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  • Writer's pictureRegina Trailweaver

A Small Amount of DNA May Go A Long Way: My Last Name and My Ancestry

At the age of 8, my parents placed my younger sister, almost 7, but technically still 6, and myself in the care of my boyfriend’s grandmother for the flight from Sierra Leone through Dakar, Senegal to New York. In New York, Chuckie’s grandmother handed us off to a kind flight attendant who occasionally checked on us until we landed in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Angie and I were greeted and welcomed by grandparents we did not remember. We had met them as toddlers before we moved to Germany and then Freetown. The plan involved a level of trust in human beings and systems which I am not sure even exists anymore. And the goal was for Angie and I to attend “American” school, a first for us, from the start of the year, rather than trying to jump into an entirely new educational system mid semester.

The disruption my parents were attempting to bypass happened anyway. After a month at Bartlesville Elementary School, my parents arrived with my two youngest siblings, briefly visited with my mother’s family and then scooped us up and off we flew again, this time ending up with my father’s family for a few weeks where we attended the same school my father had. Then there was a blissful reprieve staying with my father’s best friend from childhood in northern Virginia. While the children in that home went off to school every day, we stayed home, eating heavily buttered toast with cinnamon sugar and fantasizing about the school where we hoped to stay more than a few weeks. With lightening speed, my parents did indeed buy a house in the area and “us kids”, as we called ourselves, did end up in the closest local public school for the rest of that school year. (The next year, a new school in our neighborhood was finished and we transferred there.)

But I am so grateful and will always hold dear the month I spent with my grandparents in Oklahoma. My grandmother sewed my sister and I dresses for every day of the week as well as a full and fashionable wardrobe for our barbie dolls. I met my aunt and her children, my four cousins, and enjoyed the constant ebb and flow of their company at my grandparents’ house. These cousins explained to me what was “in” as far as American culture: fashion, music, language, and most mesmerizing of all, TV. I thought their accent was funny and was surprised that they thought I had an accent. As foreign as this world was to me, I felt that I belonged. My grandmother took us to a rodeo and to a state fair. Like our cousins, she had to explain every detail of this new and incomprehensible world to us. My grandparents owned a taxi cab company and my grandmother, in her avant grade way, often worked from home. One day, sitting in her home office at her desk, she called me to her side. From one of the drawers in her now vintage metal office desk, she drew a photo. I was stunned as I stared at what appeared to be a family portrait of a Native American tribe, in full traditional dress. My whole being reverberated as she simply said: “This is a picture of your grandfather’s great grandparents with all of their children and grandchildren.” She pointed at one of the youngest children: “This is your grandfather’s grandfather.”

When I tried to ask my mother about the photo, she laughed it off and said, “Everyone in Oklahoma likes to say they have a little Indian blood.” Obviously, this was before we knew that Native American, not Indian, was the correct designation. Just two years later, I read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown and learned how politically incorrect most Americans had been for most of our history. I was upset and depressed by this well researched documentation of genocide, as if the Constitution I was studying in school did not exist. (Yes, we studied the original writings of American democracy in fifth grade!) Again, every fiber of my being resonated with this epic tale of cultures meeting and then clashing, discrimination, betrayal, and dehumanization of an ancient people that Europeans rarely bothered to understand.

Fast forward: marriage, children, and divorce. Right here in Vermont, I was fortunate to meet a Native American from the Lakota Sioux tribe and with a group of fellow seekers, we participated in the peace pipe ceremony and learned about many other aspects of Native American beliefs. Our Lakota friend introduced us to a Navajo medicine man who led us through the peyote ceremony. I was struck by the strong sense of kinship and affinity that different tribes appeared to have with one another. This feeling of connection between Native Americans from different tribes, while I am sure is not universal, was something that I observed and experienced many times over the years in many other situations. We now know that when the Europeans first arrived, Native American tribes were already in conflict over resources in the Northeast. So the natural bond that now seems to exist is likely a result of persecution and deprivation and was simply necessary for survival.

One of the outcomes of my divorce was the decision to change my name. Releasing my married name was easy. Figuring out what my new name would be was more troubling. In an effort to free myself from any patriarchal lineage, I combined my maiden name (my father’s last name which is Trail) with my mother’s maiden name (her father’s last name which is Weaver). I thought this way it was neither father’s last name now but truly mine. I celebrated the day I legally took my new name. It turns out this is a common Native American practice…the search for one’s own name. However, it came with some new stressors! No one could spell my new last name and it was also often mispronounced. People also frequently asked me if I had Native American ancestry. I learned to slowly and carefully say and spell out my name and to simply say “no” when asked about my heritage.

Meanwhile my brother was working hard on researching our genealogy and shortly after I started living with my new last name, he discovered that our great great great great grandmother was a Delaware, Lenni Lenapi, princess who had married a Weaver in Missouri. Together they moved to Oklahoma which was still a territory and a safe haven for many Native Americans as well as white Americans who were married to Native Americans. I tried to find out more about this tribe but there was little information available. The Lenapi were never formally recognized by the American government but lived and worked closely with the Wichita tribe and then the Cherokee nation in Oklahoma. My mother again brushed off this possibility. I was bewildered by her lack of interest in our Native American ancestry.

Soon after, I met a woman whose grandmother was Delaware. We were both surprised by how much we looked alike with dark blonde hair and green eyes. I admitted that I felt hesitant to broadcast my Lenapi ancestry: “It must be a tiny amount of DNA but I have always loved the culture, especially the spiritual and artistic aspects.” She assured me that I can and should claim my ancestry: “It is encouraged! It used to be that we were scared and tried to hide it. The goal was to assimilate. But now we can be open and learn from those who have held the teachings.” This helped me to understand my mother’s reticence as she had grown up in a time and a place when the discrimination against “Indians” was severe. I feel grateful that I live in a time and place where I can not only feel safe but proud. Of course, part of my safety comes from being mostly white and enjoying all of the privileges that come with looking white.

A few years later, my sister who was also researching our ancestry, found that my grandmother’s side of the family also had Native American heritage: a Seneca queen named Aliquippa. “An influential leader of the Seneca Nation...and ally of the British during the time of the French and Indian War…Died 1754.” She was sometimes described as having Delaware heritage as well. She represented the Seneca nation in the Iroquois League and seems to have advocated for the Delaware tribe with the British and the colonialists. So both of my mother parent’s had Native American heritage. The ancestor on my grandfather’s side was fully Lenapi, a princess, while my grandmother’s royal ancestor was Seneca and perhaps also part Lenapi or at least had very close ties with the Delaware.

It seems more than a coincidence that many years after my grandparents died, a Delaware Cultural Center was built directly across the street from the house where they lived and where my sister and I had stayed with them. Eventually when people asked me if I had Native American heritage, I just started saying yes. I only explain the direct origin of my last name after I get to know someone and know it will be worth it to tell the whole story. When strangers ask, I no longer explain that my last name has nothing to do with my ancestry…because maybe it indirectly does! All those years of feeling a deep connection on a visceral level and an upwelling of compassion in my heart may have literally been the 3.5% of my DNA. As we say in yoga, listen to the body. The body never lies.

Fortunately, there is a wealth of information about the Seneca Tribe and the Iroquois Nation. Thanks to the Lenni Lenape Cultural Center and many other more current publications and documentaries, I have recently been able to find out a lot more about the Delaware too. Lenni Lenape means “original people” or “grandfathers.” Research suggests that they are indeed one of the oldest tribes and many northeastern tribes, such as the Mohicans, trace their ancestry back to the Lenni Lenape. The Delaware tribe was nomadic and they were known as peacekeepers who made every effort to get along with the white immigrants. However, when the settlers became aggressive or murderous, the Lenapi were successful at moving south, where they allied with the Cherokee, north where they lived in Canada, and then west with both the Cherokee from the south and the Canadian branch from the north as tensions and conflict escalated. Both the Lenni Lenape and the Seneca, along with many other tribes who originally lived on the east coast, still carry on the sacred and social tradition of Nikanikawe, the dance of friends. And one final note that fleshes out my brother’s discovery of a Weaver who married a Delaware princess in Missouri: “One band of Delawares branched off in 1793 and settled in present-day Missouri. Referred to as the Absentee Delaware, this band became the ancestors of the modern Delaware Tribe of Oklahoma.”

For the full story of Queen Aliquippa:

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