Cherokee Heritage Center

The Center consists of a living history Cherokee village, a museum, and small township of historical buildings. Dedicated to the perservation of Cherokee culture and history, it is one of the most widely visited Native American sites in Oklahoma.

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Thursday, March 10, 2005

Cherokee Connections--a story of Cherokee ancestry by Gayle Thomas

Sometime in the 19th century, a Cherokee woman married outside the nation. At least one child in each generation married a white person. I don’t have names, dates or places.

That introduction is all I really know about being “some part” Cherokee. My father’s parents didn’t talk about it.

But I did know that I was some-part Cherokee. And since my Dad’s family was spread out over Southwest Missouri, Northeast Oklahoma and part of Kansas, I was actually able to meet “real Indians” as I child. My great-uncle spirited me and my sister off to something that might have been a pow-wow on a dusty summer day. Rex was a neat guy. His first wife was white, but when he re-married, it was to an enrolled member of the Nation.

Back up to first grade. We lived in the very segregated Montgomery, Alabama. I was walking home from school one day when a police cruiser pulled up beside me. The officer asked me if I was in the “right” neighborhood. I replied, ‘yes.” I skipped off home. It was only decades later that I realized he was unsure of my race.

In the third grade picture, there is one obviously very dark face in the photograph of smiling white ones.

I aged. I learned about skin cancer and avoided the sun like a plague. In middle age, I now look like your average white person, with a hint of my maternal German grandfather to make my complexion ruddy every now and then.

But I am still some-part Cherokee, both proud and curious.

I married a blonde man with icy blue eyes and of Norwegian descent. When our daughter was born, he was present. Elizabeth was 7 pounds of darling girl, with black hair, black eyes and a very dark skin color. By the time three weeks had passed, my daughter was a brunette with green eyes, and looked like your average white kid. But I cherish the photo of her. It is vibrant and living proof that I am a cousin of the Cherokee Nation.

Yes, I have looked at the Dawes rolls. I don’t recognize any of the surnames. But I am not really interested in the Dawes rolls. I am not interest in poaching the federal benefits hard won by the Nation for its enrolled members. I don’t want to enroll in the Cherokee Nation in order to be recognized as a descendant. I know I’m Cherokee, and German, and Scottish and just about every other variety of Northern European. I am a 10th generation American descent of a Scot named John Donelson who came to the US well before the revolutionary war. He co-founded Nashville, which I live near today.

I am a happy middle class American living the American dream. I have a great husband and two high schoolers at home. I do my job well and I go home to my family. The Nation should be proud to acknowledge all their descendants. My Dad left a Missouri farm to graduate from West Point. He was a hot-shot fighter pilot who later flew 243 air combat missions in Viet Nam. His life was the military and I was a military brat, already in college when my dad retired.

I am now a lawyer, courtesy of the University of Missouri at Columbia. I support my second husband while he waits for a heart transplant. My second and third children have been adopted as teens out of the foster care system, no biological relation to me. But they both say, “oh, yes, we are some-part Cherokee, look at this picture of our birth mother.”

The Nation has a tremendous constituency out there, people who are curious or helpful or merely intrigued at the continued existence of the Nation. There are no official Cherokee Cousins. Except for one fact--there are millions of us some-part Cherokee out there. They were my classmates in college and my friends in Tennessee. There are astonishingly ordinary “white” Americans who cheerfully acknowledge a distant Cherokee ancestor. They include my husband, who can also throw some Comanche into the mix.

According to Norse mythology, when I get to the Hall of my Ancestors, there will be my mother and my father, their mother and their father, and each of my ancestors going back to the beginning of time. There will be Celts and Northmen of every variety. But there will also be a large contingent from the Cherokee Nation, stretching back to journey across the Bering Sea land bridge. You are part of me and I am connected to you.

Gaye Jeans Thomas, Esq.
Franklin, Tennessee


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