Editor’s note: Adapted from a story published in the Times on Aug. 11, 2010.
The day after Thanksgiving – this year it’s Nov. 29 – is Native American Heritage Day, thanks to Thornfield native Archie Buttram’s work a few years ago to have the day nationally designated.
Archie’s deep pride in his Cherokee heritage – and his grandson’s urging - pushed him to initiate an effort that resulted in Congress passing Public Law 111-33, the Native American Heritage Day Act of 2009. President Obama signed the bill into law a short time after it was unanimously passed by both houses of Congress.
His efforts started in late 2008, when he was telling his grandson, Jonathan Buttram, about their family history.
Archie’s great-great-great grandmother was full-blooded Cherokee, he said. “Her people had already … made it to Putnam County, Ind., before the Trail of Tears forced-relocation got going. She married Bill Welch, who was three-fourths Cherokee, and in 1827 they had a baby, Sarah Ann Welch. Sarah Ann’s mother died when she was born, and Bill Welch brought his daughter on to Missouri … sometime before 1840.”
Jonathan, then 22, asked the question that got the ball rolling: “Grandpa, how come there’s not a day to recognize Native Americans?”
“I told him I never gave it any thought,” Archie remembered.
“Then Jonathan said, ‘Well, Grandpa, why don’t you do something about that?’”
And that’s what Archie did.
In January 2009, Archie wrote to Sen. Claire McCaskill, suggesting a day be “permanently designated to honor the Native American Indian.” Four months later she responded that Sen. Dan Inouye of Hawaii, who served on the Committee of Indian Affairs, had introduced a Senate bill designating the Friday after Thanksgiving of each year as Native American Heritage Day.
The legislation eventually passed both houses of Congress, and President Obama signed it into law.
The day recognizes Native Americans’ military service and their “significant contributions” in agriculture, medicine, music, language, art and other fields as well as their roles as inventors, entrepreneurs, spiritual leaders, scholars, local and national leaders and athletes. The bill says that designating the Friday after Thanksgiving as Native American Heritage Day “will encourage public elementary and secondary schools in the United States to enhance understanding of Native Americans” with activities, programs and ceremonies commemorating the “rich Native American cultural legacy that all Americans enjoy today.”
Archie can’t be certain that his January 2008 letter specifically led to the act being passed, and his research tells him he wasn’t the first to have the idea, but he can probably claim credit for getting it back on Congress’ to-do list.
Archie said he “grew up here, graduated from Gainesville High School in 1953 and couldn’t wait to get out of this God-forsaken place. Then I spent the next 43 years trying to get back.”
He served as an international representative for the United Auto Workers for 19 years during his 43-year career with the Ford Motor Co. in Kansas City. Before joining Ford, he served with the Second Infantry in Korea.
Now retired, he and his wife, Barbara, live on land bordered by the Mark Twain National Forest in the Pond Fork area. They built their home on 15 of the 160 acres originally homesteaded by Archie’s great-grandfather, Jacob Buttram, who was married to Mary Matilda Malinda Mahan, daughter of Archie’s Cherokee great-great-grandmother, Sarah Ann Welch, and her husband, John Mahan. The Mahans homesteaded the land adjoining the Buttrams’, a farm now owned by Maynard and Linda Wallace.
Archie and Barbara’s home commemorates both his Ozarkian and his Native American heritage. “The old foundation rocks that were under Jacob Buttram’s homestead cabin are part of my fireplace now,” he said, “and I have my great-grandfather’s homestead certificate framed and hanging on my wall. It’s a place I really like to come home to.”