John Layne grew up hearing tales of his American Indian roots.
But he had no proof beyond family lore.
With the help of amateur genealogist Michael Perry, he recently traced his family tree back to the storied tribe. In September, Layne was officially recognized as a member of the Cherokee Nation.
"I had a longing to belong, and now I do," said Layne, a minister and former Plant City resident who lives in Ocala.
Layne and Perry met in 2001 at Calvary Fellowship Assembly of God in Plant City. By that time Perry had learned about genealogical exploration through a 15-year search for his own roots.
Perry grew up in a fragmented family. He spent six years of his childhood in foster homes and orphanages, and that fueled his great interest in family history.
His discoveries "filled an empty spot inside me that had (existed) most of my life," Perry said.
His profound experience in unlocking his own past generated a passion for genealogy and helping others.
Layne shared with Perry his interest in tracking down his possible Native American connection. Perry was eager to help.
The two began digging into the Layne family history in 2008.
Layne found his ancestors' names on the Dawes Rolls, a list of Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek and Seminole families living in Indian Territory between 1898 and 1906.
Layne, 55, discovered that "not only was my grandfather Indian but his wife, my grandmother, was Indian as well."
In January, Layne submitted required documentation and an application for tribal membership. Eight months later, it became official.
"It's very fulfilling for both of us," Perry said, a 50-year-old Plant City resident and staff assistant at the Bay Pines VA Healthcare System. "We spent so much time and energy on it. I attribute our success to our friendship as well; we pushed each other when we hit walls."
Layne, a U.S. Army veteran, said, "I am proud to be an American, and now my pride goes even deeper … knowing my relatives were true Americans."
His biggest surprise was finding that his predecessors attempted to cover up their Native American roots.
"What I look at as a privilege, my ancestors looked at as a hindrance," he said.
Layne is a pastor at the House of Jacob Ministries in Dunnellon and has always wanted to minister to Native Americans, in Tampa or Oklahoma. He feels he now has the opportunity, because "It is easier to minister to your own," he said.
He is happy to celebrate this Thanksgiving as an official member of the Cherokee Nation. He plans to continue his family's yearly tradition of providing meals for the homeless and less fortunate in his multicultural community.
He is proud of and grateful for the role American Indians played in providing for the early Europeans at the first Thanksgiving.
"I guess you could say I'm following in the footsteps of my ancestors," he said.