For many years when I was growing up, the whole family would pile into the old family car every summer and make the trip over the mountains to visit my Aunt Betty and Uncle Elmo. They lived in Oklahoma, not far from the Cherokee Indian Reservation, and ran a small gift shop and general store just outside the reservation lands. We would even sometimes visit some the buffalo farms scattered among the rolling hills not far from where my aunt and uncle lived.
I grew up knowing I was part Cherokee. It comes from my mother's side of the family and I can only imagine what my mother's ancestors must have been like. My mother was many things, good and bad, but the thing I remember most about her is what a strong spirited woman she was.
At least one branch of the Ownby family tree was made up of full-blooded Cherokee and my grandparents even traveled from North Carolina by covered wagon...from an area where the Eastern Band of Cherokees remain today... to eventually settle in the mountains of Arkansas where my mother, eight siblings and her parents lived in a log cabin barely big enough for all of them. Mother was one of the oldest and worked hard on the farm to help put food on the table.
During the summers when we would make the trek to Oklahoma, I would get a chance to visit with some of mother's relatives from the Cunningham side of the family and I knew right away they were descendants of the Western band of Cherokees. Those Cherokee were the people who survived the Trail of Tears and settled on the reservation set up for them in Oklahoma. Today I wonder if my Oklahoma cousins actually lived on the reservation back then...maybe my sister knows...but I always felt like I had stepped into another world when I would visit.
I can remember helping out in the general store and shyly hiding behind the counter to watch the people from the reservation as they would come in to do business with my aunt and uncle. Black hair and deeply tanned skin wouldn't match my auburn hair and very fair skin but still our spirits called to one another and I knew in my heart my roots would always be with the Cherokee people.
For many years one of my favorite souvenirs was a small indian doll dressed in buckskin dress that was given to me on one of my visits. I'm not sure where that doll is now, but I still have the cherry colored doll house dining room set my Aunt Betty gave me for my birthday one year. It had belonged to her mother and is now more than 75 years old but I still have it...a reminder of my annual trips back to the reservation and a step back in time to the world of the Cherokee...