“I want to learn more about my Indian ancestors” is a commonly heard request at the Family History Library. Many people have family traditions that a grandfather or grandmother was part Indian, but they have a devil of a time proving it. Let me tell you about my Ojibwa Mama.
Many people think a grandmother’s complexion or hair in an old photograph is “quite dark,” notice she has a “high cheek bone,” or a maiden name like “Bear.” They often interpret these as clues that an ancestor was Native American. Some want to cash in on Indian educational scholarships. My mother’s Indian ancestry has a different story. She didn’t go looking for Indians, they came looking for her!
Mom, whose maiden name is LaDuke, grew up in Northern Minnesota among Caucasians. When she was a little girl, she was afraid of Indians (not knowing she was one). The White Earth Indian Reservation, located nearby, is one of the homes of the Ojibwa Tribe. Her family moved away to California, and for years the Tribe tried to contact them, without success. One day, after hearing she was part Indian, she visited the Reservation. She was told there were big books on a table with lists of names of people who could claim money. She checked the book and found her name in it! The Reservation had kept track of the descendants of its Indians down to modern times. The funds were intended to try to compensate for the Federal Government’s theft of Indian ancestral lands.
Mom found out that she was 1/16 Ojibwa. Her great-grandmother, a resident of the Reservation, was half-French and half-Indian. A government agent, Ransom Judd Powell, recorded these Indians’ family trees in the early 1900s, and his research includes mama’s family! The Ransom Judd Powell papers are available online, see Family No. 19; see also the 56,000-person Personal Ancestral File database The Red Lake Genealogies.
Our family tree, dating back six generations into my Ojibwa Indian ancestors, is outlined. My ancestors include an Englishman who married an Indian woman born about 1700, their daughter Me ke nock, her son No di nah quah um, his daughter Sah gah je way quay, and her son Wesh tash Bellecourt (my ggg-grandfather, born about 1819).
By the time Mom’s kids had grown up and started college, she decided she wanted to go back to school. She was no longer scared of Indians. Dad called the White Earth Indian Reservation, and they offered to finance her education all the way through a Ph.D., if she liked, because she belonged to the Tribe. (By the way, yes, 2000 Green Party Vice-Presidential candidate and Native American Winona LaDuke, who ran with presidential candidate Ralph Nader, is her cousin).
Unfortunately, because we kids are 1/32 Ojibwa, the Tribe considers our relationship too distant to merit scholarships. (The amount of Indian blood that qualifies a descendant for scholarships varies by tribe. You should contact your ancestor’s Indian agency to learn more. A good list is available at the U.S. Department of the Interior’s website (thanks to Dick Eastman for this reference) and in the American Indian Genealogy article in the FamilySearch Research Wiki.
In addition to a fantastic cultural experience, sometimes learning about your family tree can earn you big bucks!