My Family Story May be Your Family Story, Too
James (Sog) Coates
I am descended from two lineages that represent the diversity and the interactions of various segments of the Cherokee Nation. On my great-grandfather’s side, ancestors include the Martin, Hildebrand, and Spears families in particular. These families represented some of the more acculturated members of the Nation. My great-grandfather was an original enrollee named James Coates, who had been a ranch hand on the Watt Mayes ranch previous to allotment, and who became a town marshal in Pryor Creek, Oklahoma after the allotment. In 1914, he was killed in the line of duty while trying to make an arrest. To this day, he is the only law enforcement officer from Pryor who has ever been killed in the line of duty.
James Coates left his widow and eight living children, the second oldest of whom was my grandfather, James “Sog” Coates, also an original enrollee. My great-grandmother was Susie (Sunday) Coates, descended from a Delaware County family associated with the Oaks Mission. On her side, the ancestral family names include Sixkiller, Hogshooter,and Harlin, most of whom were recognized as fullbloods and traditionalists, and who were Keetowahs, a very different segment of the Cherokee population from my great-grandfather’s. Grandma Susie attended the Cherokee Female Seminary but did not graduate after both her parents died. At that time, at age sixteen, she became the sole support of her younger sister and took employment as a housekeeper at the Watt Mayes ranch where she met my great-grandfather. After his death, the burden of supporting the family fell hard on her and her older two children, my grandfather and my great-aunt Jennie.
Together, they worked for years to make sure the younger children finished school and that some even went on to college. As happened in many families of that era when there were children that essentially spanned two generations, the older ones such as my grandfather spoke Cherokee, but the younger ones (who were born and/or raised after Oklahoma statehood) did not.
My grandfather, Sog Coates, joined the Army and served in World War I, fighting in Belgium and France in a company of young men from Oklahoma who were predominantly Cherokee and Choctaw. Because he was bi-lingual, he acted as a translator for many of the Cherokee men in that company who did not speak English. After the war, he returned to northeastern Oklahoma but was unable to find work since the family allotments had been sold in order to keep going.
By the early 1920s, he left the family again and moved to California where he found work in the oil refineries in Harbor City and Long Beach in southern California. He sent money back home to continue to support the family until the youngest kids were grown. By the late 1920s, he was writing to a non-Indian woman from Pryor, and when he asked her to marry him, my grandmother agreed to join him in southern California. They had two sons, the youngest of whom was my father who was born in Compton, CA.
By the early 1950s, however, the family returned to Pryor, Oklahoma and stayed there. That’s where my parents met and married and where I was born. But when I was still a young child, my parents headed back to California where my father attended grad school in San Diego and then found work as a high school math teacher in McKinleyville, a small rural community in the far northern Redwood Country of coastal California. I discovered later that locally, McKinleyville was informally referred to as “Tulsa-by-the sea” because there were so many transplanted Oklahomans there. I also later discovered that I went to school with some kids who were eligible and later became Cherokee Nation citizens. None of us knew at the time that the others were also Cherokee.
Ultimately, my brother, uncle, cousin, and I returned to Oklahoma. They all reside there full time, and I have homes in both Oklahoma and California. I share this more detailed family story with you because as I have become knowledgeable about the At Large Cherokee citizens - whether one is in Los Angeles or in Oklahoma City - I began to understand that my family’s story is not unique.
There is a great deal of diversity in the stories of the At Large Cherokee Nation citizens, but mine is rather typical in its elements, which may be part of yours, too:
Our families left because of economic hardship.
They left in the 1920s through the present day, not simply in the 1930s as anecdote would have us believe.
They have moved back and forth between wherever they ended up and Oklahoma.
They retained ties to family members at “home” and they continued to be invested and concerned about the well-being of people remaining within Cherokee Nation boundaries.
At some point, they often returned home for good, just as many of us will.
Over the years, as part of dissertation and post-doctoral research, I have conducted about 160 formal recorded interviews with Cherokees, and have engaged in informal conversations with countless others about their family backgrounds and their continuing relationships with the tribe and its communities. I have incorporated my growing understandings of who the At Large people are as part of the Cherokee Nation History Course. I have taught that course to thousands of At Large citizens and have received literally hundreds of letters, emails, and verbal comments to the effect that participants have a better understanding now of how they and their families fit into the great Cherokee story.
The At Large people continue to be a part of the great Cherokee story. As the majority of the citizenry, the contemporary story of the At Large Cherokees is as valid a story (stories, really) as those from within the Cherokee Nation boundaries.
To the At Large Cherokee Nation citizens: I know you and I know your stories. I see you in all of your diversity and complexity. In my eyes, you are not an anecdote. You are not people who need to be validated by those from within the boundaries in order to be “real.” You already know that you are. You deserve an advocate who will make sure that others within the Cherokee Nation know you, too. The real you.
Julia Coates and her father