Baby Emmett Salkil
Several years ago when my son first went into law, he practiced with Henry Ware in a firm they called Indian Country Lawyers, taking cases ALL over Indian Country. It was during that time I first went to work with him. The day began in a Tribal Court, proceeded to Juvenile Court and then raced to a state court in Oklahoma County to file papers in yet another case. Raced summed up the efforts and the speed it took to get from one part of this state to the next jurisdiction.
This week I took another turn and went to work with him again. He is now partners at Route 66 Attorneys and, you got it, there is some road racing involved there too. I sat in as he took notes from first one client and then the next, while holding the line for the court clerk in another county to find the records he needed for a court appearance later in the day.
He took another call from a friend of ours who had moved out of state who was referring him onto a wrongful death case.
But before I left him for the day, I took him to find the new home for the Craig County Genealogy Society. It used to be in the heart of the Vinita Public Library. They outgrew the space and needed the freedom to collaborate and work through the copious volumes of the Craig County history. They are now at 201 1/2 North Wilson in Vinita, above the Burckhalter-Highsmith Funeral Home.
I always knew there was an upstairs apartment there, at least since my grandmother died, since the previous owner and my dad had grown up together, and when we were coming to town, they offered us the use of the apartment while we were in town for the funeral. As it turned out, we didn’t use it and stayed with relatives instead. But I had always wondered what it must have been like.
I can tell you that now. Up those steep dark stairs, down the hall, through a screen door into the unused kitchen, cross through a couple of unused rooms, follow the voices until you arrive at pedestal with the sign-in sheet and the Society is gathered around 2 long tables forming a square in the middle of the room. The action is happening even as we enter. The 3 women are working on individual projects. The box fan is blowing warm air on the hottest May day we have had yet.
My son entered, signed in and is recognized by Connie Schoefield who has known him since first grade. He stands and announces why he has come. He has come with questions about Baby Emmett Salkil. And the room changed. All eyes were wide open. As an attorney, he had been contacted by a person living in Alabama looking to find proof of his Cherokee ancestry.
These 3 women had been looking for relatives for this baby for decades. He was a 3 month old baby when his mother died, followed 3 days later by his father in the 1918 Influenza, the pandemic our ancestors faced one hundred years ago. With both on their deathbeds asking that the baby's grandmother NOT get the baby.
There were extensive stories in the Vinita newspapers at the time. Who would take baby Emmett? Mrs. Turbow, president of United Charities of Vinita took the baby and the Vinita community provided all the baby clothes AND a buggy were donated, showing what a caring place it was. Baby stayed there for 10 weeks and then the notice came in the papers that Baby Emmett was adopted.
The adoptive parents and Emmett moved and then the adoptive father died and the adoptive mother remarried and Emmett got a second new last name.
And it was the grandson who sought only to find through this tangled trail the proof of his Indian heritage.
As an Indian Counselor in Miami Schools for 25 years and before that 2 years in Sapulpa Schools, I helped countless parents struggle with filling out their child's 504 forms to be eligible to qualify for the Indian Education programs in those school districts. Most, did it easily as they had their Indian cards in their back pockets, or could easily find theirs stashed away in a safe place at home. Others, those who struggled had been handed down the stories of Indian heritage but had not had the money or opportunity to find the documents that made their Indian-ness official enough to submit to tribal enrollment offices. I recognized the importance of belonging because I saw it in these children's eyes and in the eyes of their parents. For most, it was not for any future financial benefit, it was simply to know that they belonged. I hadn't ever considered the longing a community could have, as a deep longing to know where the children went that "got away."
The women Connie, Mary Oakley, and Cathy quickly found the "chapter and verse" on baby Emmett and that his family land had the first oil well in Oklahoma in 1889.
They had placed a long needed gravestone in the Vinita Fairview Cemetery and included his story in their Cemetery Walks. And now the women were saying, "The seeds that they had planted had borne fruit."
My son and I had never heard such joy from grown adults. Jubilant. ARMS IN THE AIR HAPPY that baby Emmett had been claimed. He had done adoptions with the Indian Child Welfare Act, and had seen the joy of adoption. This was the other end of that, the joy of connecting a whole community back to the one who got away.
For me, it was the best day ever for a take your mom to work day!
Just as Baby Emmett was never forgotten, my hope is that each of the one million people who have been lost to COVID-19 in the US alone will not be forgotten. And thank those who have taken the effort to remember if only a few thousand, so far. The grief is enough to be shared by us all.