Tucked deep within Joe Williams' wallet is a yellowed scrap of paper with seven names and seven strings of numbers scrawled in bold handwriting but faded by time. These names and numbers are all Williams has of his family history. This week Williams--who has sky blue eyes and blond hair, now white with age--talked with writer Traci Moyer about being a Cherokee Indian.
"My mother's father, as I was told, came to Oklahoma as a baby on the Trail of Tears, when they moved the Cherokees from Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, down in that area. I believe it was back in 1838. I've got my grandmother's and grandfather's and my mother's roll numbers. They numbered the Cherokees when they had them in Oklahoma. My granddad was given a section of land out west of Tulsa that was supposedly too rocky to farm. So he traded it for another section that was about 18 miles north of Tulsa, a small town named Collinsville, just a mile or two outside the town limits. They dug a cave out of the side of a hill and built a little one-room shack in front of that to close off the entrance, and that is where they lived for several years. That's where my mother was born, in that dugout. There were eight girls in the family and she was the next to the youngest.
"As a matter of fact, my dad married my mother's twin sister first and she died in childbirth at the age of 17. A few years later, my dad married my mother. My dad was part Indian, but I don't know what.
"My mother looked Indian, my dad did too. My mother was short and dark-complected and my dad was too. My brother was dark-complected, and I came along real light-complected and blond-headed, and my brother used to tell me I was adopted. For many years I really believed that. I was born August 9, 1940, in Collinsville. I'll be 63 this coming August. I never told my mother what my brother said. I looked different than they did.
"One day many years later, after mom and dad were both gone, I mentioned the fact I didn't have a birth certificate. A guy at work asked me where and when I was born. The next day he came in with a copy of my birth certificate. I was about 40 at the time and it turns out his sister worked at the building where they kept the records. She looked up my name and date and apparently the doctor had filed one. I didn't know that, and I guess my parents didn't either.
"I went to talk to my brother. He laughed. He said, 'I thought you knew I was just kidding you.' He said he remembered the night I was born. He is seven years older than me. He said he remembers the neighbor lady walking him up and down the road the night I was born to keep him out of the house while mom was in labor.
"We also got another shock. Up until that point, I thought there were just two kids, my brother and I, and that birth certificate said I was the fourth live child born to that woman. I have no idea who the other two are or where they are or anything about them. That was another mystery, but I don't know how to check it out because anyone that knows is gone and there is no one to ask. I may have another bother or sister or two brothers or two sisters, I don't know. As far as I know my brother was the oldest, but I don't know where he was in the pecking order. I went back later and he did not have a birth certificate.
"My parents didn't talk much about family. I don't ever remember my dad sitting down in the evening and talking at all. He worked most of the time at a grain elevator, and when he would come in he always had a cow or two and pigs and chickens and a garden, so he would go to work milking the cow or working in the garden. There was very little discussion at all about anything.
"I used to be really closed mouth, but I'm coming out of that. It was just the way we were raised. You didn't talk about things. You sure didn't talk about your emotions and how you felt. You never let anyone know what you were feeling.
"When I started to school my mother walked me to the grounds, which was about a half a mile from where we lived. She was pretty one-sided in her beliefs. Of course you have to remember when she was raised: being an Indian wasn't a good thing. It hadn't been too many years since there had been killings and all kinds of things going on. White people looked down on Indians worse than blacks. I guess she had been treated a little bit prejudicially in her life, so she told me when I started to school, 'Just remember who wrote the history books. When the white man won it was a great victory, but when the Indian won it was a massacre. Just remember because it's a one-sided picture.'
"We have never been able to track our parents or our ancestors. I never saw my mother's parents. They died before I was born and I don't know any of their history other than that my grandfather came over the Trail of Tears. I don't have any idea where she came from. I don't even know her maiden name. I don't know anything on that side. She died in 1964. Her sisters are all gone.
"All they can document on me is that I'm 1/32 Cherokee blood. But 1/32 is all that is necessary to become a member of the tribe. I can vote in their elections, although it's about 750 miles to the polling place in Collinsville. So needless to say, I'm not active in the politics of the tribe.
"I'm kind of proud of my Indian heritage. After I grew up and looked back, the Indians did kind of get a raw deal. I always thought it was pretty arrogant for people with guns to discover a less advanced people that couldn't defend themselves and claim a land for their king. But I guess at that point in history we didn't care about being fair--if we could take control it was ours. If we still operated under that philosophy, we would own Mexico, most of Europe, in fact, the world. Everyone would have freedom and there would be no wars."