New Native American genealogy center planned
Dr. Charles Knife Chief remembers searching for information about his Native American ancestry.
The medical doctor from Tahlequah said he hit a roadblock in his search because many Native Americans were displaced from their original lands and sent to what is now Oklahoma. Also, Knife Chief said so much of Native American history is
often passed down through oral history and genealogy documentation is not always available.
Such roadblocks could be overcome through the creation of a Native American genealogy center to be housed at the new First Americans Museum in Oklahoma City.
James Pepper Henry, the museum’s director and chief executive officer, and members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter- day Saints, recently announced plans for the new center.
They said it will be created through a collaboration between the museum and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ non-profit FamilySearch, which has what is considered the world’s largest genealogy database.
Michelle Magnusson, a spokeswoman for the Latter-Day Saints’ Oklahoma Communications Council, said Utah-based FamilySearch offers an online software resource for individuals to search historical records, create a personal family tree and connect into a global tree. They also may store photographs, videos and other memories in the archives.
She said FamilySearch offers an accessible way for people to start finding their ancestors at no cost to the user.
Pepper Henry and church leaders held a special gathering Sunday at the museum to announce the collaboration. Kyle S. McKay, elder of the church, also took that opportunity to tell those gathered that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter- day Saints is donating $2 million toward the new center.
Magnusson said it will be an interactive center where individuals may explore their family history and research their ancestors regardless of their cultural heritage. She said it will be staffed with volunteers specially trained to support those seeking out their indigenous roots.
Tom Gray, regional president of the church in Oklahoma, said his faith group’s donation will help fund the often expensive technology needed to get the genealogy center up and running. He said the technology will come from FamilySearch.
Gray said there are more than 40,000 Latter-day Saints in Oklahoma and many are “first Americans.”
“So we are diverse and we are many different things but, hopefully, the main thing we will be is your friend,” Gray said.
Pepper Henry said even before the First Americans Museum opened, people asked him and others associated with the museum how they could determine if they have Native American ancestry or how to expand on the Native American genealogy information they already have.
He said the genealogy center, to be housed in the museum’s welcome center, will help answer many of those questions.
Pepper Henry said it’s important to note that the museum’s center will interface with documents and records that FamilySearch has already amassed. He also said the museum will have complete oversight over the genealogy center and there are no plans to try to obtain any tribal rolls records, which is something some tribes may be concerned about.
Pepper Henry told about visiting the FamilySearch headquarters in Utah and thinking he would be there only a short time.
“You can go down a rabbit hole pretty easily there. We thought we would be there for 45 minutes. Six and a half hours later, we finally were leaving,” he said.
The museum director, a member of the Kaw Nation, said he learned something he didn’t know — that he also has connections to the Iowa tribe.
“I was astounded,” he said. Meanwhile, Knife Chief, a member of the Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma and a bishop in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter- day Saints, was among those who attended Sunday’s gathering. He said the genealogy center will provide a huge boost to the genealogical efforts of people searching for their Native American roots.
After hitting the initial roadblock, Knife Chief eventually was able to find out information about one of his ancestors who lived in Nebraska. He said he found what he was searching for through some earlyday U.S. census work that had been conducted with the tribes.
But Knife Chief said not everyone will have such success on their own and the center will be a great resource for them.
“I was fortunate that one of my ancestors, my great grandpa, was a chief and the first Knife Chief in the Indian Territory. We have his ‘X’ and then his name on there (census rolls), so we know directly where we were from and what time,” Knife Chief said.
“Sometimes, things can get lost. Sometimes things can get embellished, so it’s great to have documentation. This (genealogy center) is going to help people who are afraid that they’re not going to be able to do anything or find anything.”
Getting past a ‘brick wall’
Knife Chief and the other Latterday Saints leaders at the recent gathering said members of the church believe God ordained the family unit to be together for eternity, and genealogy is therefore extremely important to them.
Along those lines, Oklahoma Latter- day Saints, in conjunction with a nationwide effort, launched a genealogy project with Black genealogists and historians across the state to help transcribe and digitize data from the Freedman’s Bureau in 2015.
The goal of the historic project was to help Black Americans connect with their ancestry and help them break through the so- called “1870 brick wall.”
The phrase describes the barrier many Black Americans encountered when they could trace their ancestry no further than the 1870 U.S. Census — the first census to list free slaves with surnames.
The Latter- day Saints-led project helped break open a treasure trove of ancestral documents by helping to transcribe and digitize 1 million documents and records from the Freedmen’s Bureau, which was a government agency that aided slaves after emancipation.