14,293 Days: Fulfilling a Family Legacy

by Nicka Smith

14,293 days. 39 years, 1 month, 17 days.

A lifetime for some, the blink of an eye for others.

For me, it’s the number of days between the start and the finish of a journey I was commissioned to oversee before I was out of diapers.

Eight Words

It started with a simple note on an envelope postmarked Friday, January 25, 1980 in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

That same day a 5.5 magnitude earthquake had rolled through the San Francisco Bay Area, the United States had just announced its boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow, and President Jimmy Carter made talk of instituting a draft for menand perhaps womenaged 18 to 26.

A letter from the Cherokee Nation to the author's great-aunt

 

The eight words beneath the postmark, “Important: Take care of this, Write a letter,” didn’t get the same widely publicized coverage as the earthquake, the Olympic boycott, or the potential draft. But the implications were just as far-reaching for my family.

The person who wrote them was my Grandaunt Edna, and it was a note to herself. She needed to write a letter to the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma about her citizenship, as it appeared to have been revoked.

Aunt Edna and the Cherokee Freedmen Family Legacy

Edna M. Rogers Latting Sommerville was two years old when her father, Theodore Cooweescoowee “Cooey” Vann Rogers, Sr., a Cherokee Freedmen, registered her and her sister, Aunt Clarence, with the Dawes Commission.

two side-by-side photos of the author's ancestors
Left to right: Grandpa Cooey, Uncle Ted, and Uncle Wilbur in Vinita, Oklahoma circa 1922 | Aunt Clarence, seated, with Aunt Edna, circa 1907, when they obtained their Cherokee Nation citizenship.

Their enrollment was approved six months later on January 12, 1907.

The 1907 Dawes card for the author's family members, Edna and Clarence Rogers
Aunt Edna and Aunt Clarence’s Dawes Card. Source: Ancestry

My aunts were among 619 other Cherokee Freedmen minors who were enrolled.

Aunt Edna would stay enrolled for the next 70 years, receiving 120 acres of land as part of her citizenship that she would own until her death on January 12, 1985exactly 78 years to-the-day after her enrollment in the Dawes  Rolls.

A document, a land allotment jacket, for the allotment of land in the Cherokee Nation for Edna Rogers
This form shows Grandpa Cooey applying for 80 of the 120 acres Aunt Edna was entitled to receive. Source: Ancestry

Aunt Edna was a boss. A widow and divorcee, she was the only college graduate in her immediate family who was also known to tote a loaded gun in her bosom when she went to collect the rent due from her rental properties.

Three of the author's relatives in front of a store in Kansas City in 1950
Aunt Edna, Uncle Wilbur, and Uncle Clifford Latting, my uncle/Aunt Edna’s husband, in 1950 at Kansas City’s famous 18th and Vine.

She was the matriarch and had been so since the tender age of 31 when her mother, Clara Allen Rogers Levy, died at just 48 years old.

Three women in the author's family, including her Grandma Clara, in 1935
Grandma Clara (on the far left), sometime before her death in 1935.

Passing the Torch

When Aunt Edna said something was important, it was. And you addressed or handled it regardless of the obstacles. This included our family’s Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma citizenship.

But the year she passed,1985, proved to be even more challenging, as the only first cousin I had on this side was killed by a drunk driver just 8 months after Aunt Edna died. My Grandmother Loyce, better known as Tip Top, somehow ended up with her sister’s envelope in the hustle of handling affairs between the two deaths.

My Grandmother Tip Top then held onto the letter for 13 years.

A headshot of Grandmother Loyce, wearing a white flower in her hair
My Grandmother Loyce or Tip Top.

Then, my father inherited it upon Tip Top’s death and was custodian over it for three years before his passing. At that point, 16 total years had elapsed.

The envelope came into my possession during a year I can’t quite recall, as I was young and on the move. It was one of those “I think you should have this because it’s your people” sort of things with my mom.

For me it was almost as though I was handed a key once the envelope became mine. I began to explore our family connections to the Cherokee Nation. I read and kept up on the history of legal issues of Cherokee Freedmen and Freedmen of the Five Tribes.

And I waited. And waited more.

I wrote things on my blog.  I sent my documents into the Cherokee Nation to apply for citizenship right before the 2017 ruling by a federal judge that ruled we were entitled to citizenship, again.

Challenges to Overcome

The cost of applying for citizenship was far greater than anticipated. Yes, there were the fees required to get statecertified birth and death certificates and notarized statements. But the emotional toll of going back and forth with the Registration Office was more costly.

I sent records back and forth more than six times even though I only had to trace back four generations and needed just five documents to do so.

It didn’t seem to matter that Grandpa Cooey, Aunt Edna, and Aunt Clarence were on the approved Dawes Roll.

A section of page 2 of the The Indian Chieftain, Vinita, Oklahoma, Thursday, May 28, 1891
The Indian Chieftain, Vinita, Oklahoma, Thursday, May 28, 1891, page 2

I held my peace by re-reading the Senate testimony and some letters to the editor of The Weekly Chieftain (Vinita, OK) from my great-great-grandfather Ike. And I traced even more lines to my family—those approved and rejected by the Dawes Commission .

Luckily I wasn’t alone; our Cherokee Freedmen advocate, Rodslen Brown, interceded for me and literally walked my paperwork into the Registration Office.

And Then…It Happened

I will never forget the day that a new envelope came in the mail. It was just a week or so after my birthday.

Usually, I was the one to head to the mailbox, but on this particular day, I did not. My husband called to me,

“You have something from the Cherokee Nation.”

And I came scurrying through the house, thinking it was another request for another document or form or a flat out rejection despite my legal right to citizenship.

When I saw that what was inside the envelope was blue, I began to run through the house. I simply could not believe it.

I was the first person in my family in more than 114 years to secure my citizenship to the Cherokee Nation. It was a process that I began to sort out more than a decade prior and one that took almost two years for me to complete.

My son became the second Cherokee Nation citizen shortly thereafter.

Since that time, I’ve voted in elections, received heirloom seeds from the Seed Bank, watched Tribal Council meetings, attended meetings with my Tribal Counselor, met Chief Hoskin in person and more.

The author with Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma Chief Chuck Hoskin
Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma Chief Chuck Hoskin and me

It’s been a journey that has reconnected me with my ancestry in a way that I don’t think I ever could have anticipated.

All because of just eight words. “Important: Take care of this, Write a letter.”

I did Aunt Edna. I did.

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About the author: Nicka Smith is a professional photographer, speaker, host, Ancestry® consultant, and documentarian with more than 20 years of experience as a genealogist. She has extensive experience in African ancestored genealogy, and reverse genealogy, and is expert in genealogical research in the Northeastern Louisiana area, and researching enslaved communities. She is a past board member of the California Genealogical Society (CGS) and the African American Genealogical Society of Northern California (AAGSNC). You can learn more about her here.

 

This is Nicka Smith’s family story, reflecting her personal experiences. While Ancestry is a tool that can be used to research Native American ancestry, it does not promote or in any way guarantee a roadmap to citizenship in Native American tribes.