Shades of History

Ellie — Right now, there’s a controversy going on: Should the professional football team, the Washington Redskins, change its name since “redskin” is a derogatory term for American Indians?

Once you read this, it probably won’t still be a controversy, having been long resolved one way or the other. Maybe it will be like those old 1950s black and white photos you see of separate bathrooms and drinking fountains for blacks and whites — an object of curiosity or shame. Or maybe people will just move on, forget it, live with it. Social change is unpredictable.

HISTORY, TAKE ONE: The whole controversy is personal to me, since my father was one-half American Indian, That makes me one-quarter Indian, your mother 1/8, and you 1/16.

Our tribe, the Chickasaws, were one of the Five Civilized Tribes and lived in what is now Mississippi. Years ago, your grandfather and I drove up the Natchez Trace, a remote federal highway that slices through Mississippi. On both sides of the roads were burial mounds for Chickasaws, the graves of my ancestors. The road almost seemed haunted.

Natchez-Trace-Parkway-918x689 natchez trace

They were old graves, though, since the Chickasaws and the other four tribes were driven from their homelands to Oklahoma Territory between 1830 and 1850. More than half of them died on this forced march, which was called the Trail of Tears. (You can give a lot of credit to our seventh president, Andrew Jackson, for this.)

My great-grandfather, Benjamin Crooks Burney, was born on the Trail of Tears. He went on to become Governor of the Chickasaw Nation in Oklahoma Territory.

HISTORY, TAKE TWO: That’s a brief outline of your 19th-century American Indian heritage and mine. It looks like a tale of tragedy and pure victimhood, with a villain whose initials are A.J.

The trouble is, that’s just part of the story.

Growing up in a 1950s culture of TV and movie Westerns about noble cowboys and savage, bloodthirsty Indians, I was always a little disappointed in the Chickasaws. As far as I could tell, they never scalped anybody, like the fearsome Comanches — which was kind of a shame.

They were called “civilized” because they were trying to adapt to the Anglo settlers’ way of life by dressing like them, learning English, and settling down to farm the land. That was a relatively progressive idea at the time — that the native peoples could assimilate and live among the encroaching settlers. There’s something poignant about the Five Civilized Tribes’ efforts to become “good” Indians, to appease, to pass. But it didn’t work.

The demands of generations of Anglo settlers — pushy and restless and greedy for their own homesteads — eventually destroyed the Tribes’ ability to hold on to their own land. (And, here, let’s note: You and I are both also descended from those pushy English and Scots-Irish immigrants. There are no clean hands in history for any of us.)

Someone in the Chickasaw side of my family also researched Benjamin Crooks Burney’s birth.  His family traveled at least part of the way to Oklahoma by steamship, accompanied by their 17 slaves. My great-grandfather, who was born on the ship, was named for its captain.

Benjamin Crooks Burney, my great-grandfather

Benjamin Crooks Burney, my great-grandfather

The Trail of Tears on steamship, accompanied by slaves? Like the other civilized tribes, the Chickasaws had adopted the surrounding Deep South’s acceptance of slavery.

HISTORY, TAKE THREE:  I’m fascinated by these family stories because they intersect with great historic upheavals and controversies. Looking back, we can “see” our ancestors as a part of the history we study in school and read about in later years.

The more you look at it, though, the more complicated it is. There aren’t any pure stories here, no pure heroes or villains. These are very American stories — or very human stories — shot through with tragedies and betrayals, bloodshed and distant horizons. Human beings have a tendency to try to survive and succeed, no matter what. Sometimes, it takes the distance of hundreds of years to understand how brutal we can be to one another. Or maybe it just takes paying attention to what’s going on in the world around us.

Of course, I’d like to draw some lessons from all of this, since that’s what grandparents like to do. Here are a few:

  1. If you’re ever feeling smug or sanctimonious about something, you’re probably ill-informed. Keep digging. (I should admit here that smugness and sanctimoniousness are two of my least favorite traits.)
  2. So, maybe he wasn’t a pure villain, but Andrew Jackson needs to get wiped off the $20 bill. He’s been on there since 1928 — and 88 years is long enough for anyone.
  3. The monicker “Redskins” is degrading and insulting. I hope their team keeps losing.

Love you, Coco

(Copyright 2016 by Ruth Pennebaker)







  1. Sheryl · July 13, 2016

    What a fascinating family history you have, Ruth. Nice to be able to recount these stories to Ellie.

  2. Brette Sember · July 13, 2016

    This is fascinating. It is sometimes easy to forget what a mixed up mash up most of us are. One group of ancestors didn’t get along with another. And it is kind of amazing to look at your ancestors in terms of the times they lived in too. It’s great you are sharing this with Ellie.

  3. Paul Babb · July 13, 2016

    Very interesting, Ruth. Once a week I have lunch with a writer friend who is also part Chickasaw. This weekend he’s attending a Chickasaw dance that begins at midnight and ends at dawn. Perhaps you’ll run into him.