Longtime base employee honors Cherokee Indian ancestry

  • Published
  • By Beth Anspach
  • 88th Air Base Wing Public Affairs

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio - Most Native American families can trace their roots back to a time in the United States when their lives were very different. But many are losing the culture and heritage that defined their ancestors because the stories aren’t always passed down.

November is Native American Heritage Month, and the theme for 2021 is “Gifts of Our Ancestors: Celebrating Indigenous Knowledge and Cultures.”

Ruth Ward was born in Dayton after her mother, who was half-Cherokee Indian and half-white, moved there from her family’s generational home in Tennessee to find work. Ward’s father came to Dayton from Hazard, Kentucky, for similar reasons but also to avoid working in the coal mines, as nearly all his male relatives had done for generations.

“My dad was the only one in his family to graduate high school,” Ward said. “My mom got a job at a meat-packing house here in Dayton, and one of my dad’s cousins introduced them.”

Ward knows the stories of her parents. Her grandmother was a full-blooded Cherokee Indian, but she doesn’t know very much about the family background other than they remained in Tennessee after the forced relocations of more than 16,000 Cherokee in May 1938.

“The only thing I know is what my grandmother told my mom about that time,” Ward said. “Our family and many others hid while the government was evicting everyone.”

That event, now known as the “Trail of Tears,” is what has inspired Ward to dive deeper into the history of her family. She has always known she was part-Cherokee, but historical events like this one have her hungry to find out more.

Ward, who resides in Medway, is a cook supervisor at Wright-Patterson Medical Center’s cafeteria. She has worked at the base since 1982.

Ward’s grandmother, Myrtle Dotson, lived her entire life in the same place in Tennessee. However, she was bedridden for all Ward’s life after a fall left her unable to walk. She passed away when Ward was just 6.

Though Ward was never able to hear many family stories from her grandmother, her mother passed down some of what she knows.

“The family grew up very poor in Tennessee,” Ward said. “All the women in my family worked to raise and grow their own food, make their clothing and quilts, and care for the children.”

Ward said her mother was always very independent and never planned to move to Ohio to meet a husband. With only a sixth-grade education, Ward’s mother was determined to work hard to support herself.

“There wasn’t anything my mom couldn’t do,” she said. “From crocheting to carpentry to quilting, cooking and gardening, she learned everything she needed to survive.”

The female members of Ward’s extended family also passed these abilities down to their daughters, but Ward admits she didn’t pay as much attention as she wished she had.

Those survival skills had been important for generations of Cherokee Indians since women traditionally worked to sustain their families, while the men spent a great deal of their time hunting.

During the 20th century, the United States saw technology evolve, and the roles of women and men became blurred. Many people in Kentucky, Tennessee and the entire South wanted more for themselves and better lives for their children.

“My mom never had her driver’s license,” Ward said. “She just walked and took the bus.”

For Ward and her siblings, visiting their family home in Tennessee as children seemed like an adventure. They visited three to four times a year in the summer.

When Ward was grown, she took her mom to Cherokee, North Carolina, which is federally recognized as capital of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians, to learn more about their heritage.

“No one in my family has started researching our history, so I sent an email to the Tribal Council in Cherokee to get started,” Ward said.

While awaiting a reply, Ward is looking into and learning more about her family, and events such as the “Trail of Tears”-forced march of over 1,000 miles, during which more than 1,000 elderly, very young and sick people died.

“It makes me sad,” Ward said. “A lot of elderly people didn’t make it, and their families had to bury them along the trail and keep walking. I can’t imagine how people made it all that long way in the winter.”