An Open Statement About Being Missouri Cherokee
I am aware of current controversies and allegations pertaining to cultural appropriation by white people claiming to be Native American so as to advance their careers. Although I have made repeated efforts in occasionally depicting my own ‘Missouri Cherokee’ cultural identity to clarify this mixed-blood heritage and state that I am not enrolled in any federally-recognized tribe, I feel I must now be much clearer as to what exactly I mean in describing myself in this way.
The family stories of Dr. Ret Barlow in my two novels, Tessa’s Dance and Signal Peak, closely parallel those of my own family. His curiosity and search reflect my own; even his dreams originate from my own dream journal. Ret signifies the mixed-blood journey along the boundary line between white and Indian. That journey inhabits my family history and inhabits me. Before his passing, mixed-blood writer and professor of native studies Louis Owens described the predicament eloquently in his book, Mixed Blood Messages (1998):
"These were people surviving together – Indian and white – and they deserve to be honored rather than ridiculed despite the fact that they also stand as unwitting icons to both cultural atrophy for Indian people and the displacement of tribal nations from their homelands. It is as human beings who loved one another while crossing borders and erasing boundaries and, despite immeasurable odds, surviving that they deserve our recognition and utmost respect."
I’ll begin by describing my understanding of what is known about the Cherokee genealogy within my father’s side of my family. My paternal grandmother, Donna Barlow Smouse Walker, told us throughout her life and in letters to my father in the 1970s that my 3rd generation paternal grandmother, Elizabeth Gibson, walked the Trail of Tears from Murfreesboro, Tennessee with her husband, Alfred Hirton Barlow. Larkin Barlow, listed as a member of the North Carolina Regiment, Company I, during the Cherokee removal is likely Alfred’s brother but this has never been fully verified. The couple settled in Pineville, Missouri about one year after the area was annexed by the Cherokee Nation. It is likely that this area included many intermarried families.
All of my Gibson and Barlow Cherokee connections herald from Pineville and nearby Neosho, Missouri.
Independently in 1969, my great-aunt Pauline Whipple, told Emily Caroline Barlow the same story of the Gibson-Barlow exodus on the Trail of Tears in more detail. However, she confused Elizabeth Gibson, who was deceased before Pauline was born, with a childhood memory of seeing my 2nd generation paternal grandmother, Elizabeth Jane Albina Alexander Barlow, Elizabeth Gibson’s daughter-in-law. It is Elizabeth J. Barlow who Pauline saw around the time of the Dawes Rolls and described as “encouraged to sign the rolls but declined to do so having been disowned by her people for marrying white.”
According to these two separate family stories, Elizabeth Gibson (also ‘Gipson’) and Elizabeth J. Barlow, her daughter-in-law, are two of my Cherokee grandmothers. Elizabeth Gibson died in the chaos and anarchy of that area in 1862, and I’ve never been able to find her on any Cherokee rolls. Elizabeth Jane Barlow appears to have followed through on not signing Dawes or any other roll. She was described by Pauline Whipple as ‘dark-skinned and cross’ and was said to be from the McKnight family.
Therefore, there has never been enough evidence in my family to support an effort to enroll formally as Cherokee. My family’s Gibson Cherokee connections are possibly the same as those of William M. Gibson, Jr. (Cherokee #1896) from Texas, who’s father William, Sr. was born in Neosho, and William Jrs.’ daughter, Hazel W. Gibson (Cherokee #1759). Additionally, Clara Hodge Gibson described having two half-sisters who attempted to enroll before U.S. Commissioners around 1900 but were unsuccessful and told they were Creek.
In stories told on the Gibson side of my family, James Ambrose Gibson, likely my great-great uncle, together with Lemuel Green Barlow, certainly my great-great uncle, joined the Confederacy, became separated from their unit, and fought under Stand Waite’s Cherokee forces. James Ambrose Gibson was ordained with the Indian Mission Conference after the Civil War.
There are other stories of Cherokee connections among other Barlows – John Wesley Barlow, my great-uncle is described in a historical register as a “mixed-blood of Cherokee and English” descent and my great-grandmother, Mary Saphronia Barlow, is described as “one-sixteenth Cherokee.” At that time, by the way, to claim to be ‘too Indian’ was potentially highly stigmatizing, especially since a native person lost legal standing in the courts. I believe the degree of connection was often suppressed by my ancestors.
Cherokee people were not considered U.S. citizens until 1924, and those of the time would have been considered entirely "foreign in the political sense."[i] Furthermore, they'd been officially remanded to Indian Territory, and between 1845 and 1906, Missouri state law firmly declared that "no person shall give to any Indian a permit to come or remain within this state; nor a permit, or other instrument of writing, with the intent to induce any Indian to come or remain within this state, except the proper agent, under the authority of the United States."[ii] If Elizabeth Jane Barlow had identified as Cherokee by signing the rolls while living with her family within the boundaries of Missouri, she would have made herself a fugitive.
The majority of Cherokee remaining in Missouri after the Trail of Tears were undoubtedly women like Elizabeth, and their survival and that of their children depended upon an ability to "pass for white, or black, or a vague mix of ancestry."[iii] Many had already adopted Christianity and dressed and attended church with the non-Native people around them. Our family records show Alfred Hirton Barlow and Elizabeth Gibson, for example, becoming members of New Salem Cumberland Presbyterian Church in 1848. Intermarried Cherokee in Missouri "kept low profiles in fear that the government would somehow, sometime, descend and pack them off to reservations."[iv] This, of course, had happened to them already through forced removal.
According to History of Indian Territory by D.C. Gideon (1901), after the Civil War, Lemuel Green Barlow, my great-great uncle, and my two great-great aunts, Sarah and Elizabeth A. Barlow (daughters of Elizabeth Gibson, unrelated by blood to Elizabeth Jane), all married and settled in the Cherokee Nation. Their brother, my great-great grandfather Matthew Barlow, moved to Kansas, died shortly after the Civil War, and I do not have as much information on him other than he fought for the Union.
I do not know of their degree of blood quantum or its necessity in ‘proving’ these ancestors were part of the Cherokee community. Some of my ancestors may have been considered ‘intermarried whites’ by Cherokees of the time, but it’s unsure who was or was not, although the independent stories of our family connection to the Trail of Tears appears good enough evidence of Cherokee blood relationships for both the Barlows and Gibsons.
In those days, intermarried family members and their offspring were deemed citizens of Cherokee Nation, allowed to learn and practice Cherokee ways, and to hold office. Intermarried whites obviously had ‘mixed-blood’ offspring with various degrees of blood quantum and the imposition of that factor in deciding who would be and who would not be thought of as Cherokee has been a significant dynamic since that time.
I will turn to my own and my family’s social connections to this ‘Cherokee-ness.’ My grandma, Donna Barlow Smouse Walker, was born in 1901 in a log cabin near Hogs Creek along Indian Meridian Road in Stella, Indian Territory. She had a sixth grade education and grew up in poverty, having been abandoned by her father. As a little girl, she often rode her pony with Cherokee kids in her vicinity. It was reported in a local paper at the time that she wandered into a Cherokee riverside camp and was brought safely back home. Later in life, she retired with my grandfather in Hendersonville, NC, and throughout my childhood when we visited in the summers, she took us to visit the Eastern Band of Cherokee Nation and would sometimes announce to guides at Oconaluftee Village about being ‘related’ to them.
Growing up in the 1960s, she called me her ‘Cherokee boy’ and sent me a Cherokee Togs fringe jacket for my 7th birthday. I wore it far past outgrowing it, especially during cowboy and Indian play. I was always the Indian, never the cowboy, and frequently called upon to lose by default, a situation that would sometimes end in real fights. In my early teens, my quest for connection took greater hold of me, and I was duped by letters I wrote to the charlatan Sun Bear and his Bear Tribe into digging up my parents’ yard so as to plant a garden. By high school, my best friend was Chippewa, and I could be frequently seen wearing a hat that was an exact replica of Billy Jack’s hat. I only mention these behaviors from my youth to illustrate the early features of my cultural identity.
Paying my own way through my undergrad years in my late twenties starting in 1984, I undertook an independent project for my minor in anthropology researching Cherokee factionalism and the life of Matthew Barlow, my great-great grandfather. This was my first exposure to the confusion in Cherokee culture around the role and status of intermarried families and blood quantum issues as well as an immersion into my own family’s genealogy. I began to see my own family as disenfranchised from our Cherokee connections rather than just unable to provide sufficient proof to enroll.
While financially supporting my own graduate education in 1986, I performed standards and my own songs for people in decrepit Detroit-area nursing homes. At one point, a Navajo man tied to his chair began chanting dramatically, uttering the first sounds anyone had heard from him in years. This experience inspired me to write a song called “Joshua Maiden” about how his life might have brought him to such a place. The song was chosen for inclusion in a locally produced CD collection called ‘DreamCatchers’ benefiting Native causes including American Indian Tribal Colleges and the Bay Mills community. I donated this song and another to the project during the mid-1990s, performed for free at numerous concerts, and was a board member for a time. I only mention this era to note my continued engagement and identity with native issues before coming to work in Indian Country.
Despite having for years called myself by the now decidedly politically-incorrect term ‘part-Cherokee,’ I kept my heritage hidden when I came to work at the Indian Health Service at Yakama Nation in 2000. I was already aware of ‘fake Indians’ and the New Age movement. I was already mindful of having not grown up in the conditions of abject poverty and racism I was witnessing and the implications of my own white skin and blue eyes in making any such claim. It was not until I was asked point blank by a new native friend about my own family’s native connections that I hesitatingly spoke openly about what I knew, what might never be verified, and why I’d likely never become ‘enrolled.’
Hearing this family history, I was challenged to own my heritage more assertively. This seems the near opposite of what I hear about such matters today. In particular, I was told, “Well, if your blood runs red, you should claim it, and don’t let anyone talk you out of it.” I met my close friend and mentor around this time, a respected Blackfoot elder and first director of the Native Studies program at University of Montana, who I shall not name out of love and respect for his spirit as he has passed away. He was among the most ardent voices in encouraging me in this way. I only wish he was still here to help me to navigate more perilous times regarding his suggestions. I soon met my kala, Levina Wilkins (Yakama), who further supported me developing my own understanding as a ‘mixed-blood.’ I participated in many Yakama sweatlodges at this time and was even asked to lead several. I also attended naming ceremonies, memorials, healing, and other events.
Sometime in 2001, my father was deeply involved in genealogical research in all directions of our family tree. He discovered a distant cousin having less connection to our Cherokee roots but calling herself ‘Missouri Cherokee.’ I struck up an email dialogue with this new relative, but as soon as she learned our shared lineage was not as directly Cherokee for her, she broke off all communication. I subsequently discovered she’d written articles for American Indian Quarterly and founded an American Indian chapter within the American Philosophical Association. I thought if she could do this with less to claim genealogically, perhaps I should consider the same self-designation.
I did more research on what it might mean to identify myself as ‘Missouri Cherokee.’ I determined there was no recognized state or federal tribe along such lines. It seemed to me that stating that I was ‘Missouri Cherokee’ allowed me to link my own family’s history with a unique trajectory separate from those of people in the federally recognized Cherokee tribes. I decided I could thereby share my own cultural identity more openly. Researching the Trail of Tears routes, for example, I learned that the severity of various journeys (there were as many as 12 routes) caused some families to drop off and settle in southwest Missouri prior to arriving at the new Cherokee Nation. From everything I’d been able to gather, this was exactly my own family’s story on my father’s side.
And so that is how I came to call myself ‘Missouri Cherokee.’
When I turn to my mother’s side of the family – I am cousin to Return J. Meigs, Sr., the first U.S. agent to the Cherokees who married Grace Starr, 'Rising Fawn'. I am also cousin to his son, Return J. Meigs, IV, who married principal Cherokee chief John Ross’ daughter, Jane 'Go-goo-ie' Ross Meigs, and who walked the Trail of Tears with her.
I believe I may have met Jane Ross – in a dream I had in 2002. She told me never to forget who I am.
From there, I wrote two indie novels and included a character that just happens to be a mixed-blood psychologist with Missouri Cherokee roots named Ret Barlow. Now I am writing about mental health oppression in Indian Country and my work is becoming visible enough to certain critics that I’m being pressured to forget who I am. I have my grandma and many others to thank for my firm resistance to this idea.
I have always been open and truthful about the Cherokee connection in my family and have never benefited from doing so financially or usurped or eclipsed or defrauded anyone in referring to it.
[i] Deloria, V. & Wilkins, D., Tribes, treaties, and constitutional tribulations, 86.
[ii] Castleberry, E., The revised statutes of the state of Missouri, revised and digested by the Thirteenth General Assembly, begun and held during the years one thousand eight hundred and forty-four and one thousand eight hundred and forty-five...
[iii] Gilbert, J., The Trail of Tears across Missouri, 98.