A few years ago, I came across a blog entitled “Diggin’ Up Bones.” It was extremely well done, recording the research odyssey of its author, Nita Ighner. Her journey took her to the Carolinas where she learned some very interesting things about her family history. She did archival research as well oral history–all quite impressive. Ighner is a college professor teaching American Sign Language at a college in Southern California. She is the author of an ASL study guide. She’s also an accomplished artist in several media and holds a patent on a doll that she designed.
More recently, Nita has started off on another path in her family history – exploring her Native American roots. On this journey she has provided us once again the benefit of her learning two new books published this summer.
GeneaBlogie recently had the honor and privilege ask Nita some questions about her research and her books.
GeneaBlogie: Tell us a little bit about how your own search for your ancestors got started. What was the one thing, if there was one thing, that compelled you to look for them?
Nita Ighner: I didn’t wonder too much about my mother’s side of the family because she always told us family stories and I knew my grandparents and all of my mother’s siblings. However, my father was an only child who was raised by his grandparents and we knew only knew his father. He later introduced us (I have two brothers and two sisters) to his mother, who he never lived with. My father’s side of the family was a mystery to us for years. That’s the reason I started my search 20 years ago.
G: You had a terrific blog called Diggin’ Up Bones, which chronicled your search for ancestors on your father’s side of the family. It revealed some interesting things. Can you tell us about some of the most interesting parts about searching for ancestors on your father‘s side?
Nita: Thank you! On the 1880 Census for Newberry, South Carolina I found the names John and Nancey Ighner. I wasn’t sure how or even if they were apart of my family, but I was hoping that they were since we knew nothing beyond my small family. On that census record were listed three young mulatto granddaughters living with John and Nancey named Carrie, Clara, and Sophina. There was no indication as to who their parents were. For some reason, those girls became my obsession. I had to find out who they were and what had happened with them. Well, years later when I did make contact with family members in Newberry, S.C., I was invited to my first family reunion. My two sisters and I attended the reunion in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Just the sight of the family name – Eigner – on the marquee made me extremely proud and extremely emotional. After our first family meeting I was approached by a cousin who handed me a video tape. She told me that her 97 year old mother – Erleen Eigner Paschal – had heard that I was going to be attending the reunion and wanted me to watch the tape. Erleen also sent me a message inviting me to visit her in North Carolina as soon as possible because she didn’t know how long she would be with us. A few days after having returned home from the reunion I decided to watch the tape. On that tape Erleen narrated the family’s story. I could not believe my ears. It turned out that my 97 year old cousin was the daughter of Clara, one of the three granddaughters on the 1880 Census! Needless to say, I flew to visit her immediately. What a darling woman she was. It is because of her that I know so much about my family today. She was able to give me many names and tell me many remarkable family stories. I found out that the reason the three girls’ mother was not listed on the census record was because she had died of Consumption. Their father was not listed because he was white. Erleen remembered her grandfather very clearly. My cousin’s father – Asa Eigner – was my great uncle. He was the brother of my great-grandfather John Ighner Jr., and John Jr., was the grandfather who raised my father. I’ll never forget what Erleen told me after my visit. She said, “I loved you from the first time I saw you.” I truly felt the same of her. Erleen died at the age of 107. In addition to all of that wonderfulness, I found and ordered copies of my ancestors’ slave owner’s Will. In there I found the names of my g-g-g-grandparents John Eigner l and his mother Adeline.
G: You followed Diggin’ Up Bones with another terrific blog called Erma’s Roots or On the Other Side. As the name suggested, it was about the search for ancestors on your mother side of the family. What were some most interesting parts about searching for your mother’s ancestors?
Nita: Thank you again! I was amazed to find my great-grandfather Wesley Galloway and his brother Henry on the 1870 Grant, Arkansas Census. I also found my great-grandparents’ – Wesley and Josephine Galloway – wedding certificate application.
G: One of the things that I found interesting was that you seem to know a little more about your father’s African ancestry than his Native American ancestry, but on your mother’s side you know more about her Native American ancestry than you do her African ancestry. Can you tell us about about that?
Nita: There is a difference in my family search methods because even though I know that my g-g-grandmother Nancy Horsey Suber Eigner was half Native American and was brought to Newberry, SC on horseback by her father when she was age 5 then sold (tragic), no one knows which tribe she belonged. The only thing we have to hang onto is that Nancy remembered her father’s name, which was Horsey and that he would call out to his horse the word(s) “Gullapalucha”. Of course that’s phonetically spelled. I have been conducting my own study to try and find the tribe my father’s family is from by cross-referencing the word(s) with Native American vocabulary that might appear similar in its spelling. I’m still searching. Erleen was also able to tell me that my g-g-grandmother Harriet Darby Eigner was Ibo and Gullah.
As for my mother’s side of the family, it’s always been known that my grandfather’s line is part Choctaw. I’ve only gone up to 1870’s through my grandmother’s line. There’s still much to do.
G: Now, in the course of your initial research into your family’s history, you actually went to South Carolina and met people on the ground, so to speak. Did you meet any descendants of former slave owners, and if so, how did they treat you?
Nita: Yes. I did visit South Carolina many times for my research and to visit my newly found family. It has been FANTASTIC! They have been amazingly kind. However, I haven’t met any of the slave owner’s descendents in South Carolina. For several years, however, I did – at one time – keep up regular communications with one of the slave owner’s descendents by phone. She lives in Mississippi. She was very sweet and invited me to stay with her family for a vacation. I never did. She also sent me a photo of her ancestors.
G: I want to turn now to your two books which recently have been published. They’re available through Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble’s BN.com. We’ll talk more about the availability of your books in just a minute. The two books are first, “Choctaw Minor Freedman Enhanced,” which contains Choctaw tribal enrollment figures and a few other things we’ll talk about in a minute as well. And the second book is “The 1900 African-American census in the Seminole and Muscogee nations.” Let’s take the first book, the Choctaw enrollment numbers. There may be some who are not familiar as to what your title refers. What is meant by “Freedman” in this context?
Nita: The term Freedman – in reference to my books – refers to those of African heritage who were slaves owned by Native Americans such as the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek and Seminole Nations.
G: And what is meant by “Minor” Freedman?
Nita: “Minor Freedman” was the term given to a child or children born to those freed slaves. They were born between the years of 1899 and 1906.
G: The title of the second book also alludes to “slaveowners.” Is it true that the Choctaw owned slaves?
Nita: A quick answer for your question is ‘Yes indeed! Choctaw Indians owned slaves.’ I must say that the Choctaws weren’t the only indigenous people to own slaves. In fact, all five tribes of the Civilized Indian Nations owned slaves. And as if that weren’t enough, many slaves marched the Trail of Tears along side their owners. Your question is very important. For years, many African-American families – including mine – have passed down little snippets of stories or the memory of physical features that allude to the possibility of sharing Indian blood. Sometimes those stories take us only so far then leave us wondering as did the ancient world maps that hinted at monsters beyond a certain point without one bit of proof. Due to the assimilation of European cultural behaviors, many Indian tribes proudly owned slaves. It doesn’t matter if only 3% or 8% of them owned slaves, it didn’t make a slaves life any better. And it doesn’t matter how they purportedly treated their slaves well, a slave owner is a slave owner. It’s important for us to know that it was the institution of slavery that most likely made it possible for us to claim Indian heritage.
There are a few people out there working hard to keep us informed about this part of our history. Angela Y. Walton-Raji has done an astounding job for years on the subject. She manages the African-Native American Genealogy Forum on Afrigeneas web site as well as taking on many other duties. The information is there for all who need it. We just have to look for it.
G: In the second book, you present the 1900 African-American census in the Seminole and Muscogee nations. Why is this particular census is important?
Nita: I chose the 1900 Seminole and Muscogee for my second book for two reasons. One, I’m simply chipping away at the massive amount of information that’s out there and trying to make it more convenient for those who are in need of it. Two, I find that family names from the 1900 Census seem to be easily remembered by our older family members than the names prior to that time.
G: Is there some present significance or relevance to the Seminole and Muscogee nations’ relationship with African-Americans?
Nita: From what I’ve read, the Seminole and Muscogee Nations were more culturally interactive with slaves to the point that some became leaders and scouts.
G: On your website which is www.soreheadbear.com, you seem to draw some parallels between indigenous North American tribes and African tribes. What do you think those parallels are and how have they informed the modern cultures of Native Americans and African Americans?
Nita: The earth exudes soul. I’ve found with indigenous groups around the world and particularly those of the Americas and of Africa that the reception of that soul speaks out in very similar ways. How many times have we said to ourselves and maybe to others, “Those guys are just like us!” when we recognize a sameness in one another indigenous groups? Whether people like it, believe it, or can’t even think about it, there is something of ourselves that we can readily see in others.
G: There seems to be a rift of sorts between some of the Native American tribes and their African ancestored members. What do you know about that and how do you feel about?
Nita: Simply said, assimilation is a bitch. It was all orchestrated and, boy, did it play out the way in which it was intended to. Andrew Jackson purposed a dilution of Native American blood by strongly suggesting that as many Europeans as possible marry into the Indian tribes. Why? For one thing, those European marriages assured the future ownership of American land. No treaties would need to be drawn for what would already be possessed by the right people. Also, by discouraging the mixture of Africans and Indians, the reservations would not become a safe haven for those who were brought here strictly for the purpose of carrying out the duties of servitude. And so, the idea was pretty much bought.
G: You are an artist by nature and profession. How have your artistic sensibilities influenced your search for ancestors?
Nita: That’s an exciting question. Beyond merely knowing my background, my art seems to bring forth the rhythm of my heritance without any conflicts. I can see that there is no fight in me as to who I am. There is only a truthful harmony that pours forth from my ancestors. If I want to know them, all I have to do is pay attention to what comes out of me. That is how they speak to me.
G: Have you met any Native American cousins over the years since you began your research? Tell us about that.
Nita: No I haven’t met any Native American cousins. That would be interesting. However, I have met several people of the Choctaw Nation that have asked me if I was part Choctaw. Confirmation does have a way of feeding the soul.
G: If you haven’t met any Native American cousins, do you expect to and what will you say or do when you do meet them?
Nita: That would be exciting. I think I want to be surprised by it.
G: I want to talk for a minute about the books – the logistics of the books. They’re published by your own imprint, sorehead bear press, only in e-book format. So they’re available for Barnes & Noble’s NOOK and Amazon.com’s Kindle. Did you have any trepidation about publishing only in the e-book format?
Nita: My initial intent was to publish them in hardbound. It wasn’t until I had already put my information in book form that I realized how convenient it would be to go eBook with them. I have a NookColor and LOVE being able to read books that would otherwise be much too heavy to carry around. I can do my research wherever I go. And needless to say, I can regulate the price and make my work much more accessible to the readers. It’s a great tool. I’m able to search specific names, highlight, bookmark, etc. EBooks are absolutely wonderful!
G: I have always admired your work ethic. What kind of discipline did it take to sit down and create these books and how long did you think about them before you got down to the business of researching and writing?
Nita: I believe my ability to do this kind of detailed work is just a part of my quirky personality. I do the same with very detailed art. I get an idea and I immediately go for it. I usually come right in from work and get on the computer. Sometimes it can be everyday for a month or several months. I tear away at my purpose until it’s done. And I have to admit that sometimes in the midst of it I say to myself, “WHAT WAS I THINKING?”
G: What kind of reception have you gotten in the African-American and Native American communities about your project?
Nita: To be truthful, only a couple of people have encouraged me with their admiration for my work. I don’t let a lack of support influence my desire to compile and publish as much information as I can. I’m meeting my own goals and that’s what keeps me going.
G: It’s quite apparent from your work that family means a lot to you; for example, the website is dedicated to your grandfather, the Bishop Joseph Galloway. And you’ve made mention in several places of your brother, the renowned composer Benard Ighner. Have you gotten lots of support from your family on this project?
Nita: My Uncle Alfred who is the last of nine siblings in my mother’s family is very supportive and excited about my projects. My own siblings are extremely supportive and though they might get lost in my genealogical ramblings, they listen anyway. We’ve all been blessed with talent of some sort and we adore one another’s work. My mother – who passed away 9 years ago – raised us to be supportive. My oldest sister Jo writes and paints. Benard, my oldest brother continues to leave the imprint of his musical genius on the world. My sister Sandy was the first African-American woman to sing with Sergio Mendes and has since sang all over the world. And my youngest brother Keith is a phenomenal bassist and composer whose work was recorded by Freddie Hubbard when he was just 17. So, when you look at it, this is probably just me doing my thing. And they are supportive even still. My mother had a saying when we shared our projects with her. She’d say, “I’m so far in your corner that you can’t even get in there.” And that’s how my siblings and I are to one another.
G: When can we expect more publications from Nita Ighner?
Nita: I’m working on three things right now. Two of them are genealogical in nature, concerning the Chickasaw Nation and the slaves in South Carolina. And I’ve just started a book of fictional short stories that will also be published on eBooks. So, you’ll be seeing something else from me soon.
Nita: Thank you so much for this wonderful opportunity to talk about my work. For someone whose work I have admired for such a long time, it is quite a compliment to be interviewed by you. Thank you again.
G: Thank you! It was a privilege.
Read Nita’s books
Learn more about the black members of tribes in America:
August 21, 2011 Sunday at 9:44 pm