Cherokee Heritage Center genealogist living out dream job
Gene Norris, Cherokee Heritage Center genealogist, discusses with Chandler Kidd, Cherokee Phoenix intern, the information he found after researching her Cherokee family tree. Norris has 14 years of genealogical experience with the CHC and more than 30 years of experience in genealogy. KENLEA HENSON/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
PARK HILL, Okla. – As a boy growing up in northwest Arkansas, Gene Norris was intrigued with history and genealogy. He remembers his parents taking him to “chalk” deceased relative’s tombstones so they were easier to read. By age 10, genealogy had become his hobby. However, he never imagined being a professional genealogist.
Now the Cherokee Heritage Center’s lead genealogist, Norris has worked as a CHC genealogist for 14 years. Before being hired there, he had 20 years of previous experience in genealogical research.
“For me it’s the love of history and genealogy. In 1984 is when I actually started digging into census records and other files. Then in 1994 I started getting into specifically Cherokee genealogy,” he said. “One of my dreams was to be a professional genealogist, but I thought it would just be a hobby. Then I got the opportunity for this job, as a genealogist. Genealogy is truly something I think I was meant to do. It was my destiny.”
During his teen years, genealogy took a back seat as he focused on art. It wasn’t until college that history and genealogy made their ways back into his life. That’s when he took a summer job as a guide at a historical museum in Arkansas.
“I had a basics of it (genealogy) way early on, but it didn’t really come into play until my college years. I’ve never been married, and I don’t have children, so I don’t have ball games to go to or doctor appointments or someone staying home from school with a fever so I have to miss work. I worked a 40-hour week, and on my days off and vacations I spent them at courthouses and cemeteries studying records,” he said.
In 1994, after meeting Roy Hamilton, a Cherokee Nation citizen, Norris wanted to take his research skills to the next level by tracing Hamilton’s Cherokee lineage. Norris spent hours researching and digging into records at the Adair County courthouse. He said since researching Hamilton’s ancestry, his Cherokee genealogy career “escalated from there.”
“He (Hamilton) is one of the reasons I got started in genealogy, professionally. He grew up knowing who his grandparents were and who his cousins were, but he didn’t know any details. He didn’t ever look at the Dawes (Roll) testimonies or anything, so that’s what I stepped in to do,” Norris said. “I worked on Roy’s family for almost 10 years. We went to family reunions, visited with his Cherokee relatives and ceremonial grounds, and with all these kinds of things I got to immerse myself in the Cherokee culture.”
Norris’s CHC career began with him volunteering. Soon a genealogist position became available, and he jumped at it.
Now he spends his days at the CHC’s Cherokee Family Research Center researching family trees for visitors and educating them on Cherokee history and their lineages. Norris said he and co-genealogist, Ashley Vann, stay busy with 20-25 genealogy requests they receive each week.
With 35 years of genealogical experience, Norris said he’s thankful he’s able to work at the CHC and to have a career that he’s passionate about and enjoys.
“I have been very lucky to have this position. If it hadn’t been for the administration of the (Cherokee National) Historical Society at the time of my hiring and Roy Hamilton, I would not have this job, so I am very grateful for that,” he said. “Working with the Cherokee Nation and (its) Community and Culture Outreach has allowed me to go to at-large communities across the country to give presentations to share my passion for genealogy and our (CHC) mission, which is to preserve, promote and teach Cherokee history and culture.”