You don’t look Indian
Long-distance bike ride connects John Perry to his Cherokee heritage
The rusted gate marked with the letter “M” is unlocked, as promised, so I push through and secure it behind me with the twist of bailing wire.
I head across the pasture, through the herd of cows, past the barn and down into the woods. There’s a light rain. Fireflies are rising from the forest floor and cicadas are beginning their evening ruckus.
As I walk, I am remembering an evening four weeks earlier. There was a light rain then, too, and I was riding my bike through the wooded hills of Tennessee in the old Cherokee Nation. On this evening, though, I am in the Cookson Hills on the western edge of the Ozark Plateau in Northeastern Oklahoma, home to the modern Cherokee Nation.
In a clearing surrounded by barbed wire, I see the cemetery that is the only physical reminder of the old Fairfield Mission and its school for Cherokee children. At the far end of the clearing I find what I came to see. But instead of the broken and weathered gravestone I expected, I find a new marble marker:
DEC. 19, 1798
KILLED THIS DAY
NOV. 29, 1840
SIGNER OF THE 1835 NEW ECHOTA TREATY
This is my fourth great-grandfather.
My journey had started four weeks earlier with the high-pitched call and response of a traditional Cherokee war cry.
“Waaaa-hah: Wa. Waaaa-hah: Wa. Waaaa-ha: Wa. Wa!”
A prayer followed to protect the cyclists on their ride.
Following the war cry and prayer, 18 young Cherokee men and women began a bicycle journey to retrace the path their ancestors took in 1838 and 1839 when they were rounded up and force-marched from their homeland a thousand miles to Oklahoma. Thousands died. This was Nu-No-Du-Na-Tlo-Hi-Lu, The Trail Where They Cried, the Trail of Tears.
The bike ride would start at the New Echota Historical site in Georgia, the capital of the old Cherokee Nation, and would follow the trail’s northern route through Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky, Missouri, Illinois, Arkansas and Oklahoma. It would end 18 days later at the current Cherokee Nation capital of Tahlequah, Okla.
The bike ride would be a physical challenge but also an exploration of the riders’ tribal history, and in many cases their own family histories.
The riders, age 16-24, had applied to participate. They began preparing in January, learning the rules for riding in a group, suffering through hill repeats to prepare for the steep roads of North Georgia and Tennessee, and also studying Cherokee history and language.
They were accompanied by a Cherokee Marshal Service escort, a documentary film crew, several vans and two equipment trailers that served as billboards announcing the ride and its purpose.
I rode with the group the first two days in early June, through Georgia and Tennessee, then met up with them a couple weeks later in Stilwell, Okla., for the final ride to the steps of the old Cherokee capital building in the center of downtown Tahlequah.
I rode with them as a journalist, intending to write about the experience. But I am also a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, and I would make my own discoveries during my journey.
As part of the program, the Cherokee Nation prepared a family tree for each rider so they could connect events of the historic removal to their own ancestors. They also prepared my family tree.
I received the report when I first met the group at New Echota the evening before the ride. The report contained information that my family was already well aware of, until I turned to the last page. There I found that four of the riders were my distant cousins.
Who am I?
I keep my racial identity in the top drawer of a bedroom dresser. It’s in the form of a white paper card, laminated in plastic.
My wife, who is Chickasaw, says she could tell I was part Indian the first time we met. But most often, a mention of my Indian heritage is met with a skeptical look and occasionally outright laughter. Yeah sure, I can hear them thinking, everyone has a Cherokee princess somewhere in the family tree.
But the card in my dresser, my Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood (CDIB), signed by the Secretary of the Interior, states that: “This is to certify that John Gregory Perry is 1/64 degree Indian blood of the Cherokee tribe.”
Turn the card over and it explains that the blood quantum on the card face is “computed from the final rolls of the Five Civilized tribes closed March 4, 1907.” This final roll is known as the Dawes Roll, named after the chairman of the commission that created it.
Membership in the modern Cherokee Nation requires proof of descent from a Dawes enrollee. My connection is Mary Jones. She was my second great-grandmother, Mary Anne Ross Jones, the granddaughter of Andrew Ross.
Below Mary Jones on the Dawes Roll census card are listed six children including my great-grandfather, John E. Jones.
The census card lists Mary Jones’ Cherokee blood quantum as one-fourth and John Jones’ Cherokee blood quantum as one-eighth. That makes my grandfather, Sam Jones, 1/16th, my mother 1/32nd and me 1/64th. My sons, some of them also citizens of the Cherokee Nation, are 1/128th.
Blood quantum is a strange relic of 19th century racial pseudoscience that has been preserved in the laws and regulations concerning Native tribal membership rights.
Before European-Americans started making treaties with native people that required a legal definition of Indianness, Cherokees determined tribal membership with a simple question: Who’s your mother?
If your mother is Cherokee, you are Cherokee. The idea of a half or one-quarter or 1/64th Cherokee was nonsensical. Cherokee was a binary concept. And to some extent, that’s still true.
“It’s really not about race,” said Circe Sturm, a University of Texas anthropology professor who has spent much of her career studying Indian and Cherokee identity. “Indianness is about a political standing. It’s a political categorization. So it’s about citizenship in a tribal nation.”
While most tribal nations today have blood quantum requirements, The Cherokee Nation does not.
“Not only do we have no blood quantum, we have an equal protection clause in our constitution. We see every citizen as equal based on their legal status as citizens of the Cherokee Nation,” said Chuck Hoskins, Secretary of State for the Cherokee Nation.
In her book “What Blood Won’t Tell: A History of Race on Trial in America,” author Ariela Gross observes that while trials to determine race included much testimony about appearance, questions of race are often decided based on behavior and performance.
The racial ideology that justified slavery argued that Africans were incapable of performing the social and citizenship obligations of whites. So evidence that a man had performed his citizenship duties of voting, sitting on a jury or serving in the military, or that a woman was virtuous and performed her duties in social settings became evidence of whiteness.
This is part of a concept Gross calls “racial commonsense,” the idea, still with us, that we can look at a person and, from both appearance and performance, know their race.
So legally, politically, I am completely Indian. Racial common sense, however, would categorize me as white.
Atlanta has been my home for almost a decade now, but I was born in Oklahoma. I moved away soon after my first birthday and grew up in the West, moving often between Colorado and California. I grew up apart from Cherokee community and culture. But we returned to Oklahoma every summer. Oklahoma seemed exotic, but also like home.
There is a cultural element to Indian identity. People with cultural knowledge and language speakers are often considered within the Cherokee community to be full-bloods, no matter what their CDIB says.
I don’t speak Cherokee. I’ve never played stickball, never attended a powwow or a stomp dance or a Cherokee Baptist Church service. So I never knew exactly how to think about the Native American part of me. And the idea of blood quantum, measuring race by exact fractions, just seemed strange.
When my mother was young, she was told not to talk about her Indian heritage outside the family. But she remembers visiting her grandfather, John Jones, for Sunday dinners. There she met darker-skinned relatives. Her great-grandmother, Mary Ross Jones, smoking a corncob pipe and wearing a kerchief on her head, would try to teach her great-grandaughter to speak Cherokee.
My mother was not much interested at the time, but her interest grew as an adult. She learned about Cherokee history and about our family history, and she passed those stories down to me and to my brothers.
According to family legend, Mary Ross divorced her first husband in the traditional Cherokee way, by placing his saddle and other belongings on the front porch while he was away. As youngsters, the outlaws Frank and Jesse James often visited Mary Ross for her cookies. When my great-grandfather John was young, the stories go, he ran with the James boys and the Daltons. My great-grandmother, an avid Baptist, straightened him out.
And the Trail of Tears saga was our Exodus, our family origin story.
Despite its central place in our family history, however, I put off applying for tribal citizenship. Even when I moved back to Oklahoma after college, and for all the 30 years I lived there, I never applied. I did not feel a cultural connection. It felt dishonest to claim such a connection, and I did not want to be an Indian wannabe.
Then in 2008 I moved to Georgia. Being part Indian in Oklahoma was ordinary. In Georgia, fewer than 1 percent of people identified themselves as all or part American Indian to the U.S. Census Bureau. There are only 1,157 Cherokee Nation citizens in the state.
But reminders of Indians are everywhere, in the names of places and rivers and counties, in the historical sites that I knew from Cherokee history.
There are also reminders that the Indians are no longer here.
Soon after I arrived, I took my son to a Braves game and was stunned by the Tomahawk Chop. This would have brought outcries in Oklahoma, where the title sponsor for the Oklahoma City minor league baseball stadium is the Chickasaw Nation. In Georgia, there is no one to complain, or even notice.
One weekend, I was riding my bicycle up Ashford Dunwoody and stopped behind a Chevy Suburban waiting at a red light. There was a sticker on the back window: Cherokee Swim Team. The logo was the silhouette of an Indian wearing a full Plains Indian-style feathered headdress. I resisted the impulse to rap on the driver’s window and point out the error.
And through all this, a funny thing started to happen. That 1/64th part of me that is Indian began to push into daily consciousness. Maybe as a defensive reaction, I started to identify more and more as Cherokee.
Last October, I became a Cherokee Nation citizen. I started following the Cherokee Nation Twitter feeds and signed up for the weekly email from Principal Chief Bill John Baker. I began following news in the Cherokee Phoenix. And I regretted the lost opportunity to learn more about Cherokee culture during all those years in Oklahoma.
An interactive map of the Remember the Removal Memorial Bike Ride
Sixth cousin once removed
In Charleston, Tenn., we turn our bikes down a residential street, take a left under a brick railroad bridge, then another left onto a concrete roadway, the worn, crumbling expansion joints just wide enough to grab a bicycle tire, if someone isn’t paying attention.
Many of the neighborhood lots are empty. Some have tiny, recently built homes. Some have mobile homes. A few have older, larger homes.
We pull over just past one of the older homes at the end of the first block. It is a two-story, worse-for-wear Queen Anne cottage with two overgrown shrubs squatting on either side of a weathered concrete walk that leads to the entrance.
We dismount and gather around historian Jack Baker, who tells us this is the site of a home once owned by Lewis Ross. The current structure incorporates part of that original home.
Lewis Ross was a successful trader and the brother of Andrew Ross and Principal Chief John Ross. After John Ross convinced the U.S. government to let the tribe take over its own removal operation from the Army, Ross appointed his brother, Lewis, to provision the journey.
Baker reads from the diary of a missionary who traveled with the Cherokees. The entry from Dec. 13, 1838, tells of a Cherokee woman who had died during the night and was found in the morning with her arms wrapped around her days-old infant. The property owner where the Cherokees camped refused to allow her burial, so her corpse was carried in a wagon through the day.
“At night a coffin was made, and the next morning she was buried near the graves of some other Cherokees who had died in a detachment that had preceded us,” Baker reads from the journal.
Baker then singles out one of the riders, Gaya Pickup, as a direct descendent of Lewis Ross. The group encourages her to have a photo taken in front of the house. Uncomfortable with the attention, she poses between the two towering shrubs for a few quick photos, then returns to the group.
Lewis Ross was her fifth great-grandfather, and my fourth great-uncle. That makes Pickup my sixth cousin once removed.
Back on the bikes, it’s raining as we ride a half-mile west toward the Hiwassee Highway and turn into the parking lot of the Hiwassee River Heritage Center, home to a museum dedicated to the town’s role in the Trail of Tears and the Civil War. It is on the site of Fort Cass, one of three emigration depots built for the removal.
Local Trail of Tears Association members greet the riders with gift bags and lunch on a covered patio on the east side of the building. There are welcome speeches, and students from a nearby elementary school file past to shake hands with the Cherokees.
From spring to fall in 1838, several internment stockades at Fort Cass held almost 5,000 Cherokees waiting for the end of a drought in the West. People died daily in the stockades from dysentery, whooping cough and other ailments associated with unsanitary conditions.
By that time, Andrew Ross had comfortably relocated to Indian Territory with other members of the Treaty Party, a small group that feared Georgia’s aggressive harassment campaign would economically destroy the tribe. Without any authority, they traded away all Cherokee land in Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama and North Carolina for $5 million and 13 million acres west of the Mississippi River.
Andrew Ross played a small, but ignominious role in these events. He opened the negotiations that eventually led to the removal. He was the second to sign the Treaty of New Echota on March 1, 1836. The last Cherokees left Georgia in September 1838.
In June 1839, a group of Cherokees met in Indian Territory to again take matters into their own hands. Citing an 1829 law making it a capital offense to cede Cherokee land without consent of the tribal government, they sentenced Treaty Party leaders to death. A series of assassinations sparked a violent struggle that lasted into the mid-1840s and took the lives of more than 200 people.
I never knew my ancestor, Andrew Ross, was among the victims. But the gravestone I found last June clearly said: “KILLED THIS DAY NOV. 29, 1840, SIGNER OF THE 1835 NEW ECHOTA TREATY”
I learned about the grave through David Hampton, the genealogist who prepared the riders’ family trees. I then found the landowner, who said he would leave the gate unlocked for me.
Following my visit to the site, I asked the landowner if he knew anything about the new gravestone and the fresh flowers. He didn’t.
After a bit of sleuthing, I found Ron Burnett, a relative of the cemetery’s former caretaker who said he remembered a man and his daughter visiting the grave last year. The man said he’d ordered the gravestone three years earlier. Burnett didn’t remember a name. He thought the man might be from Chicago.
Photo: Blue Hole Spring at Red Clay State Park in Bradley County, Tenn. Photo by Brian Stansberry via Wikimedia Commons.
‘This really happened’
Day two begins where day one ended, Red Clay State Historical Park in Tennessee. When Georgia outlawed tribal gatherings at New Echota, the tribe moved its council meetings across the border to the Red Clay Council Grounds near Cleveland, Tenn.
The evening before, the riders were allowed to perform what has become a tradition for the riders but is prohibited to other park visitors. They all took a dive into the frigid waters of Blue Hole Spring, which had been the water source during Cherokee council meetings.
The plan had been to camp at Red Clay, but rain persuaded ride organizers to check in to a hotel.
When we return to the park this morning it is dry, but clouds are threatening. Trey Pritchett, 19, a sophomore at Northeastern Oklahoma State University, is today’s ride leader. He leads the war cry and the prayer.
Pritchett is my seventh cousin through George Lowrey, who was assistant chief under John Ross during the removal. Lowrey’s daughter, Susan, married Andrew Ross.
Pritchett attends Northeastern Oklahoma State University as a Promise Scholar, a Cherokee Nation program to help first generation college students. The scholarship requires students to live on campus in Tahlequah and to take courses in Cherokee language and culture.
Pritchett tells me he first became interested in Cherokee culture and language after learning about the Trail of Tears in a high school history class.
“I figured out that if we’re not learning this, it’s going to die out. We’re not going to be Indians anymore,” he says.
Pritchett’s grandfather was among a shrinking population of first language speakers. He learned English in his 20s. When Pritchett began asking the meaning of Cherokee words, his grandfather was reluctant to answer.
“His first response was, it needs to die out. He said that you can’t get an office job speaking Cherokee because they won’t understand you. You’re better off speaking English,” Pritchett says.
But he was determined.
“I was doing my best to learn from him. And I think he realized that we need to pass this down. That’s our language and we need to keep it alive,” Pritchett says. “Our language is what makes us who we are.”
Pritchett recently changed his major to Cherokee education. He previously taught in the Cherokee Immersion School, where pre-school through sixth-grade students learn in Cherokee and English. When the bike ride ends, he is entering the Cherokee Master-Apprentice Program, designed to produce fluent adult language speakers.
“With this ride, you will find out so much that you did not know, and it definitely will change you,” he says. “It will make you think differently. It will make you think about your people. It will put you in a situation where, man, this really happened. This happened to my great-great-grandparents. This happened.”
Brian Barlow senses that change. It’s late in the afternoon, June 22, 17 days since I left the riders in Tennessee. Brian and I are standing under the wide-open Oklahoma sky outside Maryetta Public School in Stilwell, Okla., watching other riders play stickball with their younger siblings.
Barlow is my seventh cousin through John McDonald, a Scottish trader who was appointed agent to the Cherokees around 1760. He married Annie Shorey, who was half Cherokee.
At some point, McDonald rescued two fellow Scots from captivity by a Cherokee named Bloody Fellow. One of them, Daniel Ross, stayed with McDonald and married his daughter Mollie. Among their children were John, Lewis and Andrew Ross.
Stilwell was the penultimate destination of the bike ride, just 22 miles from the final destination, the old Cherokee National Capitol in downtown Tahlequah.
I had driven from Atlanta and arrived several hours after the riders.
Barlow tells me his moment of transformation came before the ride even started, at the site of the Moravian Mission near Chatsworth where he discovered his ancestor was listed on the roster of students.
“A lot of people think of native people in the 19th century and they don’t think education. But we were pretty educated. It was back in the 1800s and he was getting an education, wanting to make the world a better place,” Barlow said.
I realize now that I feel most connected to my Cherokee blood when I’m confronted by Indian stereotypes.
When I was an assistant city editor at The Oklahoman newspaper in Oklahoma City, they hired a new top editor from Mississippi. One afternoon at a meeting, he looked around at the assembled editors and said, “I thought there were supposed to be Indians in Oklahoma. I haven’t seen any Indians.”
No one said anything, but several of us exchanged looks with, I’m certain, the same thought, “We’re sitting right in front of you.”
Many Oklahomans have Indian ancestors. More than 520,000 Oklahomans identified themselves as American Indian, at least in part. Many are enrolled citizens of one of 39 federally recognized tribes in Oklahoma. Many don’t resemble anyone’s stereotype of an Indian.
Cherokees have long defied European stereotypes. They have been interacting – and intermarrying — with Europeans since the 17th century. They were eager to adopt European technologies that raised their standard of living.
By the early 19th century, they had adopted European-style commercial agriculture and dairy farming practices. They were building gristmills and lumber mills. They grew cotton and sold cloth. They invited Christian missionaries to educate their children. Some adopted the Southern plantation system and, unfortunately, slavery.
Brothers Andrew, John and Lewis Ross were educated, spoke and wrote English fluently and Cherokee only poorly. John Ross reportedly never spoke Cherokee in public.
For a long time, federal policy was based on the notion that Indians would be absorbed into the general U.S. population and would indeed vanish as a distinct people.
Today there are more than 350,000 citizens of the Cherokee Nation, making it the largest federally recognized tribe. The tribe processes 1,200 citizenship applications each month.
So Indians have certainly not vanished. But I struggle with the meaning of Indian identity in the 21st century. What makes a modern Indian? Does learning to make a blowgun or flute from river cane make me more Cherokee? Maybe. Learning to speak the language? Certainly.
But my mind resists the idea that being truly Indian means conforming to some romanticized notion of a once-stone-age people, and that Indians were authentic then, but less so now.
And, at some point, I realized that my own reluctance to embrace my heritage had been based on stereotypes, projected by others and accepted by me. It was my own racial common sense telling me, you’re no Indian.
Degrees of separation
The ride to the Hiwassee Heritage Center on the second day starts out flat but ends with some serious climbs as we follow the Hiwassee River west.
Light rain had come and gone through the day, and it starts again as we begin a two-mile downhill stretch. In five miles, we turn right into the parking lot of the Cherokee Removal Memorial Park at Blythe Ferry.
This was the staging site for the last groups of Cherokees leaving their homeland. The ferry crossed the Hiwassee River, which was the northern border of Cherokee lands.
The riders file into a meeting room at the back of the visitors center, a building made to resemble a rustic log cabin. There is food and drinks, then welcome speeches by local dignitaries. As I walk back toward the entrance, the woman at the gift shop counter hands me a pencil and a piece of paper.
Outside, there is a circle of granite obelisks engraved with names from the 1835 Cherokee Census. This was the roll of families to be relocated. It listed more than 900 heads of households and counted 16,542 Cherokees, 201 intermarried whites and 1,592 black slaves. I see other riders searching the granite and using their pencils and paper to make rubbings of their ancestors’ names.
My wife had arrived earlier to drive me back to Atlanta. While waiting, she had found Andrew Ross’ name. His household included 12 Cherokees, no intermarried whites and no slaves.
I run into one of the riders, Ellic Miller, also a descendant of Andrew Ross. He is my fifth cousin twice removed.
We’re both looking for George Lowrey. We eventually find him on the Tennessee list: five Cherokees in his household and one slave.
As I rub my pencil across my paper, a notion pushes into my mind. It’s almost a physical sensation. Time seems to compress as I think how this place and those events that had seemed abstract and so long ago, are connected to me through just six people. And they connect me with Ellic Miller and Brian Barlow and Gaya Pickup and Trey Pritchett, all with very different backgrounds, but who all share a common family story and, by varying degrees, a common culture.
And for that small moment, I feel completely Cherokee.
ABOUT THE STORY
As a member of the newsroom data team, I was working with a group of reporters and editors on stories about race in Atlanta. I came to realize that my American Indian heritage gave me a unique perspective on race that was foreign to most Georgians. Then I received a press release from the Cherokee Nation about the 2017 Remember the Removal Memorial Bike Ride from Georgia to Oklahoma. I am a fanatic cyclist, so this seemed the perfect excuse to ride my bike and also write a story about my heritage. This story is a result of that ride.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
John Perry is technical director of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s data journalism team. He came to the AJC in January 2008. As a member of the investigative team, he helped uncover widespread cheating on state tests in the Atlanta Public Schools. Before coming to Atlanta, Perry was a senior fellow at the nonprofit investigative journalism organization, The Center for Public Integrity and database editor at The Oklahoman, the newspaper in Oklahoma City.
ABOUT THE PHOTOGRAPHER
Kent D. Johnson was a veteran journalist with more than 31 years experience. He joined the AJC as sports photo editor in 1998 and held a number of visual editing and shooting roles at the paper, including photo assignment editor for nine years. Johnson also worked at papers in Charlotte, N.C.; Jackson, Miss.; Fort Myers, Fla.; and Muskogee, Okla. This is Kent’s last assignment for The Atlanta-Journal Constitution. He died unexpectedly in August. We still miss him every day.