As More People Search for Their Native Heritage, Questions and Controversies Arise

Jun 29, 2016

According to the 2010 US Census data, more than five million people claimed Native American ancestry. That’s up almost 40% from the last census. It's a big shift from the years people shunned Native identity.  If you can prove you're part of a tribe and the tribe accepts you, it can potentially mean health benefits or help with college tuition.  But, all these new Native people are leading to questions about what it means to be Native within a tribe. 

Oklahoma Historical Society librarian Laura Martin patiently taps away at one of the many computers lining the research center at their main building in Oklahoma City. She has one question for 56 year-old Sherri Lee from Oklahoma City..

“My first question is, do you know what tribe?”

Sherri believes her Native ancestry is Cherokee on her father’s side.

Armed with a small notepad, pencils and access to online genealogy sites like Ancestry.com, she helps people figure out if they have Native lineage. She asks whether or not Sherri knows anything about the Dawes Rolls, the bar for citizenship for the Cherokee Nation.

Sherri Lee doesn’t look Native - she has curly blonde hair and light eyes, but she’s been told from a young age that her family is Cherokee and might be on the Dawes Rolls - essentially a registry of members of one the Five Civilized Tribes in Oklahoma: Cherokee, Muscogee Creek, Chickasaw, Choctaw and Seminole. The registry was established in the late 19th century, and was basically a way to control native populations in Oklahoma. Anyone on the Dawes Rolls was made a citizen of the US and given a small plot of land called an allotment. But, the idea was assimilation by taking away Native values of communal land ownership and selling the rest of the land to whites.

These days, tracing a direct ancestor on the Dawes Rolls can potentially lead to being part of tribe. That’s what Oklahoma resident Sherri Lee is here to find out. She's heard stories from family members about her Native past.

“My father says we’re Indian. He says his mother is Indian. He says his mother’s father is Indian.”

Sherri Lee at the Oklahoma Historical Society
Credit Rachel Hubbard

Sherri has just one name as a clue to her native ancestry: John Henry Quinten. Historian librarian Laura Martin checks for that name in a few different places: an online census record, Ancestry.com, and another website called Fold Three. Sherri Lee and Laura Martin have been talking for months about finding her ancestor Today they found what they were looking for. They spend about fifteen minutes searching through the records until, finally, a hit.

“So we will look for 10862...and this census card is pretty light but, you said the mother’s name was Belle? There you go,” Laura explains as she pulls up the computer records.

They find Belle, John Henry Quinten’s mother. Sherri is delighted.

“Oh wow, there’s Belle. So I did have someone on the Dawes Rolls. You do.”

Sherri is one of the lucky ones-she can prove that she has a direct descendent on the Dawes Rolls: a great grandfather. But for most people, finding your Indian ancestors is like putting together a long and complicated puzzle. It requires sifting through marriage, birth and death certificates, many trips to the records department and hours and hours of time. In the end, approval is given by the tribe and the tribe alone and that process can take up to a year.

For those who are approved, they get what’s called a Certified Degree of Indian Blood-or CDIB card. This card comes with certain benefits, like maybe getting help with college, a house or health care, but only if you meet certain income requirements. But some people in the tribe feel that you shouldn’t be entitled to these benefits unless you’ve paid a price - gone through all the struggles Native people have faced.

“You can hear people say, ‘now that I’ve got this blue card, what am I entitled to?’

"Fredia Vann is from Stillwell, Oklahoma and works for the Cherokee Nation Health Department. For her, being part of the tribe means practicing the Cherokee principle of gadugi-which means coming together for the common good. She says some people who get their card later in life don’t contribute enough to the Cherokee nation.

Fredia Vann digging for wild onions last spring in Webbers Falls.

“They might go and get their blue card and become a tribal member, but they don’t go out and vote in the elections.  A lot of it is like what can the tribe do for me since I’ve got this blue card. It’s not what can we do to help to help our tribe. What can we do to improve our tribe?”

Fredia grew up speaking Cherokee. She and her five sisters still own their family’s original allotment near Stillwell. When she hears about people who want to get their card just because they can trace a relative, she gets frustrated.   For Fredia, the CDIB card represents her family’s long and difficult history - the struggles they’ve had and the challenges they’ve overcome. And she feels pride in that legacy.

“If you’re proud to be a Cherokee, a tribal member, than you should be a part of your tribe. Not just...hand me something.”

At the Oklahoma Historical Society, librarian Laura Martin has heard all kinds of stories from people trying to prove their Native ancestry.

“I had a lady call and tell me that her son was in a car accident and he received a blood transfusion from a full blooded Native American so did that make him eligible to be on the Dawes Roll.”

Another woman brought in a bag of teeth. About a third of the people that come in looking for their Indian ancestry only have a scrap of paper with a number they think is an enrollment number. Some will have only a photo. But all are looking for something lost - a connection to the past, a sense of identity. Most of the people looking never find anything. Sherri acknowledged that her family's story was right there because of the records kept by the Cherokee Nation and the Dawes Rolls.

Frank Davenport and Laura Martin work at the Oklahoma Historical Society helping people re-trace their past.

"This just opened up like a book. There they all were when the records came up because they kept good records."

Now that Sherri Lee found her relative on the Dawes Roll, she wants to enroll in the Cherokee Nation. Her trip to the history center was just the first step.  Now she needs to take a trip to the Cherokee Nation Registration office in Tahlequah, Oklahoma and provide them with proof that she has an ancestor on the Dawes Rolls.  She’ll do that by getting birth, death and marriage certificates-it may take a while. And that’s if they accept her paperwork. They look for certain things and sometimes reject applications. But for her, it’s worth the wait.

“Just because I can. I think it’s cool to put , to get on the roll and to get my card and to get my daughter’s cards and on down the road. It’s not for anything else. There’s no benefit to it other than….I can. I mean, it’s part of my heritage. That’s the only reason.”

There’s a huge demand right now to get registered as part of a tribe-some say it’s a statewide trend in Oklahoma just to get the benefits. The Cherokee Nation Registration office receives an average of 1800 people each month looking to gain citizenship. About 100 of those applications are denied. Since then, extra staff has been hired and longer work hours help keep up with demand.

For now, tribes such as the Cherokee Nation aren’t proposing any new changes to the requirements for accepting new citizens And it’s left other tribal leaders and citizens wondering if they should adjust their membership rules to help preserve the traditions, culture and identity they hold so dear.

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Listen to librarian Frank Davenport break down the purpose of the Dawes Commission: