Little Traverse Bay Band using newly available 1950 Census data for listings and records
Pauline Bolton has been using a stack of census filing cabinets, dating back to 1860, to do her job for 20 years. She is the registration officer for the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians (LTBBOI).
On April 1, the 1950 U.S. Census records were released. There are restrictions requiring census data to be released to the national archives only every 72 years.
The newly accessible records help Bolton and those in his position confirm a person’s tribal lineage while painting a better picture of the tribe and its history.
“There’s more information about the 1950s compared to the 1860s, 1870s,” says Bolton. “These are a bit difficult to read.”
Bolton will use records from the 1950s to match records they have in-house in the event that a birth certificate is not available.
“We use birth certificates for direct line descendants and document each generation up to the Durant roll of 1910,” Bolton explains.
The Durant Roll is the most detailed census of the Ojibwa or Ottawa and Chippewa tribes in Michigan. This is the result of a lawsuit filed against the federal government for non-reimbursement as stipulated in previous treaties.
It was considered a feat for the tribes to win the case in 1905, since Native Americans weren’t considered citizens until years later.
Federal agents were dispatched to locate the people who were to receive the money earned from the years-long lawsuit. But it created a detailed account of the people who lived there, which had not been done in any other census.
“It became this fundamental piece on the inscription here [LTBBOI] because it’s so descriptive. They went to see all the families as much as they could. So I’m sure some people were missed, but they listed all the people living in all these different communities,” said Eric Hemenway, LTBBOI director of archives and records.
Hemenway says his office is not exempt from the “research scopes” involved in assembling the census for the purpose of telling a story.
And historically, minority populations are underestimated or misrepresented in the US census.
“NOTNative Americans make up about 1% of the American population. We are the smallest minority of any population,” says Hemenway. “AAnytime we can get records to build our census population counts is very crucial. But often people are misidentified. And then I also look at the context of the period of the 1940s and 1950s as a really difficult time not only for other people, but for all people of color.
The 1940s were the last censuses available recently. Of course, with WWII, a lot happened in just a decade as people left the war, either went back and started families, or never came back at all.
“Maybe someone didn’t want to identify as Native American, because of social pressure or just discrimination,” Hemenway says. “So that’s something I have to take into account too…llooking at these records and saying I think this person is native, but they listed as white on the census. It was just a very difficult time in the 1950s.”
Hemenway was able to learn a lot about the past that he hopes will inspire future work such as tribal food sovereignty.
“I always look to the past to look to the future as a historian and archivist,” he says. “How people took care of themselves at that time, and for me, [that] is personally inspired to return to some of these methods of growing one’s own food and caring for oneself in these communities.
“The census will say you know at least one name and date and that can be overwhelming for people trying to piece together their family history trying to make sense of their family tree,” says Hemenway. “We try to collect as much as possible. So something like this 1950 census that is just publicly available is huge. And again these pieces of this really complex puzzle of tribal history.
Even Hemenway spent time researching his own story in the 1950 census records. He found family and friends in Cross Village.
“As a historian archivist, I’m pretty excited that this is new data,” he says. “But for me personally, there’s this added level of excitement because now I see a personal connection. These are people I knew growing up, growing up in Cross Village, where there were elders at this time, but looking at the folders, their children and their parents and so on.
It’s this continuity of community that’s really exciting for me personally.