Tahlequah Daily Press

June 17, 2013

Researching indigenous family roots

Special Writer

TAHLEQUAH — At some point in life, most people can’t help but wonder about their family’s past, and from whom they are descended.

The 12th annual Cherokee Ancestry Conference helped a number of people answer those questions. The two-day event was held Friday and Saturday at the Cherokee Nation W.W. Keeler Complex

Gene Norris, Cherokee National Historical Society senior genealogist, said the conference is part of the Cherokee Heritage Center’s mission statement to preserve, promote and teach Cherokee history and culture.

“There are so many stories passed down through generations,” said Norris. “These sessions provide a way to learn about different techniques and methodologies to research ancestry.”

According to Norris, the Heritage Center receives many calls from many people, and they are there to guide and direct them in the best way they can.

Norris believes the reason genealogy has become so popular is because it gives people a sense of belonging.

“A lot of people have lost their heritage,” Norris said. “Learning about their past gives them a place to belong to and feel more comfortable about who they are.”

Those attending the conference had the same idea of knowing the past so they can learn more about themselves through their family history.

Charlene Wilson traveled from Dallas, and said her father’s side of the family is from Tahlequah. Wilson started her family search on her own.

“I found out that three of my father’s sisters are still alive, and one of them told me we have Native American blood,” said Wilson. “I want to understand exactly who I am.”

Deborah Houston recently moved to Broken Arrow from Kansas. She knew she had a great-great-great-grandmother who was Cherokee, because she’d found her on the Dawes Registry.

“I’d like to learn what clan or band I’m from and more about the Cherokees,” Houston said.

Houston paraphrased Will Rogers, saying she wanted to preserve her past for future generations.

Also attending the conference was Mary Cohen, of Illinois. Her interest in her family’s past came about because her mother was elderly and living in a nursing home, and her father had passed away.

“I thought I’d find out their history before it was too late,” said Cohen. “I want that knowledge so I can pass it on to my children.”

Mary Fargo Webster traveled from the panhandle for the ancestry conference. She’s been studying her genealogy for 30 years, although this is the first conference she’s attended. Webster said her maternal grandfather piqued her curiosity about her family.

“He was a great storyteller,” Webster said. “I’d listen to his stories for hours. That’s how I first became interested in genealogy.”

Tulsa resident Gloria Lowry wants to learn how to connect to her family’s past.

“I want to learn about my biological mother and see if she was Cherokee,” said Lowry. “If she was, I want to research some of her relatives.”

The annual conference is all about showing attendees how to go about researching genealogy. Norris has his own advice on how to begin.

“Go with what you know and start from there,” Norris said. “And write it down! Once you know what you’re looking for and have a general idea of the time period, then you can begin your research.”

According to Norris, there are federal records for Cherokees, as well as those of other ancestral backgrounds, that are open to the public.

“For example, death certificates are open to the public, and are usually digitized,” said Norris.

Norris said the conference included an opportunity for those attending to use resources at the Cherokee Heritage Center.

During the conference, sessions included topics on the a beginner’s guide to Cherokee genealogy, Cherokee websites for research, and techniques on how to use them.