Buffalo soldier, 98, doesn’t want black regiments’ history to ‘fade out’

SEATTLE (Tribune News Service) — When Clyde Robinson was drafted into the U.S. Army’s 9th Cavalry Regiment in 1942, he had never heard of the buffalo soldiers. He did not know that he would become part of the storied, complicated legacy of the all-black regiments of the U.S. military.

Robinson served in the Philippines in World War II. Now 98 and living in Skyway, he proudly proclaims that he is the “last remaining buffalo soldier in Seattle and Tacoma.”

The term “buffalo soldiers” refers to the men who served in the four all-black Army regiments founded after the Civil War. According to legend, the name was bestowed by Native people who thought the soldiers’ hair looked like buffalo fur. Other lore contends it was due to the soldiers’ fierceness in battle.

The all-black regiments patrolled new settlements in the West, built infrastructure that helped make westward expansion possible, and fought in every U.S. war after the Civil War until the U.S. Army was desegregated in 1948. However, despite their significant role in U.S. history, their own story has been largely erased over time.

“A lot of people still don’t know, because they don’t publicize it,” Robinson said. “White people not gonna tell you. Most of them don’t even know what’s the buffalo soldiers. No, they never teach that. And you just fade out.”

This erasure was quite intentional, says Dr. Darrell Millner, professor emeritus of black studies at Portland State University. “Generally speaking, most people don’t associate blacks with the Western story, the Western experience. They’re surprised to hear that blacks were here and certainly surprised to hear that blacks were involved with some of the, what you might call iconic, experiences in the West,” Millner said. “For most of American history, it was not considered to be convenient to acknowledge that black people had the same qualities as those other people who came into the West — the potential for heroic behavior, the potential to be an explorer, the potential to be important in that difficult environment and circumstance.”

“You can’t maintain a slave society and acknowledge that black people are capable of heroic acts and capable of significant contributions,” he said. “So that’s why black people are dropped out of American history.”

In addition to their contributions to U.S. history, the buffalo soldiers helped to spread black culture in places, like many locations in the Pacific Northwest at the time, where black populations were small or nonexistent.

The legacies of these forgotten servicemen live on in their descendants and the people who continue to be inspired by their stories. A number of them have devoted their lives to reclaiming and spreading the legacy of the buffalo soldiers in the Pacific Northwest.

“I want to share” — the living legacy of a buffalo soldier in Portland

Dee Craig-Arnold is tall and stalwart just, she said, as was her grandfather Alfred Jerome Franklin, a sergeant in Company B of the buffalo soldiers’ 24th Infantry Regiment.

Like her grandfather, Craig-Arnold also served in the armed forces, but there’s little military bearing in her manner.

Chic in a black tunic spotted with bright exotic flowers, Craig-Arnold, 79, was vibrant, cheerful and quite comfortable in front of a video camera during an interview at her Portland, Oregon, home.

“I’m a Leo,” she said laughing as she settled in on her couch, ready to talk about how she came to know her grandfather through the artifacts of his time as a buffalo soldier.

Craig-Arnold never knew her grandfather; he died one year before she was born and her family didn’t really talk about him.

One of the few stories that was told is Franklin’s account of the Battle of San Juan Hill, famously known as the decisive battle in the Spanish-American War in which Theodore Roosevelt is credited with heroically leading the charge to victory.

Craig-Arnold lit up with excitement when she told the story, laughing loudly all the way through.

“The way the history books have depicted Teddy Roosevelt and the storming of the San Juan Hill, there’s a part that they missed. Because he did storm it, but he got surrounded by the enemy, and the African-American soldiers, the buffalo soldiers, were sent up to rescue him. That’s how it went. And that’s as far as I know about that,” she said.

Franklin’s version of events is backed up by Jerome Tuccille’s book, “The Roughest Riders: The Untold Story of the Black Soldiers in the Spanish-American War,” which corrects the narrative and attributes the all-black regiments with not only rescuing Roosevelt but also with doing the majority of the fighting.

Craig-Arnold has pored over the documents and memorabilia from her grandfather’s time as a soldier in the all-black regiments of the U.S. military.

With the help of historian Greg Shine, those artifacts revealed the story of a pioneering black man in one of America’s whitest major cities.

Formerly a chief ranger and historian with the National Park Service, Shine was stationed in Washington state at Fort Vancouver in 2002. He was drawn to the little-known stories of the 104 buffalo soldiers who were garrisoned there in 1899.

Shine’s research led him to Franklin, who was one of few buffalo soldiers to later settle in Portland. That eventually led him to Craig-Arnold, Franklin’s granddaughter who lives in the Portland area, not far from Shine’s home.

“That story is still alive and those descendants of African-American soldiers who served as buffalo soldiers are right here in our communities,” said Shine. “There’s a direct connection to that in our neighborhoods and in our genes here still today.”

Shine and Craig-Arnold became friends as they uncovered new stories and information about Franklin and his life in Portland.

Shine has become an endless trove of knowledge about the buffalo soldiers in Oregon, and he has extensively explored the details of Franklin’s military career from Texas to the Philippines to the Pacific Northwest.

“You could follow his postings, and his story tells the story of the U.S. Army in the late 19th century and into the early 20th century,” Shine said.

But for Shine, the story of Franklin and his descendants is more than just an interesting anecdote in U.S. military history.

Portland “is one of the whitest cities in the country and I think it’s important that we understand, first of all, how it got that way, but also, what are those stories that we’re not telling, what are the stories of other people, nonwhite people who have persevered and have crafted the city that now today is known as this liberal bastion,” he said. “The story of our nation is not complete without this chapter.”

At her home, sitting at a table covered with recruitment orders, medals and family photos, Craig-Arnold read aloud from one of her grandfather’s love letters, in which he thanked his “sweet little angel” for a foot rub and signed off with “bye bye sweetheart. Lots of kisses.”

“I really believe that the strength of my forebears — him and my grandmother, and who knows how far back it goes and my father — are right here,” she said, pressing her hand to the center of her chest. “That’s where I get my strength.”

Craig-Arnold hopes her family history can contribute to a more complete account of the all-black regiments.

“I want to put it into some official hands. Then it would be well cared-for and that anybody who’s interested would have access to it, so it’s not selfishly kept just within the family. That’s my goal,” she said. “I want to share.”

“The last remaining buffalo soldier in Seattle”

The history of the buffalo soldiers didn’t end in the 19th century. Seventy-six years after the first all-black regiments were formed, black soldiers like Clyde Robinson continued to serve in segregated units and frequently endured racism within the armed forces and at home.

Robinson loves Seattle and eventually made it his home, but he isn’t a big fan of Tacoma.

Robinson vividly remembers Dec. 26, 1945 — the day he arrived in Tacoma at the end of World War II.

“Me and my buddy went to the Y to take a shower, and they wouldn’t even let us take a shower. One lady had issued us the towels and the other lady said, ‘They can’t take no shower here. They got a place down the street,’ ” Robinson said. “Yep. I have no use for Tacoma at all.”

Robinson settled in Seattle because he felt there was less discrimination there than in other places.

“Seattle’s always been nice for race things,” he said. Racism “is around those little small places. I don’t be caught in them at night.”

Robinson acknowledged the unequal treatment of black soldiers during his service in short, matter-of fact sentences, noting that white soldiers kept black soldiers out of certain restaurants in the Philippines.

Robinson said he kept to himself, did his duty and focused on getting home from the war.

“I never gave nobody no problem. I know right from wrong. I know what you had to do. So that’s the way I carried myself. You had to do what you was told,” he said.

Robinson does not romanticize his time as a soldier. If he hadn’t been drafted, he probably wouldn’t have volunteered, he says. But he is grateful for how much he learned.

“I learned a lot from the Army, from being around different people,” Robinson said. The different places I’ve been. You learn a lot. You see a lot.”

As the last known veteran of the all-black regiments in Seattle today, Robinson occasionally dons a traditional buffalo soldier uniform to speak at events and increase awareness about a history that he finds few know about.

“We are all history-makers”

Several organizations in the Pacific Northwest today are dedicated to raising awareness of buffalo soldiers’ history in the region.

If you’re not looking for it, you might miss the Buffalo Soldiers Museum in Tacoma. Aside from a small sign and a metal cutout of a mounted soldier standing on the lawn, it looks like any other home in Tacoma’s Hilltop neighborhood.

Inside, the family home layout lends a sense of intimacy to the experience of the history within, like browsing old family photos on the wall of a family friend’s home.

The museum is indeed a family affair.

It was founded in 2005 as the labor of love of William Jones, one of the last soldiers to serve in the historic buffalo soldiers 10th Cavalry Regiment before it was deactivated in 1944. In 1948, an executive order officially ended segregation in the U.S. Armed Forces.

Jones died in 2009, and his daughter, Jackie Jones-Hook, took over the museum. It wasn’t necessarily her plan, but she’s embraced it with pride.

“If this baby [the museum] wasn’t abandoned, I would be home cooking and eating. But you never know what trail God is gonna lead you on,” Jones-Hook said. “I grew up in an environment of appreciation for the military and respect for the military, and also compassion for the military, and so that carries on to the Buffalo Soldiers Museum — respect and compassion for servicemen who served both then and now.”

Jones-Hook said her father rarely spoke about his time in the military and it wasn’t until she assumed stewardship of the museum that she really dived into the buffalo soldiers’ history.

“I’d seen what he had started, then I began to research,” she said.

What was once likely a dining room has been converted into a multimedia room where visitors can watch videos about the buffalo soldiers.

Jones-Hook has seen them so many times that she can quote from several, and knows exactly which combination of clips to show for a well-rounded overview of the buffalo soldiers’ history.

“I don’t really have a life outside of this,” she said.

Jones-Hook has worked with schools and the National Park Service to expand the mission of the museum and spread awareness of the buffalo soldiers.

The U.S. “is so divided that I, in some way, hope that the museum is a place where the community can come together and build a better America,” she said.

“We are all history-makers, and making good history is important, said Jones-Hook. “The question is what kind of history-maker will you be to make the country a better place? Because that’s what they did. They made great history to make the country a better place.”

To that same end, Geordan Newbill is in the business of bringing history to life.

Newbill learned about the buffalo soldiers when, as a kid, he saw a group of black men in uniform ride past him on horses. They were part of the Buffalo Soldiers of Seattle, a group of citizens dedicated to raising awareness of the buffalo soldiers’ history.

Now, 23 years after joining the group’s inaugural youth cadet program, Newbill is president of the organization and can rattle off facts about the buffalo soldiers without a second thought.

“Before I became a member of the Buffalo Soldiers (of Seattle), I knew nothing about the history of the buffalo soldiers. Nothing at all,” said Newbill. “This is a history that isn’t taught in schools. You don’t get the history of the buffalo soldiers anywhere unless you go out and seek it yourself.”

The organization’s members call themselves “living historians,” and believe the buffalo soldiers’ history is relevant today.

“People forget to realize that black people have fought and died for this country since the beginning of the country. Every war there was, there was a black man that fought and died in it,” said Newbill. “You have black men who have joined the military, fought and died for these rights that are still being denied

Seminole Tribe searches for remains of ancestors on Egmont Key

Scattered throughout Egmont Key in plain sight are remains of its bustling past as the location of Fort Dade, built to protect the Tampa Bay area from invasion during the Spanish–American War in the late-1800s.

But hidden somewhere underground on the scenic island at the mouth of Tampa Bay lies evidence of its darker days as home to a U.S. military internment camp for about 300 Seminole Indians in the mid-1800s.

Seminoles who died there were buried without markers. No one knows how many there are.

So on Tuesday, the Seminole Tribe of Florida stepped up its efforts to find these ancestors.

Using ground-penetrating radar, the tribe’s archaeology team searched the northern part of the island near the iconic lighthouse and found areas they called “dense spots.”

Over the next few weeks, the archaeologists will process the data they gathered to determine whether these could be burial areas.

“We’ll be looking for two things: Does it have the proper dimensions of a grave and is it at the right depth,” said Domonique deBeaubien, who works with the tribe protecting Seminole remains.

Skeletons will not be moved. Rather, markers will be placed and the Seminoles will work with state officials to ensure the areas are not disturbed.

Egmont Key was a holding area for Seminoles who were being sent to reservations after they were forced from their villages in Florida.

Not all survived the wait. Some died of disease on Egmont Key. At least one is known to have committed suicide.

The island was later used during the Civil War by Confederacy blockade runners. Later, it hosted Fort Dade with its military batteries, ammunition storage, suburban-style homes, general store and even a bowling alley. Shells of some structures still remain.

Because of this past, “you never know what can be found there,” said Richard Sanchez, president of the Egmont Key Alliance, a nonprofit that preserves and protects the island’s natural and historical resources.

Sanchez pointed to a lightning fire that burned more than 80 acres of the island last July and in the process, cleared vegetation that had long hidden the remnants of former military buildings — three concrete walls of a radio-weather station and foundations for a hospital and morgue.

“I wouldn’t say we didn’t know they were there,” said Sanchez, who joined the Seminole Tribe in their search on Tuesday. “They’re documented. But they were forgotten.”

Also on Tuesday, the Seminole Tribe performed a metal detection survey of the middle of the island.

“We found some interesting artifacts from the time period the Seminoles would have been there,” tribal archaeologist Maureen Mahoney said. These include square construction rivets and a bullet believed to be from the Civil War era.

Without government permission to remove these artifacts, they placed them back in the ground and mapped where they are, explained Seminole archeology field technician David Scheidecker.

The Seminoles chose the lighthouse as a starting point in their search for burials because it is the locale of a small cemetery with 19 graves for an eclectic group — lighthouse tenders, U.S. armed forces, and five Seminoles. Only one of the Seminole markers has a name — Chief Tommy.

It’s possible, the archaeology team said, that the cemetery extended past where its boundaries are now set. The team plans to expand its search later.

The American soldiers did not respect the Seminoles enough to bury them in one place. Instead, bodies were scattered across the island and with no markings.

Some bodies may already have been washed away along with nearly 300 acres of the land the island has lost through erosion in the last century.

“We will continue to survey the island for Seminole presence and clues about what happened there,” said Paul Backhouse, historic preservation officer for the Seminoles. “For the tribe, this is a huge part of their history.”

Tracing Your American Indian Ancestors

If you have family in Oklahoma at almost any time period, you likely have a family story of American Indian ancestry. This is a quick guide to help you begin to document that story.

In Oklahoma, the tribes most people believe their ancestors belong to are one of the Five Civilized Tribes— Choctaw, Cherokee, Cherokee, Muscogee (Creek) and Seminole. To be a member of these tribes today, a person has to be a direct descendant of a person who was enrolled by the Dawes Commission 1898-1907.

Here are the basics:
1. You must do your genealogy. Get a pedigree chart and start filling in the blanks—ask your extended family for help. When and where were your family members born? Record the places and dates—even an estimate will help.

2. Use the federal censuses to trace your family line back to 1900 in order to determine if they were in the right place at the right time. You can use the census records available on Ancestry.com or Heritage Quest available on all the Research Center’s computers.

3. Was your family living in Indian Territory in 1900?

4. IF you find your direct line (not an aunt or uncle, but a great-grandparent) was living in Indian Territory on the 1900 census, check the Dawes Rolls Index. You can do this on a computer in the Library, on film in the microfilm room in the Research Center OR you can also check the index on the website at www.okhistory.org/research/dawes.php
5. If you find your ancestor’s name on the Dawes Roll index, look at the age. Does it match (within 2-3 years) the age your ancestor was in 1902? If you are using the online index, click on the CC# and see the other names of the persons on that census card. Do you recognize these names as other family members?

6. Use the microfilm OR the Dawes Rolls on fold3. com to examine the census card AND the packet. The packet will provide information about the family—this is the transcript of the interviews that the applicants went through when they applied for tribal membership. Applicants had to document their “Indianess” by proving they were on an earlier tribal roll or descended from someone who was. This will help you determine if you have the right person or a person with the same name.

7. IF you find your ancestor on the Dawes Rolls, and you wish to apply for tribal membership, you will have to prove your descendancy from that person. This is done by collecting birth, marriage and death records. Specific requirements for application to each tribe are available on their websites and at their tribal headquarters. 

• Cherokee www.cherokee.org/
• Choctaw  www.choctawnation.com/
• Chickasaw www.chickasaw.net/
• Muscogee (Creek) www.muscogeenation-nsn.gov/
• Seminole www.seminolenation-indianterritory.org/

What if your family member is NOT found on the Dawes Rolls? The major problem people encounter when attempting to document a family tradition is the uncertainty of how and when Indian ancestry enters into a pedigree. Many times the tradition is there but the identifying details are not, leaving supporting evidence hard to find. You may want to check the available lists for rejected Dawes applications. These are available at the Research Library. Why is this important? Applicants were required to be living in Indian Territory in order to qualify for tribal enrollment. Track your family back to the 1900 census to determine if they met this requirement. 

Perhaps your ancestor was a member of another tribe that was not part of the Dawes enrollment process—the Dawes Rolls were for the Five Civilized Tribes only. You may want to check other tribal rolls at the Research Center such as Kiowa, Cheyenne, Comanche, Osage, Sac & Fox, Pawnee, Apache, etc. There are 38 federally-recognized tribes with headquarters in Oklahoma!

Keep in Mind: In 1900, there were 3 times more white persons living in Indian Territory than there were Indians living there.

The purpose behind the Dawes Commission was to break up the lands held in common by the tribes, assign a specific tract of land to each Indian individual, and open up the remainder for settlement by non-Indians.
Remember than on the 1900 and 1910 censuses (or any census), persons could claim Indian ancestry if they so chose. Being listed on the separate population schedules for Indians does not determine tribal membership—finding a person classified as Indian on these special federal census schedules has no bearing on whether a person is considered Indian by officials.

It is entirely possible that your relatives were Indian but if they did not enroll with the Dawes Commission, their descendants are not considered Indian by the tribes nor by the federal government today.

A DNA test can show Indian ancestry, but tribes do not accept that as proof since such testing does not identify tribal affiliation.

Even if you cannot document your family story of Indian ancestry, value the history of your family that endured the hardships and challenges of living in early Oklahoma.

Some Definitions: Census cards – lists age, blood-quantum, earlier enrollments and family members for the enrollee, and may include information about their family members. This card includes the tribal affiliation as well as the census card number and a tribal enrollment for each person enrolled.

Enrollment packets – transcripts of the interviews conducted with the applicants by the Dawes Commission members. These packets, also know as application packets or jackets, may provide further details about the individual and their family, including marriage, birth, and death information. NOTE: There are very few packets available for the Muscogee (Creek) tribe. If you are checking for a Muscogee person, be sure to check both printed as well as online indexes.

NOTE: Enrollment packets are different from allotment packets. OHS has some allotment maps but for allotment packets, you will need to contact the National Archives in Fort Worth. The website for this agency is www.archives.gov/southwest.
Email is ftwortharchives@nara.gov

1896 applications – enrollment was begun in 1896 but started over in 1898. Most persons on the 1896 rolls did not make it onto the Final Rolls (1898).

Minor or Newborn – a child born after the initial enrollment (when their parents enrolled) but prior to finalization of the Rolls in March 1907.

Major Resources at OHS: U.S. Federal Census Use the census records available through Ancestry.com or Heritage Quest to track your family. Begin with the most recent census available and locate them each census date.

Index to the Dawes Final Rolls This index is available in several places, both in print and online, but one of the easiest is at the OHS website at www. okhistory.org/ research/dawes.php.

Fold3 Use the “Native American Collection” on the fold3 (subscription) database to search for the census card listing for your family members. Note the tribe and enrollment number and search for the individual’s packet on this site. These cards and packets are also available on microfilm at the OHS Research Center. For more information on the Dawes Commission and the enrollment process, read The Dawes Commission: And the Allotment of the Five Civilized Tribes, 1893-1914 by Kent Carter.

Why Do So Many Americans Think They Have Cherokee Blood?

“I cannot say when I first heard of my Indian blood, but as a boy I heard it spoken of in a general way,” Charles Phelps, a resident of Winston-Salem in North Carolina, told a federal census taker near the beginning of the 20th century. Like many Americans at the time, Phelps had a vague understanding of his Native American ancestry. On one point, however, his memory seemed curiously specific: His Indian identity was a product of his “Cherokee blood.”

The tradition of claiming a Cherokee ancestor continues into the present. Today, more Americans claim descent from at least one Cherokee ancestor than any other Native American group. Across the United States, Americans tell and retell stories of long-lost Cherokee ancestors. These tales of family genealogies become murkier with each passing generation, but like Phelps, contemporary Americans profess their belief despite not being able to point directly to a Cherokee in their family tree.

Recent demographic data reveals the extent to which Americans believe they’re part Cherokee. In 2000, the federal census reported that 729,533 Americans self-identified as Cherokee. By 2010, that number increased, with the Census Bureau reporting that 819,105 Americans claimed at least one Cherokee ancestor. Census data also indicates that the vast majority of people self-identifying as Cherokee—almost 70 percent of respondents—claim they are mixed-race Cherokees.

Why do so many Americans claim to possess “Cherokee blood”? The answer requires us to peel back the layers of Cherokee history and tradition.

Most scholars agree that the Cherokees, an Iroquoian-speaking people, have lived in what is today the Southeastern United States—Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, North and South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama—since at least A.D. 1000. When Europeans first encountered the Cherokees in the mid–16th century, Cherokee people had well-established social and cultural traditions. Cherokee people lived in small towns and belonged to one of seven matrilineal clans. Cherokee women enjoyed great political and social power in the Cherokee society. Not only did a child inherit the clan identity of his or her mother, women oversaw the adoption of captives and other outsiders into the responsibilities of clan membership.

As European colonialism engulfed Cherokee Country during the 17th and 18th centuries, however, Cherokees began altering their social and cultural traditions to better meet the challenges of their times. One important tradition that adapted to new realities was marriage.

The Cherokee tradition of exogamous marriage, or marrying outside of one’s clan, evolved during the 17th and 18th centuries as Cherokees encountered Europeans on a more frequent basis. Some sought to solidify alliances with Europeans through intermarriage.

It is impossible to know the exact number of Cherokees who married Europeans during this period. But we know that Cherokees viewed intermarriage as both a diplomatic tool and as a means of incorporating Europeans into the reciprocal bonds of kinship. Eighteenth-century British traders often sought out Cherokee wives. For the trader, the marriage opened up new markets, with his Cherokee wife providing both companionship and entry access to items such as the deerskins coveted by Europeans. For Cherokees, intermarriage made it possible to secure reliable flows of European goods, such as metal and iron tools, guns, and clothing. The frequency with which the British reported interracial marriages among the Cherokees testifies to the sexual autonomy and political influence that Cherokee women enjoyed. It also gave rise to a mixed-race Cherokee population that appears to have been far larger than the racially mixed populations of neighboring tribes.

Europeans were not the only group of outsiders with which 18th-century Cherokees intermingled. By the early 19th century, a small group of wealthy Cherokees adopted racial slavery, acquiring black slaves from American slave markets. A bit more than 7 percent of Cherokee families owned slaves by the mid-1830s; a small number, but enough to give rise to a now pervasive idea in black culture: descent from a Cherokee ancestor.

In the early 20th century, the descendants of Cherokee slaves related stories of how their black forebears accompanied Cherokees on the forced removals of the 1830s. They also recalled tales of how African and Cherokee people created interracial families. These stories have persisted into the 21st century. The former NFL running back Emmitt Smith believed that he had “Cherokee blood.” After submitting a DNA test as part of his 2010 appearance on NBC’s Who Do You Think You Are, he learned he was mistaken. Among black Americans, as among Americans as a whole, the belief in Cherokee ancestry is more common than actual blood ties.

Slaves owned by Cherokees did join their owners when the federal government forced some 17,000 Cherokees from their Southeastern homeland at the end of the 1830s. Cherokee people and their slaves endured that forced journey into the West by riverboats and overland paths, joining tens of thousands of previously displaced Native peoples from the Eastern United States in Indian Territory (modern-day eastern Oklahoma). We now refer to this inglorious event as the Trail of Tears.

But the Cherokee people did not remain confined to the lands that the federal government assigned to them in Indian Territory. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Cherokees traveled between Indian Territory and North Carolina to visit family and friends, and Cherokee people migrated and resettled throughout North America in search of social and economic opportunities. While many Native American groups traveled throughout the United States during this period in search of employment, the Cherokee people’s advanced levels of education and literacy—a product of the Cherokee Nation’s public education system in Indian Territory and the willingness of diaspora Cherokees to enroll their children in formal educational institutions—meant they traveled on a scale far larger than any other indigenous group. In these travels it’s possible to glimpse Cherokees coming into contact with, living next door to, or intermarrying with white and black Americans from all walks of life.

At the same time that the Cherokee diaspora was expanding across the country, the federal government began adopting a system of “blood quantum” to determine Native American identity. Native Americans were required to prove their Cherokee, or Navajo, or Sioux “blood” in order to be recognized. (The racially based system of identification also excluded individuals with “one drop” of “Negro blood.”) The federal government’s “blood quantum” standards varied over time, helping to explain why recorded Cherokee “blood quantum” ranged from “full-blood” to one 2048th. The system’s larger aim was to determine who was eligible for land allotments following the government’s decision to terminate Native American self-government at the end of the 19th century. By 1934, the year that Franklin Roosevelt’s administration adopted the Indian Reorganization Act, “blood quantum” became the official measure by which the federal government determined Native American identity.

In the ensuing decades, Cherokees, like other Native American groups, sought to define “blood” on their own terms. By the mid–20th century, Cherokee and other American Indian activists began joining together to articulate their definitions of American Indian identity and to confront those tens of thousands of Americans who laid claim to being descendants of Native Americans.

Groups such as the National Congress of American Indians worked toward the self-determination of American Indian nations and also tackled the problem of false claims to membership. According to the work of Vine Deloria, one of NCAI’s leading intellectuals, “Cherokee was the most popular tribe” in America. “From Maine to Washington State,” Deloria recalled, white Americans insisted they were descended from Cherokee ancestors. More often than not, that ancestor was an “Indian princess,” despite the fact that the tribe never had a social system with anything resembling an inherited title like princess.

So why have so many Americans laid claim to a clearly fictional identity? Part of the answer is embedded in the tribe’s history: its willingness to incorporate outsiders into kinship systems and its wide-ranging migrations throughout North America. But there’s another explanation, too.

The Cherokees resisted state and federal efforts to remove them from their Southeastern homelands during the 1820s and 1830s. During that time, most whites saw them as an inconvenient nuisance, an obstacle to colonial expansion. But after their removal, the tribe came to be viewed more romantically, especially in the antebellum South, where their determination to maintain their rights of self-government against the federal government took on new meaning. Throughout the South in the 1840s and 1850s, large numbers of whites began claiming they were descended from a Cherokee great-grandmother. That great-grandmother was often a “princess,” a not-inconsequential detail in a region obsessed with social status and suspicious of outsiders. By claiming a royal Cherokee ancestor, white Southerners were legitimating the antiquity of their native-born status as sons or daughters of the South, as well as establishing their determination to defend their rights against an aggressive federal government, as they imagined the Cherokees had done. These may have been self-serving historical delusions, but they have proven to be enduring.

The continuing popularity of claiming “Cherokee blood” and the ease with which millions of Americans inhabit a Cherokee identity speaks volumes about the enduring legacy of American colonialism. Shifting one’s identity to claim ownership of an imagined Cherokee past is at once a way to authenticate your American-ness and absolve yourself of complicity in the crimes Americans committed against the tribe across history.

That said, the visibility of Cherokee identity also owes much to the success of the three federally recognized Cherokee tribes. Today, the Cherokee Nation, the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians, and the Eastern Band of Cherokees comprise a combined population of 344,700. Cherokee tribal governments provide community members with health services, education, and housing assistance; they have even teamed up with companies such as Google and Apple to produce Cherokee-language apps. Most Cherokees live in close-knit communities in eastern Oklahoma or the Great Smoky Mountains in North Carolina, but a considerable number live throughout North America and in cities such as New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and Toronto. Cherokee people are doctors and lawyers, schoolteachers and academics, tradespeople and minimum-wage workers. The cultural richness, political visibility, and socioeconomic diversity of the Cherokee people have played a considerable role in keeping the tribe’s identity in the historical consciousness of generation after generation of Americans, whether or not they have Cherokee blood.

Gregory D. Smithers is associate professor of history at Virginia Commonwealth University and author of The Cherokee Diaspora.

New Ways to Trace Your Native Ancestry

BIA School Records

In the 1880s, the Bureau of Indian Affairs established 26 non-reservation boarding schools in 15 states and territories for vocational education. The first federally funded off-reservation school was Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Created in 1879, it existed until September 1, 1918. More than 10,000 students from 140 different tribes from all over the United States attended Carlisle. One of its most famous alumni was Sac and Fox athlete Jim Thorpe (1888-1953), who won gold medals in the 1912 Olympics.

The National Archives holds many records about these BIA-operated schools and the students who attended them.  Most of these non-reservation schools created and maintained a case file for each student. Family history researchers will discover that students were often sent to schools by the Indian Agency, which had jurisdiction over their tribe. Specific BIA-operated schools can be found by the state with information about the years and material available.

First, search the state-by-state Guide to Record Group 75, Records of the Bureau of Indian Affairs online.

Then to request Indian Student Case Files, contact the National Archives facility that holds the records for the pertinent school. That information will be found at the link above. For example, if your ancestor attended Pipestone Indian School (1894-1959) in Minnesota, the records will be found at the National Archives in Kansas City.

When submitting a request to the National Archives, include the individual’s date of birth, as well as variant spellings of his or her name. Additional information, such as the names of parents or tribal affiliation, may be helpful in identifying a match. While the specific documents can vary widely, the records may include applications for enrollment, medical examination forms, attendance and grade reports, examples of student work, newspaper clippings, documents related to student employment, and correspondence. Photographs generally do not appear in student case files.

Military Service and Pension Records

American Indians have served in the U.S. Armed Forces since the Revolutionary War and have participated in every major conflict, including both sides of the American Civil War. They provided unique services such as being U.S. Army Indian Scouts and the U.S. Army and Marine Corps code talkers in both World Wars. Many of the older military records are digitized, indexed, and fully searchable on Ancestry.com and/or Fold3.com (subscription online services). Online access to both of these websites is free at all National Archives research facilities.

The service and pension records of these men and women can be found at the National Archives.

Prior to 1917: These records are located at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., and can be requested by fax or by mail.

From WWI through today: These records are located at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, Missouri, by fax or by mail.

Pictures of Native Americans

The National Archives also has pictures which show Native Americans, their homes and activities. Pictorial records have been deposited in the National Archives by 15 government agencies, principally the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Bureau of American Ethnology, and the United States Army. English names of individuals have been used, with Native or secondary designations in parentheses.

All of the pictures described are either photographs or copies of artworks. Any item not identified as an artwork is a photograph. Whenever available, the name of the photographer or artist and the date of the item have been given. This information is followed by the identification number. The pictures are grouped by subject. Tribal names as specific as possible have been incorporated into the descriptions where known and where appropriate and an index by tribe follows the list at the website.

Myra Vanderpool Gormley is credentialed as a Certified Genealogist ℠ by the Board for Certification of Genealogists (1987-2012), retired (2012).