My Life As a Faux Cherokee
By Gene Wilburn
For most of my life I thought I was part Cherokee. Not because I was fantasizing some kind of secret life, but because this is what my mom told me.
The link was on my father’s side of the family and because he died when I was two years old and my mom remarried when I was five, I had no further contact with the Wilburn clan from the time we moved half a continent away from my native California.
My mom, dear as she was, wasn’t always a reliable narrator. She told me my grandmother Wilburn was one-quarter Cherokee. Mom lived with my paternal grandma and grandpa for awhile during WWII and I knew my grandma was from Oklahoma, where the Cherokee were resettled after the terrible Trail of Tears, so I had no reason to disbelieve her.
There was no stigma attached to it, though my mom thought my grandma looked “exactly like an old squaw,” meaning she was short, dark, and squat. She didn’t mean this as any kind of ethnic slur—it was just the way white people talked in the early 50s.
I totally revelled in this information. My mind opened up to visions of living in a tribe, living off the land, being close to nature—a past with gripping potential narratives.
I subsequently took great interest in native culture growing up. I always took the side of the Indians whenever we kids played Cowboys and Indians, and I preferred bows and arrows and spears to guns.
The biggest impact was on my reading. I read every book I could find on native people in the US and Canada. Once when I was in the third grade I was home sick with the mumps but I had one of the school’s library books with me, Home of the Cliff Dwellers, an illustrated book about the Pueblo Indians of the southwest. In the delirium caused by high fever, I thought I was there, with them, as I lay sweating in my upper bunk bed.
We lived, in my early school days, in a couple of towns along the Rock River, in Illinois. This area of Illinois had been inhabited by several different eastern plains tribes. Some while previously, the Sauks, Meskwakis, and Kickapoos joined forces to rebel against the whites who were invading into their territory, in what became known as the Black Hawk War. Only three miles away from where we lived in Lyndon was a town called Prophetstown, which was named thus because it was the site on the river where Black Hawk’s prophet had resided.
You can guess who won, but there was something about Black Hawk’s demeanour even in defeat that highly impressed some of the whites, and one of them honoured Black Hawk by building a statue of him, with his arms crossed, overlooking the river. It left me breathless every time I encountered it. I could canoe up to it from scout camp, not far from Rockford, Illinois.
I fancied that Black Hawk was a distant relative of mine, on the broad assumption that all native people were relatives in one way or another. My closest mental bond, though, was with a brilliant Cherokee silversmith named Sequoya, who grasped that what gave white people their advantage was their ability to write things down and read them. He invented a syllabary for the Cherokee language and taught it to his people. As far as I know he was the first North-American native person ever to do this.
Later, in the 60s when I was at university, I became more aware of the tragic state of many native people across North America, as well as their desire to embrace their own culture fully, without the opprobrium and paternalism heaped on them by decades of white governments and officials.
When native protests occurred at places like Wounded Knee, I felt a deep kinship with them in their tragic standoff. I considered Buffy Saint-Marie to be distant kin and loved her songs. This idea of being part Cherokee stayed with me until very recently.
On a trip to Arkansas to visit my half-sibs, the Keller side of my family, my wife, Marion, and I happened upon a Wilburn-related distant cousin of mine who was also into genealogy. My cousin, when asked about this, said no, my grandma was not Cherokee, but there was, indeed, one person with Cherokee blood in a different branch of the family unrelated to mine. I wondered if this were true, or whether it was a desire to distance the Wilburn line from any native blood. I didn’t know. Did my mom hear something and perhaps misunderstand what she heard? I had to bear in mind that English was her second language, her first being Swedish.
The answer came to light only recently when Marion had my DNA analyzed for genealogical purposes. The big genealogy sites are now honing in on ethnicity, and although it’s still a rough science, the DNA analyses provide insight into your roots.
I felt hugely disappointed that the results showed I had no Native American DNA whatsoever. My cousin had been right. But I had a couple of surprises, too. I knew I was Swedish on my mother’s Nordvall side of the family, and, sure enough, the DNA corroborated this. It also showed me to be part Norwegian, which came as no big surprise, but also a large part Finnish. I’d never heard anything about being part Finn from anyone. That in itself was interesting.
But the biggest surprise, unknown to me, was that I was nearly 25% Irish, specifically from the region of Connemara. It’s a folksinger’s dream to have some Celtic heritage. Perhaps it’s no wonder that my single favourite folk album of the 60s is the self-titled Vanguard recording, Liam Clancy.
So, farewell to the Cherokee, for whom I still have the fondest feelings which live on in a great empathy and support for the goals of all native people, such as stopping oil pipelines from being run through their land by a white government.
And “Hello Ireland.” I suspect there’s no Irish story teller worth his blarney who could not half convince you that the Cherokee were actually a long lost Irish clan who sailed to America long before Columbus.
I can think of only one thing to offset my disappointment at losing my Cherokee heritage only to discover my Irish and Finnish roots. I could now honestly write under the pen name “Mickey Finn.”
ᏙᎾᏓᎬᎰᎢ (Donadagvhoi). (Goodbye)