Rep. Brown Discovers Her Indian Roots

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by Eldon Graham

INDIGENOUS People’s Day was celebrated at Sister Clara Muhammad School as get-together for all area citizens of Indian descent. Host State Rep. Vanessa Lowery Brown was joined here by Songbird, Pocahontas and other participants.

INDIGENOUS People’s Day was celebrated at Sister Clara Muhammad School as get-together for all area citizens of Indian descent. Host State Rep. Vanessa Lowery Brown was joined here by Songbird, Pocahontas and other participants.

It started with stories she heard at a young age. State Rep. Vanessa Lowery Brown (D-W. Phila.) learned about her family’s Native American heritage.

Brown, a member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives since 2009, had an awakening to her indigenous past through tales told by her grandmother. The stories were accompanied by pictures that hung on the wall of her grandmother’s home.

Hearing these stories gave Brown the necessary drive to find out more about her family and where they come from. “I went on to see what I could find about my family history,” she said. But she initially found no answers there for the many questions she had.

Brown had a strong desire to find out what tribe she stemmed from and did not give up. After watching an advertisement on television from, she learned more records had been found and put on the website. “More leaves were added to my tree,” she said. Now she has records that go back as far as 1833 on her mother’s side of the family. Records for her father side go back to the year 1790.

She now knows her family originates from an area in the South. Brown highly believes she comes from either the Santee or the Catawba River regions of South Carolina. Her family migrated from the south to Philadelphia in the 1930s.

Recently Brown made an effort to fly down to South Carolina to further pinpoint what tribe she belongs to. Unfortunately, those efforts were hindered by flooding. Brown hopes to return to South Carolina in spring of 2016 with a film crew to document her experience.

The search to find who she is has given Brown a chance to reflect on what her ancestors experienced themselves. “The Trail of Tears is real,” she said.

Brown considers herself to be a “fusion,” a person associated with more than one racial or cultural background. She comes from a Native American background but also has African American roots. After doing some research through census records, she noticed on some occasions her family would list themselves as “mulatto” if their skin color was lighter; if it was darker they list themselves as “Black.” This could lead to misrepresentation, and confuse some people as they struggle to find out more about their familial roots.

Brown points out the reality that not all people of African descent came to the United States as slaves. “Some African Americans came to the United States through Ellis Island,” she said. This is a very personal story for Brown, one she hopes to tell once more information come to light. “There are millions of African Americans who don’t know who they are and that needs to stop,” Brown said.

She believes there should be a new branch of government dedicated to ancestry. “I think it is my right … it is my story, she said. I want my records back I want to know who I am. You can’t put a price on history.”

Brown’s interest in her indigenous roots has allowed her to openly participate in a number of Native American traditions held in the Philadelphia area. One of Brown’s links to her Native American heritage was the creation of a regalia – distinctive clothing worn and ornaments carried at formal occasions as an indication of status.

She also held her own Native American celebration event in the first week of October to honor the traditions of the ancestors. The celebration was called Indigenous Peoples Day Powwow. The event hosted a wide arrange of activities and entertainment, including music from Native American musicians/singers, hand drumming and social dances.

In years past, a powwow was held at Belmont Mansion in Fairmount Park as a weeklong ceremonial. Before that event was discontinued, those who participated would stay at Belmont Mansion for a period of one week. Brown’s powwows have been staged in Clara Muhammad Park or Clara Muhammad School in West Philadelphia.

Brown hopes the process she has gone through will help others who are searching for their roots.

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