Friday, July 24, 2009

African and Native American Family History Research

In Search Of Our Roots was a very interesting book, educating me on a topic that I knew little about. In some ways I find it difficult to identify with the subjects, because I have only one suspected African line from revolutionary-era Nansemond County in Virginia. In other ways I can identify, because my family history was not passed down either. All my grandparents were mixed European and Native American. In the same way African Americans didn’t talk about slavery, my family didn’t talk about their Native ancestry, and unfortunately their European ancestry as well. There was a lot to forget, too!

One day several years ago I happened to catch part of a radio program on western Route 66. It was focused on west Texas and Oklahoma. Someone said it w as all small towns and if you were Native and wanted a decent job, you didn’t tell them you were Native. The U.S. population was 90% rural before World War II. That means in the small towns they lived in, my most immediate ancestors didn’t tell their little children what their ancestry was so they wouldn’t tell others and start it on the small town grapevine. Add to that the European Christians’ need to dehumanize and demonize them to justify killing them or incarcerating them to take their land and you’re not going to find many families talking about their Native ancestors in the East. Some people still think the Native people were better off forcibly Christianized.

When I began researching my forbearers it became obvious that there were a lot of Native people in the East who evaded attempts to corral them and send them away. Instead they managed to live more or less independently in the larger American society. Especially in the earlier years of European settlement, Native people didn’t appear in vital records because they or the Europeans saw no need to add them. Native history was traditionally oral. Interestingly if you have a grand European gentlewoman in your background, it’s very likely she was Native. Likewise, there’s no such thing as an Indian, or Cherokee, Princess. Such stories are created about ancestors in a bid to gain acceptance by the families.

There is a percentage of White people in this country with what is called non-status Native ancestry. That is, they or their ancestors never lived on a reservation and never were put on a tribal roll. Since the history was so easily lost, it must have been a lot easier for them to pass as white. Some of us know we have Native ancestry and feel akin to that, yet we know little more.

There is a part of Native history that is akin to the stratification by shade and socioeconomic status in African American society. That is the status Native Americans’ reluctance to accept non-status Native people, lumping us with the non-native wannabees who have fallen for the European myths romanticizing Native people. In my experience it created people who were emotionally repressed, depressed and distant, spiritually and emotionally adrift, who having no seeming foundation to build on, have had trouble going forward.

We seem predisposed to look for differences between people. I’d think that one valuable lesson family history research should teach us is that there are more similarities between people than differences. We all have one thing in common, we live on Turtle Island and it's all our responsibility to save it.

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