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Wikimedia Commons
An oil on canvas painting of Oneida Chieftain Shikellamy. Amy Choate-Nielsen discovered from a recent conversation with her family that he is one of her ancestors.

In a world of digital footprints and internet images that can never truly be deleted, it’s hard to hold on to the concept that some things truly are temporary. Some things, even in this world of hard drives and cloud storage, can be lost forever.

I was reminded of that fact recently when my parents came to visit. We sat chatting at my kitchen table after dinner while my children scrambled around, avoiding bedtime. My mom made a comment about how much my youngest son looks like me, how similar our eyes are.

“Yes, he’s got the half-moon eyes,” I jokingly said. “Where did we get those? Why do we look like this?”

My eyes are small, with slightly hooded lids that have a fairly narrow opening. I’ve always guessed they are almond-shaped, but there is something about them that is subtly different. When I traveled in China, the locals would compliment me by saying I looked like one of my parents is Chinese.

“Oh, you say that to all the visitors,” I would jokingly say back to them.

I used to wish I had big, open eyes, more like my sisters, but as I got older, I paid less attention to what I looked like in the mirror. I had eyes, and that was good enough.

But, it’s true. My youngest son’s eyes have the same shape, the same hybrid of almond that squinch up when he smiles. My parents said those eyes come from my grandfather, Homer.

And there, at my kitchen table, my mother told me that Homer got his eyes from our distant relative, the Iroquois chief Shikellamy.

I had never heard of Shikellamy before. Who could that be? How was I just finding out about this?

As my parents told the story, Shikellamy was a great Iroquois ruler who oversaw the Delaware, Shawnee, Nanticoke and Conestoga tribes along the Pennsylvania border in the mid 1700s. Sometimes called Swatana, Shikellamy was one of the most influential Indians in the state, even though some historians say Shikellamy was possibly a French citizen who was kidnapped as a child and raised by the Oneida.

He was respected by the Europeans and trusted by the Iroquois nation. He learned English, translated special writings, and helped establish peace and prosperity in the area by communicating between the colonial government and the Iroquois chiefs in Pennsylvania.

In honor of his accomplishments, there’s a Shikellamy High School, Shikellamy State Park and Shikellamy School District in Pennsylvania named after him.

And I had no idea.

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Had I not been talking with my parents around the dinner table, they might not have mentioned this key piece of my family tree. Digital imprints might last forever, but words can disappear. People can leave this earth, and take their treasures of knowledge with them. Perhaps that’s one reason family history research is so urgent. My parents are my only link to my ancestors — all of my grandparents are gone.

I think there’s power to storytelling, as fragile as it may be. Family history has a way of turning real people in real life into folklore — the legends of where you came from — except it’s the truth.

Well, mostly true.

My mom told me I got my eyes from Homer, who got them from Shikellamy, but she was mistaken. It turns out, Chief Shikellamy is my sixth-great-grandfather, through my grandmother, Lenore.

I can’t wait to tell my son.