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Tracing the thread of my ancestry: National Native American Heritage Month

By Sarah Franklin, CMO Portfolio and Project Manager, TeamHealth


National Native American Heritage Month, also referred to as American Indian and Alaska Native Heritage Month, celebrates the contributions, achievements, sacrifices, and cultural and historical legacy of Native peoples during the month of November. National Native American Heritage Month also helps raise awareness of the challenges and hardships faced by Native peoples.

It offers an opportunity to teach and learn about Native cultures and histories and to celebrate these cultural heritages. By focusing on the unique challenges Native people have faced both historically and in the present, we can better identify ways we can promote equality, justice and diversity.

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My Connection

As a native to East Tennessee, it is no surprise that I have Cherokee in my bloodline. As a young adult, I felt drawn to research my ancestry. I spent countless hours researching library archives in Knox, Sevier and Greene counties. Thankfully, I had a significant head start as my great-aunt was a librarian and already did quite a bit of work tracing our ancestry. She taught me how and where to find what I was looking for. I had no idea that libraries kept so much information about the past. What I uncovered was a humbling yet empowering experience.

Virginia Smithson Looney 1872 – 1944My great-grandmother was a toddler when she was removed from her Cherokee family in what was considered a purification. She was given to the Smithson family in Greene County, Tennessee. It was then that she was given her Christian name, Virginia. The census at that time showed she arrived to her family when she was just 2 years old. Old letters sent by her father to his relatives listed her among their possessions alongside things like heads of cattle, the plow, some buckets, and such. A later letter spoke of how she learned to read, sew her own clothes, and carve her own shoes from wood. They also spoke of how she was given residency in their barn. I simply cannot fathom what her life must have been like and found myself imagining what life must have been like for her back then. The only other records I could find was when she married my great-grandfather. She also played a major role in the founding of the Greeneville-Greene County library. Her name appeared in newspaper articles related to the services of the library and the reading classes she offered to adults. No further records were found of her.

My Commitment

Though I may only be one-eighth Cherokee, that small portion gives me a persistence and fire for life that pushes me beyond any challenge I may face. Knowing only parts of my great-grandmother’s story still gives me strength. I’ve since been compelled to learn Native American customs so that I can teach my own daughters the old ways. I sometimes wonder if she ever imagined that her great-granddaughter would be teaching about a culture she never got to learn herself.

Though I was not raised in Native American customs, I have since found those customs and now find deep peace when practicing the ways of my ancestors. Because of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978, I am the first generation that is free to practice those customs. Because it is in my lifetime that this act passed, I consider it my responsibility to teach the next generation. My daughters and I are still learning the old ways as we walk the path of life. We are empowered with knowledge that helps us cope with the trials of life and teaches us to walk in harmony with all that surrounds us.

We Are All Connected

Of all the teachings, one in particular applies to every moment of every day that I’d like to share with you. And that teaching is that we are all connected. One of my favorite quotes comes from Chief Seattle, whom the city of Seattle, Washington, was named.

Humankind has not woven the web of life. We are not but one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves. All things are bound together. All things connect,” said Chief Seattle.

I ask you to contemplate what it means that all things are connected and how your words, actions, and thoughts affect everything around you. To be ever-mindful of this is no simple task, but can be life-changing.

Thank you for allowing me to share this part of my life’s story and share one small yet profound teaching.

Mitakuye Oyasin, (All Are Related, a Lakota phrase expressing interconnectedness used when parting ways, ending letters, or ending a teaching)