Establishing family connections brings joy to Bourbonnais-Tescier descendant Czarina Thompson. As a family history specialist at the Citizen Potawatomi Nation Cultural Heritage Center, she has helped hundreds of Tribal members research their ancestors.
Thompson began her current post in 2005, but it has changed over the years. She absorbed family history as she digitally scanned thousands of paper documents. Thompson searched those documents when Tribal members requested help with family history research. She learned even more as she listened to taped interviews from the Tribal Heritage Project and transcribed the information.
Her experience has helped her retain countless details about all the Potawatomi founding families. From memory, she can instantly recall information about names, dates, marriages, births and other events.
“We did research requests, which are now the family history manuscripts on the Cultural Heritage website,” she said. “Those documents were submitted by people either trying to enroll (themselves) or trying to enroll family members. We’ve used those scans for a number of years, even before it was electronic.”
Today, research is more accessible because of advancements like the Ancestors portal. Thompson hopes Tribal members will take the initiative to connect to their Potawatomi heritage.
“What is good about the technology is combining it. With the portal and the website to access the documents, you can do it at home. You can do it in the middle of the night. You don’t need me necessarily. You might actually find out more. You’re going to recognize names that I wouldn’t,” she said.
Features on the personal portal like Ancestors would not have been possible without the help of the Information Technology Department and software developer Jonathan Cervone, she said. Thompson said she only has to describe what she needs, and Cervone is able to make that a reality.
One feature she is proud of is the family chart and the ability to share it.
“On the portal, you will find your ancestral family chart that is based on (information from) Tribal Rolls. From that original chart, you can create new charts in which you can edit and share with other folks within the portal or Tribal members,” she said. “(Family) can accept, just like Facebook friend requests. I’m really excited for Tribal members because I think that is something they don’t get to do very often. At Festival you can try to connect with distant family members, but it’s so busy all weekend.”
She encourages families researching their history to work together.
“Different people will view information differently depending on the generation, depending on even the ages,” Thompson said. “When I was four and my sister was 10, what was going on looked different to that 10-year-old than (it did to) that 4-year-old. The stories you hear are different. My mother was extremely close with her aunt, my great aunt. And they used to sit around and talk about family (connections) and explain who was who.”
She combines her vast knowledge of CPN family history with the work of her CHC colleagues to give Tribal members a fuller picture.
“Blake Norton, our senior curator, has just done a really nice job. He has always had a command of that history, and I have the family history. And so, we always help each other out,” Thompson said.
Thompson also tracks of how events in U.S. history affected the Potawatomi.
“Depending on what was happening in the U.S. at the time, like there was a lot of migration due to socio-economic reasons, especially in the 20s and (involving) Oklahoma,” she said.
She also uses multiple sources to help her research Tribal connections.
“Ancestry.com has Native American records, which I’ve come to use quite often, mostly because what I like about it is I can go back and check a census there. I can reaffirm what we already have,” she said.
Thompson keeps an open mind while researching to avoid putting limitations on any one source of information.
“You cannot limit yourself and what you might find and where you might find it. Sometimes, the universe takes you where you need to go. It’s not always the way you would have thought,” she said.
She is excited that the Ancestors portal and other forms of technology like video call and conferencing application Zoom can further enhance Potawatomi genealogy research.
“The stories are always interesting. We want to try to get more interviews. I know we’ve pushed for that,” Thompson said. “We’re also trying to get all the other interviews up on the portal or the website.”
While she assists Tribal members searching for their family history, she empathizes with the circumstances that might have disconnected them from their heritage. She also receives calls from non-Tribal members who have recently discovered their connection to CPN.
“Sometimes they found out a grandparent or parent was enrolled but didn’t enroll (their children). Or you hear (families didn’t enroll because), ‘They’ll take my kids away from me if I’m Native American.’ So, there’s a lot of people that can’t get enrolled now due to those things. But that history is still there for them,” she said.
Thompson does not let enrollment status become a barrier to a family seeking connections. She is empathetic to each individual’s circumstances.
“I feel kind of a loss for those that could possibly have been enrolled and cannot now. Just because you can’t enroll doesn’t mean that person was not your ancestor. I had a thought one day, most of us have our ancestor back there. (They’re) just as Native and love us just as much as our other ancestors. I try to be careful and not disrespect anybody.”
Thompson is aware of the heavy responsibility that comes with research. She works to get all the details right until she is confident the information is correct.
Within some U.S. government documents, last names could be misspelled or contain other errors. Then, she must consider family relationships. Identifying family members becomes complicated with marriages, divorces, adoptions, nicknames and relatives who share the same first name. Thompson factors in all these scenarios before arriving at a conclusion.
“I have to really stop myself because I like to research and dig,” she said. “I could dig forever. I think my biggest fear is getting it wrong. Sometimes I do get it wrong, but I am always open to correction. In this position, one has to be.”
Knowledge of the smallest details is important. Sometimes the spelling of a last name was changed so that it was easier to spell or so that mail could be delivered to the correct address. Thompson delights in unearthing these small details.
“It’s like a puzzle,” Thompson said. “Yes, it’s just like a mystery.”
To learn more about CPN history, visit the Cultural Heritage Center online at potawatomiheritage.com. Find more about CPN families in the family manuscripts section of the website. To begin using Ancestors, visit portal.potawatomi.org.