Wednesday, October 9, 2013

"My Grandma's a full blooded Choctaw from New York"

If I said that, "my Grandma is a full blooded Choctaw from New York" every one who has any Choctaw would be up in arms. Why because no, Choctaws weren't in New York. Just like they weren't in South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia, etc.

If I have a pet peeve, it's just that. With all of the wonderful things we can find now, all of the awesome digital collections, the access to data researchers had to travel to get, people just don't do proper research.

Proper research? What I mean is that, first, just trace your family. Don't worry if they were Choctaw, Cherokee, Pink or Blue, just look for them. When you have verifiable information, because genealogy without documentation is mythology, then dig for their racial history, or their culture. But look at where they are. Then research that area.

Oral history is a starting point, not the end game. What I mean is that, oral history is like that game of telephone we played as kids. Where you get a line of say 20 kids and whisper something in the first one's ear, and have them repeat it all the way down, and by the time you get to the end, the kid says what he heard, and it's nothing like what it started as. That's oral history in a nutshell. There is usually some grain of truth to it. It's not the gospel truth.

While I am on that subject, any documentation (such as an affidavit) that occurs over 100 years later isn't worth the paper it's written on. If you weren't alive when the event occurred you can only repeat what you heard (or oral history). So that means that once again, it's not the truth, and the whole truth, it's someone's version of it.

We have all had people in our lives, who retell events and we are like, that's not what happened. Well why in the heck do you think that every oral history tale can't be like that? That people can't embellish what they pass on? It's no different. To be effective as a researcher, you need to be open to doubts about what you find. You need to be able to question your research, and look at all the first and second sources. And sometimes then, you have to make a decision.

I have conflicts. So what is the truth? You have to reason and explain the conflicts. That is the truth to genealogy. It's not all first sources. It's not all black and white. But, when you get to the grey, you need to recognize it, document it, and if you theorize, then say so. And give credit to others. That's just the right thing to do.

You can find second hand accounts of Native American history. In books, in newspapers, in diaries, and sometimes in letters. Or you can find nothing. And whether that happens depends on who you are researching.

I think it's important to remember racism also. In 1910, my great great grandmother's sister lives in South Dakota (there are indians there). She is listed as a mulatto. When my grandparents moved to Los Angeles, my dark skinned black haired grandpa with his fair blond, blue eyed wife could only find housing in the mixed neighborhoods. Racism did exist. It didn't just include looking down on you because you were Indian or Black, the same thing happened if you were Chinese, Hawaiian, Italian, Irish, Catholic, Jewish, etc.

It's really important to recognize that when you research. A full blooded Indian is never going to be mistaken for white on a census. Prior to 1900 they may be called mulatto, cajun, black, but rarely indian. If you don't believe that, search for race in censuses 1850-1880. See how many you get for Native American. It's not a lot.

There are hundreds of Native American tribes in the United States. Some were extinct by the 18th century, but others thrived until the 19th century, and the idea of Manifest Destiny started taking hold in this country. You can find data on some of these lesser known tribes that are from South Carolina, or North Carolina, or New York, Ohio, etc. Don't be pigeon holed into believing you have to be a tribe because that's all you know of.


  1. I live in upstate New York and I had a friend with Chickasaw ancestors who lived in New York. A male ancestor had served in the American Revolution and his service brought him to New York State. He liked it here and stayed. It surprised him as much as it did me. Once in a while odd things do happen.

  2. Certainly strange things happen, but I think the general point stands that there is an inordinate amount of people who make claims without 1. a basic knowledge of Native American history or 2. any attempt to find documentation. In my experience, they normally do so to inflate or alter their own sense of identity, something akin to racial/cultural shifting. They use phrases like "the white man's way" and claim spiritual connections to a distant past--IMO, it's really just a form of the "Cherokee princess" (insert Choctaw or Chickasaw as well) dilemma. Also, it's getting more common as it becomes socially/financially advantageous to claim indigenous identity. I think the best work that recently covered this is Circe Sturm's "Becoming Indian: The Struggle over Cherokee Identity in the 21st Century".

  3. My 3G grandmother was Native American. The legend that follows her is that she was Sioux from Okla. She lived in NC., 4 of her 6 remaining children - alive in 1880 said on the census that she was from NC. I consider that good testimony. There were Native American tribes that spoke a Sioux dialect living in NC. I venture a guess that she was from one of those tribes. Here's the thing... in the 1830 census, all her kids were listed living with their white guy father. She was not represented on the census. When I looked up the instructions that the enumerators were given for collecting data, they were instructed to not count Indians. I know she was still around because my ancestors was not yet born in 1830.