09/28/2012 08:59 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

I'm Native American, Senator Brown

Do I look Native American to you, Senator Brown? I am.


According to my family tradition, I'm 1/16 Cherokee and 1/8 Choctaw. Now, according to the various censuses of Native Americans, I'm 1/64 Choctaw and zero Cherokee. Why the difference?

The difference is due to the hesitancy of my great-grandparents to self-identify as half- and ful-blood Native Americans at the time the censuses, known as rolls, were being compiled around the turn of the 20th century. While the rolls were being compiled, rumors about the consequences of signing up were pretty scary. It was rumored that if you were full-blood you would be forced to have a white serve as a custodian for your money and property. Another rumor was that the rolls would be used to target Native Americans for theft, extortion and discrimination. One thing though, you had to sign up to get your settlement money from the government. Another rumor was that to qualify for the money all you had to have was 1/8 blood. My great-grandmother Joanna Dobyns signed up as 1/8 Choctaw. My great-grandfather signed up as white and they signed their children as 1/16.

I was always told Joanna was full-blood Choctaw. And, frankly, she did look like it. Her husband, Oscar, was half-Cherokee. A studious attorney in Virginia has traced the English half of Oscar's heritage to England as far back as the 1200s. Included in that research and commentary is mention of Oscar's mother. Her name was Mary Eliza Kelso and she was reported to be full-blood Cherokee. Mary's name does not show up on any of the rolls. She was living in Indiana and married to a white man and maybe didn't know or care about the Native American censuses.

It's not possible to say exactly how many Native Americans went uncounted and unrecorded over the years leading up to the final rolls. As I have a substantially supported history of a heritage in which one went uncounted, I tend very strongly to believe in the possibility of it. I also believe that in some number of instances people declined to sign onto the rolls out of fear or ignorance, as was the known case for my great-grandfather.

I am eligible for membership in the Choctaw Nation as my grandfather, Oscar II, is already enrolled. So yes, Senator Brown, I am American Indian just as is Dr. Warren. The truth, you see, is that as recently as my youth, no one would claim to be an American Indian who wasn't. There was no percentage in it, no advantage. There was even considerable danger to the claim. My mother, pregnant with me, traveled to the relative safety of Oklahoma from her home in Pecos, Texas, to give birth to me because the white doctor in Pecos had a child birth mortality rate of 80 percent for non-white deliveries. The year was 1951. So if someone has a family tradition of Native American heritage, then the odds are pretty strong that they are not lying, that is unless they're trying to get a job at a tribal casino. The case Dr. Warren can make that she has some fraction of Native American blood is certainly stronger than the case you can now make that you have any integrity, Senator Brown.