Cher the “Half Breed”


Cher

Cher in the 1970s. Public domain.

When Cher recorded the hit “Half Breed” and it began climbing the charts in 1973, she jumped on the Native American ancestry bandwagon. The superstar claimed she was one-sixteenth Cherokee on her mother’s side.

Does Cher have any Cherokee ancestry? This is a question that ought to be easy to answer. The Goddess of Pop was born Cherilyn Sarkisian, May 20, 1946, in El Centro, a southern California town near the Mexican border that has the distinction of being the largest American municipality to lie entirely below sea level. Her mother, Georgia Holt, was an occasional model and bit-part actress who claimed Irish, English, German and Cherokee ancestry. Her father, John Sarkisian, was an Armenian American truck driver with drug and gambling problems.

Despite extensive research no record of the marriage “about 1945” of Holt (then supposedly going by the last name of Crouch) and Sarkisian can be found. They would both have been about 18 years old.

According to genealogies on the Internet, the new Mrs. Sarkissian was born Jackie Jean Crouch in Kensett, Arkansas, June 9 , 1927. Yet no census record of her can found in 1930, when she would have been three, or in 1940, when she would have been 13, five years before she is said to have married Cher’s father, John Sarkissian. 1950 census records have not yet been released. Her mother, Cher’s maternal grandmother, Lynda Inez Gulley Crouch, is similarly unfindable in records of the time. Reportedly, she was still living in 2006, when she would have been in her nineties.

Family records give Jackie Jean’s mother’s name as Lynda Inez Gully, but genealogy research cannot confirm this. Her father was Roy Malloy Crouch, born in Arkansas in 1905. Crouch died in Oklahoma City in 1969. He was 17 when Jackie Jean was born. The mother was 13. Crouch’s occupation given on census records was pastry baker. According to publicity information in later years, Dad moved from town to town looking for work, and he taught his daughter how to sing and play guitar. At 6 she was performing on an Oklahoma City radio station, and by 10 she had sung with bandleader Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys. Holt said in later years that she attended 17 junior high schools.

Holt and her father settled in a rundown one-room dwelling in Los Angeles. The teenaged Crouch worked in a donut shop. She married John Sarkisian in 1946, according to family traditions; they divorced a year later, remarried in 1965, and divorced again in 1966. Sarkisian, as previously stated, was the father of her daughter Cherilyn, born on May 20, 1946. Around this time, she changed her name to Georgia Pelham. After divorcing Sarkisian, she had several subsequent husbands: Chris Alcaide, John Southall (with whom she had daughter Georganne in 1951), Joseph Harper Collins, Gilbert LaPiere, and Hamilton Holt. Gilbert LaPiere legally adopted Cherilyn and Georganne, changing their last names to LaPiere.

Cher’s mother changed both her first and last name and took various married names over the years. The diva’s mother was still alive in 2019, aged 92.
Jackie Jean Holt’s ancestry has been assembled by William Addams Reitwiesner in a web page, “Ancestry of Cher.” As compiled, it goes back ten generations in America and could possibly support a small amount of Cherokee.

Some of the families involved were pioneers in Arkansas that moved there from Cherokee lands in Tennessee about the time of Indian Removal. Names in Cher’s family tree also appearing on Cherokee rolls include Bookout, Carter, Waldron (Waldon), Webber, Robinson, Moon, Clark, Pearce, Green, Moore, Barnes and Brown. Few of these names occur in a timeframe close to Cher’s mother’s birth, however, and while there are many Crouches on the rolls, there is not a single Couch. One searches in vain for revealing marriage patterns or repeated alliances between part-Cherokees in the same places. Cher’s maternal ancestors did not let the grass grow under their feet.

If Cher was one-sixteenth Cherokee, by the law of numbers one of her mother’s great-grandparents was Cherokee. Their names were William Howard Crouch, Mary Ann Bookout, William Martin Green, Julia Ann Bryant, Thomas Gulley (b. 1836), Delilah Donaho (b. Georgia, ancestors Irish), Frederick Fritsch (b. in Germany) and Margaret Ann Stewart (b. 1835 in Tenn. of Scots-Irish parents). None of these could have been even half or quarter-Cherokee.

In the generations prior to the 1830s the ancestry of all Cher’s forebears on her mother’s side was clearly Scots-Irish, Scottish, Irish, English, German or Dutch. If one of these married a Cherokee woman (for instance, an otherwise unidentified Jane), Cher could have been one-sixty-fourth Cherokee. But even this is unlikely.

In later years, Cher disavowed her claim of Cherokee heritage and said it was “false.”

Armenian Story

Cher’s Armenian ancestry on her father’s side is unassailable. John Paul Sarkisian was born March 23, 1926, in Oakland, California. He died January 28, 1985, in Fresno, California. He was all Armenian. Both his parents George and Blanche (originally named Siranous) emigrated from Turkey, where they were registered as Armenian. His grandparents and great-grandparents were Armenians.

Both sets of Cher’s Armenian grandparents had strong ties with Fresno, California. Her Dilkian great-grandparents, Hagop and Noussaper, a weaver and seamstress by trade, gravitated to Fresno after fleeing Turkey via Patras, Greece, and arriving in New York on the S.S. Alice in 1912. Noussaper, adopting the name Lucy in California, died in Fresno in September 1972 at the age of 94 and was buried at Ararat Armenian Cemetery. John Sarkisian went to technical school in Fresno and was drafted there in World War II. He would be buried there, too. Cher’s Aunt Louise, who died on March 26, 2008, at the age of 93, was also buried in Fresno, in a coveted plot in the Ararat Cemetery.

The Little Armenia section of Fresno in the south of California’s Central Valley was like a New Jerusalem for Armenians. It was the immigrant world portrayed in many of William Saroyan’s prize-winning writings. Saroyan, who was born in 1908, had half his ashes buried at Ararat Cemetery in 1981, less than a mile from the house in which he was born. The other half of his ashes were placed in Armenia at the Komitas Pantheon near fellow artists such as composer Aram Khachaturian, painter Martiros Saryan and film director Sergei Parajanov. Such a gesture well captured the divided identity experienced by Armenians in America in the twentieth century.

Armenians who escaped the Massacre of 1915 joined relatives in communities like Fresno and Los Angeles and typically took low-paying jobs picking fruit or working at canneries. Many never took the trouble to learn English. John’s mother and father bought a home valued at $4500 in Modesto, California and began the process of naturalization in 1930. George Sarkisian, Cher’s paternal grandfather, was manager of a service station.

John’s maternal grandparents, Hagop and Nousapper (Lucy) Dilkian, also eventually managed to purchase a home in Modesto, though they remained aliens speaking mostly Armenian. One census taker who found Hagop living with his son in a shanty worth $20 and working odd jobs in 1930 thought the family spoke Arabic. Next door were Japanese and Mexicans.

All told, Cher’s ancestry is half Armenian and half Scottish, Irish, English, German and Dutch. Even if her family includes Gypsies, tramps and thieves, there was, verifiably, not a single Native American line anywhere. The only Cherokee princess in her background came from the publicity department.

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  Comments: 20

  1. Lynne Schlaufman


    My Grandmother was half Cherokee and have Chickasaw and my dad was at least 1/2 Cherokee. We’ve traced his side of the family back to before his great great great grandfather was shaman. I’m not sure how many greats. At any rate, I’m so glad that Cher probably has no Indian blood. I’ve always been proud of mine but she’s a knucklehead. I would hate to think that we share even a drop of Cherokee. Thank you for this tracking of Cher and her family. She’s an embarrassment to Americans!


    • To be clear, Cher disavowed the claim of Cherokee heritage as a ruse by her publicist in the 1970s and does not uphold any claim to any Indian blood. She is pure Armenian-white European (or as pure as anyone can be). As to knucklehead, she’s an accomplished actor, entertainer, singer, recording artist and entrepreneur/millionaire with a huge social conscience, so I don’t think she’s exactly a lightweight in any area of the arts, business or society. I wasn’t aware the Cherokees had shamans.


      • Agree with your response Donald. Lynne…how dare you try to speak for all Americans including myself! She has made a good name for herself and has contributed in more ways than I have. Certainly, I imagine, more than you as well! Being mean is not a good look.


    • Cher is fabulous.


  2. Cher is beautiful and looks native. It is not her fault if the family stories were inaccurate. There were a lot of Irish who told people they were black Irish. Why blame Cher?


  3. Cher has stood by her claim of Native ancestry as recently as 2003. See this A&E biography at 5:38 where she talks about her grandmother. It doesn’t seem too far fetched to me, given her family history. I don’t find it difficult to believe her.
    https://youtu.be/T-g4RCMd_3w


  4. Cher is pure Caucasoid (Caucasian, ethnic white). Her parents were both ethnic whites. She has a Caucasian phenotype and Caucasian haplo group (R1b). She presents ZERO mongoloid (Indian) phenotype or haplo group.


    • “Heather” both “caucasian” and “white” are social constructs. Cher is not the same as a western European. You haven’t taken a sample of her DNA to make the claim that she is “white”. Armenians are descendants of people who hailed from as far as South Asia to the Mediterranean. They cannot be grouped into one group or “race”. R1b is only ONE of four ydna haplogroups found among them proving my point that their line isn’t just akin to “whiteness”.


      • You are right. We consider Armenians their own megapopulation. Ancient DNA samples confirm some of them came from South India.

  5. Denise Waterford


    Claiming Native-American ancestry is something that caught on in the late 1960s, presumably with the Billy Jack craze. All the “cool people,” commonly known as “white people with a severe identity crisis” thought is was great fun to falsely claim Native-American ancestry to 1) impress their friends and 2) to alienate all the rest. Growing up in Portland, where “cool people” are endemic, I knew of one such group of Caucasian white teens who hung out at Portland State U. even though none of them were students there. They always insisted they were “part-American-Indian” until one day a real Native-American approached them. They all got up and ran away, never to show their faces on campus again.

    • Peanutbutter and Jam


      Denise Waterford, really? Insecurity issues have we? We were kids in the ’60s. What kid didn’t try to be cool then and now? let it go, you will live longer and be much happier.


      • I am s Cherokee Nation Citizen living in Oklahoma. Lydia Halfbreed was my biological grandmother. Cher is not a halfbreed Cherokee. I volunteer many hours within my tribe st our Heritage Center and our Cherokee Nation Colorguard. I would think anyone of good character and spirit that lied and profited from MY tribe and families genocide since the1970s would want to clear their name as Elizabeth Warren was held accountable for her mistrusts. CHER made millions singing this song HALFBREED. They are many here in Cherokee Nstion that frown on this woman for these untruths for profit and explotation of our names and history . I am one of those Warriors . I would love to meet her at our Heritage Center and give her a personal tour of our true Cherokee history anytime she could arrange it. I pray she would accept my humble offer She could be a positive influence for our future of Cherokee and America . WADO bird


        • I won’t reply in such a way as to let this space be devoted to fighting old wars about the white man’s history of Indians but your mention of Halfbreed interests me for purely genealogical reasons. Let’s leave popular culture and and Federal Indian policy out of history and genetics, okay?
          It seems the Hickses, Chisholms, “Motoys” and others had hardly measurable amounts of Native Blood to begin with but were mostly white opportunists on the frontier. Half of their families lived strictly as white people in Georgia. The Ridges had a bit of Natchez, the Hicks NA line was Chontal Maya, John Ross has so little NA in him, it would be hard to say what his mother was but she didn’t come from Cherokee territory. The Halfbreeds were Chickasaw, if anything. The Vanns were Scottish Jews with practically no NA heritage. Chief Black Fox (my ancestor) was part Choctaw and Chickasaw and had zero Cherokee. In few cases do we find much Cherokee, whatever that may be taken to be at the time.
          From the new book to be titled Cherokee DNA Studies: More People Who Proved the Geneticists Wrong (chapter 7, “The Jewish Strain”): Cherokees used to wear beards. “Anciently, all the Cherokees wore a long beard on the chin,” the grandmother of George Hicks told missionary and antiquarian Daniel S. Butrick about 1830. She wasn’t alone in reporting this. “The Raven says that the old men used to tell them that the ancient Cherokees had always been in the habit of wearing a long beard,” but they began plucking out their whiskers “probably 80 or 100 years ago.” The Raven was considerably more than a hundred years old “and now blind.” He stated:

          …[A]nciently the Cherokee men uniformly wore a long beard, as their fathers had done, & considered it peculiarly ornamental. It seldom grew over six inches long. It was considered almost an unpardonable offence to seize a man by his beard… [when I was a lad, I] feared [my] beard would not be so thick and long as was desirable; and being told what to do to promote its growth, [I] commenced doctoring it… The medicine, however, proved ineffectual, and [I] never had as heavy a beard as [I] had desired (243).

          The Raven lived until the summer of 1838.
          Two other sources confirm that Cherokee men tried to sometimes promote whiskers, sometimes pull them out (242). One of the sources was Thomas Smith, or Shield Eater (died 1828), a convert at Spring Place and regular informant to Butrick on Cherokee culture. Another was Zachariah, or Zacharias, formerly a silversmith, later a headman of Taloney, or Talona, a town on Talking Rock Creek in Gilmer County, Georgia. Of the two men, both were half bloods. Zacharias had a Hebrew name and may have come from Jewish forebears. The “grandmother of George Hicks,” his mother Lydia Halfbreed’s mother, was a half blood herself. She was known as Qua-la-yu-ga Gu-u-li-si Crittenden (d. 1849). Here is the descent of this matriline, ending in George Agustus Hicks, traced back to the Wild Potato Clan wife of Moytoy, the “Cherokee Emperor,” as the British called him in 1730:

          1. Wild Potato Clan Woman (1686-1730) m. Moytoy of Tellico (1687-1741, perhaps son of Moytoy of Chota, who was a French Jew by the name of Beamour)
          2. Ah-nee-wa-kee (Deerhead, b. 1710) m. Cornelius Dougherty (b. 1700, d. 1770 in Keowee Territory)
          3. Jennie Dougherty (abt. 1745-after 1826) m. Crittenden (Non-Cherokee)
          4. Qua-la-yu-ga Gu-u-li-si Crittenden (b. abt. 1760, d. 1849) m. George X Chisholm (bef. 1822)
          5. Lydia Halfbreed (abt 1774-1849) m. William Abraham Hicks, Principal Chief 1826-1828
          6. George Agustus Hicks (b. 1793, d. aft. 1858)


  6. Please allow me to share my story with being told I was Cherokee all my life and then finding out I’m Greek after taking a DNA test.

    My father’s family is in White County Arkansas, the same area where Cher’s Mom is from. My great grandmother was very dark and so some of her many children came out very dark, some even looked Native American. Her father had grown up in or around the Cherokee Nation in Georgia, so this was how they explained the dark looks, by saying somebody must have married a Cherokee. This of course was passed down as truth. Now where the Greek cames in, is still a mystery.

    • Donald N. Yates


      As for Greek… If you have read my Old World Roots of the Cherokee or are reading previews of the new book subtitled More Real People Who Proved the Geneticists Wrong or following Richard Thornton’s excellent research on North Georgia during the Spanish and Ottoman periods you will understand there are many ways Greeks could have been quite numerous in the Southern Highlands–galley slaves, miners etc. Both the Apalaches and Cherokees spoke Greek. Tamahitans is just another name for the Sea Peoples, who were mostly Greek. It’s an Egyptian word.

  7. Lynnette Gulley


    I’m not understanding the math here. If Jackie Jean was born in 1927 as stated and her dad (Crouch) is noted as born in 1905, how are you saying he was 17 when she was born? The math doesn’t add correctly – he’d be approximately 22. And why would her mom be 13? Mom’s birth year isn’t even noted here.


  8. What people doing research may not understand is how far back in time that Indian ancestry may enter their family. And, that you have to research each separate line backwards. people with Indian tend to marry people with Indian and that continues today among the white descendants at least here in TN.


    • You are right about part-Indian marrying part-Indian, especially in Tennessee. Way back in 1996 I wrote the following article, which I am reproducing here. Little has changed.
      Six Generations of Cherokee Blood
      By Donald N. Yates
      I first wrote this article in 1996, before the advent of genetics in genealogy research. Since then I have determined through DNA analysis that my Native American genetic makeup is probably less than half the figure I arrived at purely with reconstructed genealogy and oral history. Obviously, a lot of those “fullbloods” were not full bloods, but mixed.
      The interracial mixing in my family lines goes back further than I originally gauged. I estimate now that you have to go back to the generation of Cherokee born about 1750 to find the first 100 percent Native in my family tree. That is the generation of 6th great-grandparents, approximately the generation of Black Fox and Attakullakulla and Nancy Ward. Evidently, many of my Jewish ancestors exaggerated their admixture with the Indians. Still, a lot of the research hypothesis testing below can be of interest and, I hope, inspire others in their family searches.
      As an interesting aside, I also found a tiny degree of East Asian genes. Perhaps Gavin Menzies is right about the Chinese discovering America. …!

      After about seven years of intensive genealogy research, I have established my known degree of Indian blood. I wanted to share the results with the Amerind list, since I know a lot of you are in the same boat. Some of you even have the identical lines and surnames and brick walls. Probably few Indians today have had the opportunities I have had to investigate their family history. I feel anything further I may find will be a case of diminishing returns. I invite your discussion.
      How far I have come since that day in 1993 when an older second cousin of mine told me a surprising story about my fullblood Cherokee great-grandmother Elisabeth Yates and first piqued my interest! That was my father’s line. Lawden Yates died in 1978, without so much as telling a soul of his Indian blood. As you can see below, I have since determined that he was a minimum of a quarter blood, mixed Cherokee and Creek.
      My mother was supposed to have all the Indian blood. She put it all on her maternal grandmother Shankles. I subsequently found out that there was just as much in Mother’s paternal line, the Coopers. Does any of this sound familiar?
      Wherever I looked, I found Cherokee. Generation after generation, Cherokee or part-Cherokee married Cherokee. Was this an accident? I do not think so.
      My investigations suggested that I was the sixth generation since the last of the fullbloods born in the pre-Removal days before 1820. There is a saying that Cherokee elders and clan mothers plan to the seventh generation. Looks like they did — and are still doing — a good job!
      In a crude way of reckoning, four out of 32 of my ggg-grandparents appear to have been fullblood Cherokee, making me one-eighth. I found only one ancestor proven to be non-Indian, Louis Graben, from Germany.
      Besides Cherokee, which was the overwhelming element, there was a slight mixing with Creek, Cheraw (possible), Saponi (possible), Choctaw and Algonquian tribes such as Powhatan. Putting it all together, I estimate that I am about one-fourth American Indian by blood.
      An obvious question is if there was a pattern of Cherokee or part-Cherokee marrying another Cherokee, how to account for it — particularly in cases where spouses might have concealed or even been unaware of their Indian blood? All lived in a predominantly white society in Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee; the chances of consistently marrying another Cherokee in the area were slim. It is true that in each generation, most siblings in any given family (Coopers excepted) married non-Indians, so that Indian identification gradually disappeared in those lines.
      Another factor that contributed to the dying out of Indian identity was moving away from the ancestral lands. The Coopers on the other hand appear to have consciously conserved their bloodline, as I have investigated all my grand-aunts and -uncles’ families. Only Coopers and Sizemores attempted to legally claim their Indian heritage. They filed numerous applications, for instance, in the Guion Miller process of 1906. All were rejected by the government.
      A generalization I could make is that when the blood degree drops below one-fourth, there is a tendency no longer to identify as Indian, marry another Indian or raise your children with knowledge of the culture. One reason for the magic figure of one-fourth is that most of us do not interact with family members older than grandparents: typically, mixed bloods have one Indian grandparent and are thus one-fourth Indian. Grandpa or Grandma may or may not have “talked.”
      Of course, locale and Federal Indian policy have a lot to do with it. During generation one (pre-1820) when the official U.S., state and local government policy was extinction, the only Indians who survived off reservations kept a very low profile. Today, in generation six (Self-Determination), Indians are legally and openly asserting their own identity and culture. As long as the Indian wars lasted (until 1889), it was dangerous to be an Indian.
      My Coopers survived because they lived in a “gray” backwoods area on Sand Mountain straddling county lines and state lines. Still, the government managed to repossess their land, in 1892.
      Looks played a part, too. Some of the Blevins children were explicitly named Red, White and Black. My great-grandfather Henry Yates was half to three-quarters Indian and didn’t look it or admit it. His brothers Josephus and George looked Cherokee to a T and their descendants preserved many of the family memories.
      It was a custom for the carrier of certain traditions and stories to select one child or grandchild to pass them to. In some generations, none was qualified, and the tradition died. Stories were considered part of the possessions of a clan — living things that were treated with respect and honor. The Cooper tradition that we are descended from chiefs was passed from Isaac Cooper to his son Isaac, to Isaac’s son William, to grandson Peter Cooper. Peter’s wife, Lindy Sizemore, was the carrier of the Sizemore secrets. Much in Indian history hangs by a slender thread.
      A final thought is that, perhaps, there really is something to “having Indian blood.” I have a rare blood type (A negative), as does my wife. It is unlikely that a woman with A negative can have numerous children with a man of positive type (unless modern medicine intervenes with a drug like Rhogam). My wife and I do not have that problem. In a blood type study of indigenous people, A was the predominant type, though it represented less than 2 percent of the overall population. Certain groups like the reservation Cheyenne (Algonquian stock) and Amazonian Indians had 95 percent type A.
      May 15, 2000

  9. Annita J (Taylor) Fulton


    Your information about Cher having no Cherokee ancestry is incorrect. My great grandfather, Silas Clayton Green and Cher’s great grandmother, Laura Belle Green were brother and sister. Our great-great grandfather was Cherokee and his father had more Cherokee blood because of his parents. I have this documentation in my family history. Cher is listed as my 1st cousin, 3 times removed. I think that’s 3rd cousins. We have never met, although I was told that one of my first cousins had been in contact with Cher’s mother. We came from Arkansas, my great grandfather from Independence County and later our family settled in Izard County.


    • Hi, Thanks for setting the record straight. It would almost be odd if she didn’t have some Cherokeee ancestry given her mother’s family’s origins and migrations. I will make a note of your comment in our new book, chapter 1.

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