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How ‘part Indian’ was viewed, treated

I don’t know what my grandpa, Lloyd Carter, was thinking marrying Mary Elizabeth Richardson, a “half-breed Indian girl.” He certainly had nothing to gain socially or financially. Indian people in Oklahoma had a very hard life and were generally despised and mistreated.

For that matter what did a Cherokee woman, daughter of Sarah Looney a full-blooded Indian, see in the son of Hampton Harrison Carter III a penniless Oklahoma dirt farmer with a pretentious name trumpeting roots back to Virginia’s first families? But Lloyd and Mary married and “Indian” was added to the family heritage ­— a heritage kept alive for many years largely through oral tradition.

My mother, Ruby Inez Carter, was very proud of her Indian ancestry as a young child in Skiatook, Okla. But when orphaned by a drunk driver, which took both her parents in 1934, she moved into her aunt’s home in Durant in southern Oklahoma. There she came to learn “Indian” was not a heritage to publicly acknowledge, especially in a white household of an upwardly mobile official of the electric company (with a maid and his own private company car!). My mother told me how harshly her aunt punished her for talking too freely at school about being “part Indian.” My mother’s aunt did not want anyone to think she was a “dirty, lazy Indian.”

My mother kept her mother’s stories alive with her own children as best she could remember, but as she had been so young when she heard them, the stories weren’t too detailed-but my mother’s sisters remembered more. In the 1950s, as a family living in California, we were very vocal in our Indian roots and sympathized with the plight of Indians.

For a short time, my lay preacher parents served a Mariposa (now know as Yokuts) Indian church in the foot hills of the Sierra Nevadas. In the early 1960s, in preparation for joining Wycliffe Bible Translators (a Christian missionary group dedicated to providing indigenous peoples without written languages a phonetic alphabet, literacy skills and finally a translation of the Bible), my parents went on to attend the Summer Institute of Linguistic at the University of Oklahoma in Norman for two summers, where they studied with the Kiawah.

I got to play in a most intriguing University of Oklahoma Native American museum full of dioramas of native life (It also helped that the museum had air conditioning and our dormitories did not — those Oklahoma summers are brutally hot and humid!). A little later when I was 12, we went to Chiapas, Mexico, to live for a short time in the jungles with the Locandon, a remnant tribe of the Maya.

In 1964, we moved to a missionary pilot training base in rural Waxhaw, N.C., on the South Carolina border (named for the tiny nation of Waxhaw Indians and, ironically, the birth place of President Andrew Jackson, the perpetrator of the “Trail of Tears,” the forced removal of our Cherokee ancestors from Georgia and western North Carolina to Oklahoma).

My parents were shocked to discover they were not legally married in North Carolina as anti-miscegenation laws there did not recognize marriages of whites to those one-eighth or more Black or Indian. (My mother was quite relieved when the Supreme Court struck down these laws in 1967 in the case of Loving vs. the State of Virginia.) When we first arrived in North Carolina, there were in some places still separate drinking fountains and restrooms for Indians as well as for Blacks. In high school in North Carolina, I had white friends who warned me not to mention the Indian connection to their families as feelings were still quite negative about Indians.

Eventually our family’s Native heritage was documented though genealogical research by my mother’s sisters who had become Mormons, who for religious reasons take genealogy very seriously. (I do not at the moment have my aunts’ research in front of me though, so if I happened to be off a bit in this family history, please don’t call my mother and aunts liars.) My aunts located the bureaucratic paper documentation such as listings on official government rolls that Elizabeth Warren seems to lack for her family’s tradition of a Native American heritage. (Some Native American activists reject those official government membership rolls as a type of genocide, controlling the number of recognized tribes and membership size.)

I don’t think I was ever openly discriminated against because of our family history. Once, I financially benefited from my heritage. While a freshman at Wheaton College (Ill.), the college financial aid office urged any students with Indian ancestry to accept federal Indian scholarships —   scholarships extending to those with as little as one-sixty-fourth Native ancestry. I annually received $600 as one-eighth Cherokee   a sum that was then subtracted from my academic scholarship from the college, freeing up the college’s funds to help some other students of limited means. (I earned the rest of my college expenses as a janitor (like Elizabeth Warren’s father) working very early each morning, seven days a week, for four years.)

In Oklahoma, the family of a janitor like Warren’s would have nothing to gain keeping the story of Indian heritage alive. Socially, it was a family secret that probably would have been better forgotten. It speaks highly of her family that they didn’t forget or hide it. I am glad Elizabeth Warren, is, like me, proud of the things her mother told her. Her affection for her Cherokee ancestors reflects well on her character. It illustrates her compassion for and identity with oppressed and underprivileged peoples.

I am glad, too, that she has such deep respect and appreciation for her family in spite of their humble status and that she does not say, as Sen. Brown says in his current TV ad, “I came up from nothing ...” It is quite clear to me that Elizabeth Warren did not come up from nothing ... but on the shoulders of her mother and grandmothers.

Timothy C. Neumann is the executive director of the Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association in Deerfield.

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