How should we define what it means to be Cherokee in the 21st century?
Enrolled members of the Cherokee Nation, Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, and the United Ketoowah Band of Cherokee Indians in Oklahoma represent a clear standard for Cherokees. Some view non-citizen descendants as “wannabes” regardless of the individual’s heritage, knowledge, or community involvement. Despite this, there seem to be three things that identify one as Cherokee. They involve the congenital or ancestral, the cultural or societal, and the metaphysical or spiritual.
Congenital/ancestral (It’s not about the cheekbones)
During the 2012 election cycle, Elizabeth Warren, a United States Senator from Massachusetts for the Democratic Party, said that a family member told her that Warren’s “papaw” (grandfather) had high cheek bones and, therefore, was an Indian. The cheekbone declaration and lack of curiosity coming from this woman regarding Cherokee culture and history are breathtaking. When pressed, Warren was unable to support her assertions of being Cherokee. To date, Warren has never sufficiently addressed those early assertions regarding Cherokee descent to satisfy this writer. She has preferred to remain silent, showing no interest in learning more about our history, culture, or concerns.
In the more recent election, Donald Trump called Warren “Pocahontas,” which generated laughter and further sarcasm among more than a few Americans. Again this week, Trump, with a portrait of Andrew Jackson looming in the background, referenced Pocahontas (meant to insult Warren) while attending a Navajo Code Talker ceremony in the Oval Office designed to honor these veterans for their service. Such comments demonstrate the profound ignorance and stereotypes about indigenous life and heritage. Pocahontas was a Powhatan and endured kidnapping, rape, and an early death; nothing funny about that. As Cherokees—enrolled or not—we must speak out against the irrelevance of high cheekbones and the cruel and dangerous conventions of our people.
Those of us not endowed with tribal citizenship get caught in the middle of a rather nasty, race-baited quagmire. We’re stuck somewhere between the fumblers like Warren and enrolled Cherokees who were diligently raised as such. Individual Native American self-determination upsets the balance of things within the tribe, even when such self-identification is accurate. I comprehend that Cherokees want to emphasize the nation-to-nation relationship with the United States government, even though Cherokees were Cherokee before such a relationship existed, yet that speaks to my point: One either has Cherokee ancestors or one does not. My dilemma here is the proclamation sometimes put forth that only citizenship and/or race determine who is a Cherokee. More dialogue is in order.
Cultural/societal (“the proudest little possession”)
An artist named Jimmie Durham has been the subject of recent controversy, particularly amongst Cherokees. The Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990 (P.L. 101-644) was instituted to protect tribal members and certified Indian artisans from fraudulent individuals claiming Indian heritage. In earlier times, Durham claimed Cherokee heritage and to date has presented no documentation of Cherokee ancestry. One recent article describes Durham as a “77-year-old white guy.”i Durham should be protested and perhaps disciplined, but my concern lies with the language among some who use race as a primary argument. Fortunately, Cherokee Nation citizens that I know (most of who are of mixed racial origin) are more concerned about Durham’s misrepresentation than his racial makeup. Humorist Will Rogers (my third cousin, three times removed) was a “white guy.” He was also Native American, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation. Rogers is reported to have said, “I am a Cherokee and it’s the proudest little possession I ever hope to have.” Today, plenty of others, even in high-level tribal government roles, are white guys. They are also Native American. Clearly, it’s about more than pigmentation.
It has been said that of all creatures, the U.S government registers three according to some type of pedigree database: dogs, horses, and Native Americans. If race describes physical features and ethnicity refers to cultural characteristics, how are we to differentiate and bring clarity to this outdated and patrimonial construct? I have at least one “mixed-blood” Cherokee ancestor listed as white on some census roles and Indian or Native American on others. This was a period in history when it wasn’t “cool” to be Native American. Race played a much greater role before and during early European contact, when Cherokee mixed marriages were few. Is our current condition about race, or is it about how each Cherokee expresses and celebrates his or her identity and heritage? Regarding Jimmie Durham, the purposeful distortion of his identity supersedes his skin color. He was wrong in principle, regardless of his race. Being Cherokee is certainly about birthright but it’s also about being part of a sacred community that in contemporary times represents people of mostly mixed-racial heritage and a sincere, ethnocentric focus on the traditions and values of our ancestors.
Metaphysical/spiritual (“All my relations”)
The spiritual aspect of being Cherokee belongs to all of us. It lends to more than speculation about cheekbones or DNA sampling, which is spurious at best regarding Native American identity. It’s about deep-seated relationships, such as with one’s higher purpose, others (people, especially ancestors; the created order as a whole—“all my relations”), and self. Many Cherokees have a deep connection with something greater than themselves. Incidentally, one of my second great-aunts was named Julia Pocahontas Lowe. Perhaps Julia’s mother, Cynthia, meant to honor Pocahontas as an expression of her own metaphysical leanings. Most Cherokees with which I am familiar tend to express some sense of reality about something that is beyond their perception and tend to use their awareness to add to the greater good, usually in service to others.
How are we to continue to think about being Cherokee? Perhaps stepping back and viewing things from a broader perspective is in order. In December 1971, Canadian Pierre Berton interviewed martial artist and actor Bruce Lee for The Pierre Berton Show. When Berton asked Lee if he considered himself Chinese or North American, Lee, a philosophy major and enjoying the height of his popularity, said that he preferred to think of himself as a human being and that “Under the sky, under the heaven, there is but one family.”ii In times of such division, wise words to ponder.
Being Cherokee by citizenship or descent is a distinction, a specific branch of the larger family tree. We possess those qualities that differentiate us from others, while simultaneously demonstrating characteristics that permit us to harmonize with them. Let us continue to relate to the rest of the family with common sense and charity.
Bryan Jackson is a member of the Mt. Hood Cherokees. His ancestors span the censuses from the Reservation Roll of 1817 to the 1909 Guion Miller Roll. A few of those ancestors travelled the Trail of Tears in the Bell Detachment. He holds life placement in the First Families of the Cherokee Nation (Sonicooie) and the First Families of the Twin Territories.
- i. Budick, Ariella. “Jimmie Durham at the Whitney: Cherokee artist or white imposter?” Financial Times, November 6, 2017.
- ii. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qur7lONoqQU