and mementos of the period. After his grandparents returned to Oklahoma, Todd had limited contact but shared a strong connection from family stories and correspondence. His mother kept records and documents he particularly cherishes. Todd is proud of his grandparents’ life on the reservation, not only in maintaining a physical link to other Cherokee kin and a shared bloodline but in representing the obstacles overcome to get there.
One of the key takeaways from this November, a time full of reflection and appreciation, is a sense of responsibility. Todd is eager to share more of his Cherokee heritage with his sons and readily admits there is much he, himself, does not yet know. He sees it as an exciting opportunity to connect to an American past that far exceeds, and is sometimes completely absent from, American history books. Today, on Native American Heritage Day, we are particularly honored Todd Allison was willing to share his family narrative and to see, if only a glimpse, of an amazing chapter in the American Native Indian story.
If you’d like to contact Cherish Joostberns, CANA Resource Lead, you can reach Cherish at firstname.lastname@example.org.