Shotpouch finds home among his Cherokee kin
Cherokee Nation citizen Billy Shotpouch recently moved to Oklahoma from California to learn more about his Cherokee heritage and culture. WILL CHAVEZ/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
Billy Shotpouch, center, sits with his father, Billy Keys Sr., and Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin at the 2019 Shotpouch hog fry in Delaware County. COURTESY
The Keys/Shotpouch family moved west in the 1930s searching for work and eventually settled in California. Pictured are the grandfather and uncles of Billy Shotpouch: Lloyd Keys, Henry Keys Sr. and Henry Keys Jr. COURTESY
TAHLEQUAH – After years of hearing stories about his Cherokee family in Oklahoma, Billy Shotpouch decided to move to Oklahoma from California to learn more about those stories and his Cherokee heritage.
Two years ago, he moved to Tahlequah from Los Gatos, California, near the San Francisco bay area, where he was raised by his Cherokee father, Billy Keys Sr., and Scottish-Irish mother, Joyce.
“For me it all started with my father when I was a young boy. We were watching movies and they have cowboys and Indians in them, and so my dad would look at me and tell me ‘Indians are good people, and they have their own ways, their own lifestyles,’” the 60-year-old Cherokee Nation citizen said. “So, he made me aware that there’s something different than what I was growing up seeing being far away from the culture.”
His father was born in Arkansas in 1932, but his father’s family moved to Oklahoma soon after he was born. “They were moving around trying to find work in the 1930s during the Depression, so for a while my grandparents were basically migrant workers. They would go wherever there was work, so that’s what brought them out west and they worked in Washington, Idaho, Oregon and then California.”
Eventually, his grandparents worked in Oakland shipyards during World War II.
“I never knew my grandfather. He died just before I was born. He came back to Oklahoma towards the end of his life,” Shotpouch said. “We had been out in California for close to 50 years. My stories about the (Cherokee) culture were second-hand at best. I thought I was just like anybody else when I was in California, and I didn’t realize I had another culture and another background that I could explore.”
As he got older, his father informed him he was part Cherokee and had roots in Indian Territory, where his grandfather was born.
“My dad was always proud to say, ‘it says that on his birth certificate. He was born in Indian Territory,’” he said.
As his father shared family history, he learned the family’s name had once been Shotpouch. His father said his great-grandfather changed his name to the “white-sounding name” of William Keys.
“He was a full-blood Cherokee, and his name was Bill Shotpouch. We lost a couple of generations of people because they came to California, so there’s a whole two generations of people who were kind of lost from our family and heritage here,” Shotpouch said. “And they (family) had started getting the wrong stories, and they weren’t really interested in finding out what the real truth was.”
Shotpouch wanted the correct stories, so he explored his family’s history, comparing what was real to what little he was told.
“I wanted to explore the idea that my dad told me that Indians are good people and there’s a culture they have that’s different. They have their own way of living and thinking about things,” he said.
In 2018, while going through a divorce, he left the tech industry job he had in California. He had worked as a project manager for “tech companies” in Silicon Valley for nearly 40 years. Then he recalled his father had always expressed interest in returning to Oklahoma.
“I thought, well, there’s an opportunity for me now because I can help him fulfill his wish because he’s in his mid-80s. So, I bought a house here in Tahlequah and moved my son and I here and settled in,” he said. “Once I thought it was safe to do so, I moved my mom and dad here.”
He worked with CN Elder Care to get his parents an apartment and made sure they could live comfortably.
“And then I started the process of learning about the culture directly. In my personal life, I had never been a social person, so this was going to be a big challenge for me to suddenly meet a bunch of new people and try and help them understand that I have some reason to be here, and I’m not just a tourist,” he said. “I started accepting the challenge of just going up and introducing myself to people and telling them a little bit about my history…I had a sincere desire to learn about the culture. And I want them to guide me instead of me trying to guide this.”
He said after he began to learn Cherokee history and culture in Oklahoma, he realized what he had learned about his Cherokee heritage in California “was like novelty stuff.” He said some Cherokees began to call him “returning brother,” which made him feel good and confident about moving.
His Shotpouch family in Delaware County also welcomed him. He said while in California his family had been in touch with his Shotpouch kin since the 1970s.
Over time he’s gotten to know his Delaware County cousins. “They’ve been super nice and helping me understand things about the culture, just the day-to-day aspects of what kinds of food they (ancestors) did eat that’s actually traditional.”
He said his father was honored at the 2019 Shotpouch hog fry for being one of the oldest in the family. “So, they were thinking that way and that didn’t even occur to me. Their parents had passed on, and my father represented someone from that generation who was a little older but still living.”
In 2019, he began working on changing his last name from Keys to Shotpouch with his father’s blessing. He also consulted with family members and friends.
“When I got here and had a lot of time to spend with the family and learn about the culture, I started feeling like it would be a great thing to do to go back and reclaim our actual Cherokee name,” he said.
He’s also learning the Cherokee language, which proves to be difficult. However, he continues to learn. “It is difficult. There’s just no way around that.”
He also has taken an interest in the Cherokee longbow, making one to take part in cornstalk shoots. Anything about Cherokee history and genealogy is also of interest to him, so he reads everything he can find about those subjects.
“There’s nothing that makes me feel more comfortable about coming home and learning the culture than to be sitting at a hog fry or sitting at a bon fire and watching things, just being part of it. I would like to encourage anyone living out there in California, New York or Texas or whatever…if they ever thought about coming home, get serious about it. Find out who your Cherokee families are and what their traditions are, and they are happy to tell you if you’re willing to learn.”
Ultimately, he said he has realized his father, who died in February, was right. Indian people are good people.