In the economic circumstances of my childhood, I might have envied many things. I suppose I did, but there was nothing I wanted as much as a family. After my grandfather died, I had a conversation with my grandmother in which she warned me that she was unlikely to live to see me graduate high school. I could not break the news that I did not expect to graduate high school, but I took her point.

My elderly grandparents did the best they could with their limited resources and the years they had left, but I lived in the shadow of the cold fact that they would be gone before I was educated and I would be alone, my only inheritance their constant reassurance that I was smart and I could make something of myself.

While that reassurance conflicted with virtually all of the feedback I got elsewhere, it turned out to be an inheritance of such value that I wanted to pass it on. Still do. That’s why my recent cancer diagnosis kick started a choice to spend the last months of my life writing about how I managed my material and emotional needs. Both of those accomplishments seem improbable without the legacy from the elders named Russell.

In their honor, the name I wished to pass on when I got a family became Russell. By the end of my Air Force hitch, I had decided I was unlikely to disgrace the name, and my Cherokee father was Cherokee only when convenient. He had taught me little besides the meaning of “useless as the teats on a boar hog.” I carried nothing from him but the name Teehee and possibly a gene for schizophrenia.

I was aware that the Teehee family has a distinguished history within the Cherokee Nation. Family legend had it that I was a direct descendant of Houston Benge Teehee, who served in Tahlequah city government, Cherokee County government, Oklahoma state government, and most famously as Register of the U.S. Treasury. In that role, he co-signed the currency and the bonds sold to finance WWI.

My namesake was supposedly Ginatiyun Tihi, Stephen Teehee, who was Houston B’s father. Ginatiyun served Cherokee tribal government in a number of capacities. I did not find out the principal role for which he was known until I was a judge poring over old issues of the Cherokee Phoenix. Ginatiyun Tihi — who I had known for serving in legislative and executive positions — -was primarily remembered as a fair and impartial judge. In a time when much tribal business was done in English, Tihi stayed with Cherokee.

While it’s an honor to be thought associated with such a man, he was not my namesake. According to my mother, Stephen Teehee was a living friend of the family when I was born, although he certainly might have been named after Ginatiyun Tihi. Houston B. Teehee is a collateral rather than a direct ancestor.

The family story about Houston B. did not hold up, but a look at the Cherokee section of the Dawes Rolls — the master rolls that determine eligibility for Cherokee Nation citizenship — showed more Russells than Teehees. While I am not related to the Cherokee Russells and I am related to the Teehees, being publicly called Russell would not imply I am unlikely to be Cherokee.

My transfer from Headquarters, USAF Security Service, in San Antonio to a tiny listening station north of Da Nang, Vietnam was interrupted by a drunk driver coming north in the southbound lanes of Interstate 35. The resulting head-on left me hospitalized for seven months. The drunk was not insured, but I had uninsured motorist coverage and at age 20 I found myself dealing with my own insurance company in one direction and the Air Force in the other because the government wanted to recover the value of my lost services and my medical bills.

The insurance adjuster was a nice young man named Pat Priest, who I learned was a law student at the time when I met him again years later at a judicial conference. I was surprised that he remembered me, but he chuckled and recalled that the two of us — neither lawyers yet, although he was close — had “practiced some law” to settle my case.

The one obstacle I could not dodge was that I was too young to enter a binding contract. Priest was an honest man but I had to get a court order saying I was qualified to do what I had already done — negotiated in both directions and gotten a very favorable settlement. Clearing this last obstacle was called “removing disabilities of minority.”

After I got the insurance settlement, I hired the same lawyer who had gotten my disabilities removed to change my name. I never told him why and he never asked, because the only reason a judge could deny a name change is if the purpose is fraud.

(A digression for which no editor would stand but I have no editor and I consider this worth the detour: After I became a lawyer, I was once retained by a dope dealer to insert a reference to his profession in his given name. I was appalled when the uncontested docket in district court that day was being called by one of the two judges who heard criminal cases. I had to admonish my client that he could be appearing before the same guy if he ever got busted, but he instructed me to go ahead and I did.

They never expect to get caught.

This digression is worth the detour because you, my readers, are mostly voters, and I hope this gives you reason to think about politicians who tell you they are solving a problem by increasing the legal penalties. The size of the penalty does not affect behavior in one who does not expect to get caught and very few crimes are committed with that expectation.)

When the name change order was signed, I was required to take it and a copy of the pleadings to my squadron commander so my military discharge would have the correct name on it. After obtaining certified copies from the clerk, I peeked at the petition and found that the lawyer had attributed a reason to me: that the name Teehee had subjected me to ridicule. While that was true, it had nothing to do with why I would give up a fine old Cherokee name.

I first learned of that embellishment while I was waiting to see the officer who had taken over my squadron while I was in the hospital, just before I handed my paperwork to the office manager and stated my business. The manager took my papers into the commander’s office and instructed me to sit down while his boss finished up some things.

When my turn came, I approached his desk and saluted. He told me to stand at ease and then proffered his hand, which I shook as I looked down at the nameplate across the front of his desk. I had known we had a new squadron commander but I was innocent of his name until I looked down and read…Major Eugene Tehee. The spelling difference was not significant. He was Cherokee; I was embarrassed. Make that mortified. He was very kind and did not discuss my papers if he had read them before I came in.

I wanted the honorable Air Force discharge I would soon have to say Russell and the degree I hoped to earn to say Russell and the children I hoped to have to carry the name that had come to mean so much more to me than Teehee ever did. The Cherokee Nation — not my surname — carries my identity.

That is what I would have told Major Tehee 49 years ago. He is long gone and my time is coming soon. The need to explain has never faded. Maybe this will help.

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Steve Russell is enrolled Cherokee, a 9th grade dropout, retired judge, associate professor emeritus of criminal justice, and (so far) a cancer survivor.

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