Sunday, March 29, 2015

The Cherokee Syndrome


ojibwe dancer via Squidoo Paperdoll costume for an Ojibwe dancer: fold the tabs for a new identity Although the groundhog saw his shadow hereabouts, winter continues to have a strong hold on the Ohio Valley. Folks have sort of hunkered down, waiting for the cold to break. It’s time for a little controversial discussion to get our blood heated up so I am offering up the topic of American Indian identity, a real tinderbox of emotion.

Folks I would not consider Indian seem to love to claim American Indian ancestry. The tribe of choice is usually Cherokee and the alleged ancestor, inevitably, a great grandmother who had “coal black hair.” (I like to joke that every third person here has a Cherokee great grandmother.)

It has gotten so that when strangers ask me if I’m Indian I am sorely tempted to answer, “Que?” and shake my head in misunderstanding.

It doesn’t matter that I explain I’m not Cherokee, that Ojibwe speak an entirely different language and have our own unique culture and spirituality. I can’t count the number of times I have been cornered by well meaning folk who seem hell bent on telling me everything they know about Cherokee -- the universal Indians, in their minds. Breathlessly, they pour out their knowledge to me, knowledge that has usually been gleaned from history books written by non-Indians, New Age books, the Internet and similar sources. I work hard to keep a non-judgmental expression on my face because these folks are excited; they are driven and emotional, often working themselves up into tears. They’ve been to a powwow. They tell me they are, “Indian in their hearts,” and want a hug. I’ve gotten pretty good at making slick getaways from such situations, but continue to be mystified and amazed by  “The Cherokee Syndrome.”

Some people are desperate to prove their Cherokee ancestry, and in the entrepreneurial spirit of America, businesses are emerging that cater to this demand. A recent story in the Tahlequah Daily Press describes a new Cherokee DNA service.

Why do people want to claim Indian ancestry over, say, African-American ancestry? Given the history of this region that straddles the Mason-Dixon line, I imagine it’s far more likely that white folks hereabouts have African ancestry. But I guess there’s not as much cachet in claiming that a white slave owner raped your great grandma.

Given the wide-ranging and large numbers of claims to Cherokee ancestry, this  would certainly have to be the most prolific ethnic group in the history of the world.
ojibwe roach via Squidoo Hair roach, Ojibwe paperdoll Why are people are so anxious to claim Indian ancestry? I’ve asked this of myself and many others. Dr. Venida Chenault, a member of the Prairie Band Pottawatomie who works at Haskell Indian Nations University, gave my favorite response. “Well, we are pretty cool people,” she said.

The romanticized Hollywood image of the noble savage, in tune with nature and righteously defending his people against the onslaught of greedy Europeans has fed the desire to claim connection. For most “claimers,” the bond is with a safely distant past, unaware of the contemporary state of Indian Country and its continuing struggles with the U.S. government. Jack Hitt describes this trend as “ethnic shopping” in his excellent piece in the New York Times; he observes “The Newest Indians” are simply people who don alternative identities that they find more interesting or personally comfortable.

In the ultimate embodiment of American consumerism, one can simply purchase a new self.

There is also a sort of rural myth that American Indians get money and scholarships. A non-Indian woman I interviewed near the Rosebud Sioux reservation in South Dakota, said, “They all get checks you know.
“All people who are a ¼ Indian or more receive checks from the government," Bertie told me, nodding sagely.

Dang, I missed out again!

I explained that although I am half Ojibwe I have never received any check from the federal government for being Indian. “Oh, well you Ojibwe are so much more industrious,” she said, flustered. 

A few years ago, I wrote a story about those in higher education who may be falsely claiming Indian identity.  Dr. Grayson Noley, (Choctaw), department chair of the College of Education at the University of Oklahoma said, “If you have to search for proof of your heritage, it probably isn’t there.”

I noted a couple of famous cases of professors whose heritage has been called into question including Ward Churchill and Terry Tafoya. 
University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill’s ethnicity has been questioned by the news media and many Indian leaders. The ethnic studies professor came under intense public scrutiny after he called some victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks “little Eichmanns.” 

The Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News did extensive research into his genealogy and concluded that his claims of Native ancestry are based on family lore and unsupported by fact. He has claimed at various times to be of Creek, Cherokee, Metis and Muscogee heritage.

choctaw dress via Squidoo Choctaw girl's costume 

An investigation by the Seattle Post Intelligencer found that Terry Tafoya, a nationally known psychologist who made his Native heritage a large part of his public persona, was neither a member of the Warm Springs Tribe of Oregon nor an enrolled member of the Taos Pueblo as he claimed. Tafoya formerly was a psychology professor at The Evergreen State College and sat on the board of the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction at Indiana University. The Seattle paper also reported that Tafoya admitted in a legal deposition that he never earned a doctorate from the University of Washington, credentials that helped propel his career. The newspaper report prompted a criminal investigation to determine if Tafoya had violated a Washington law banning the use of false academic credentials.

Comparing the number of American Indians reported by the U. S. Census versus reports of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, an interesting disparity emerges.
According to the Census, which records those who self-identify as American Indians, there are 4.9 million Indians in the U. S.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs, which records the number of people who are enrolled in federally recognized tribes, reports that there are 1.9 million American Indians in the U.S.

So who is an Indian? I predict that this question will light up our message board here at the Yonder. Some say being Indian means being recognized by the tribal community as a member. Some say it means being enrolled in a tribe -- essentially the same thing since all tribes determine their own rules for enrollment. (Some tribes accept proof of descendency from those on the original rolls created when the U.S. government began taking our land, while others require proof of at least 1.4 blood quantum; there is a wide spectrum.) Some will say it means knowing your tribal language, culture, relatives and place in the universe and doing so with humility. Many would say that those who advertise themselves as “healers,” “medicine people,” “prophets” or “teachers of Indian ways, ‘’ are surely not Indian.

I know what my old Mom would say. She would say you’re not Indian unless white people have treated you like shit for being Indian.

iroquois headdress via Squidoo Iroqois headpiece I have my own theories about why people want to claim to be Indian. I think people are desperately looking for a sense of place and connection. As human beings, we need to have a connection to the earth, to place and ultimately to each other.  Unfortunately, the only way some folks know how to find or get something is to buy it and own it as quickly as possible. Since Indians are widely believed to have an almost magical connection with nature, why not just claim to be Indian and legitimize the claim by purchasing a DNA test? It’s silly and kind of sad.

All in all, being Indian doesn’t really get you very much in this country. There are neither fat monthly checks nor assurances of quality healthcare, education or jobs. For me, however, being Indian has given me a roadmap for my life. My culture has helped me navigate the pitfalls of an American consumer society that judges folks on what they own and what they do for a living versus how they live and treat each other. My culture has also helped instill me with gratitude for the gift of an ordinary day of life on this magnificent earth. I think those are philosophies that anyone, Indian or not, can embrace.


So true!

This is something my friends and I often discuss, but we call it the Cherokee Myth Phenomenom. I write a Cherokee genealogy and history blog and this mythological Cherokee ancestor/wannabeism topic comes up a lot simply because so many people wrongly believe they descend from a Cherokee. Thanks for helping bring attention to the subject.

Thousands and Thousands

A tidal wave of  white settlers entered into the traditional land of the Old Cherokee Nation in the Southeastern United States as well countless other tribes.  Is it really any wonder that single white men marrying native americans would produce thousands upon thousands of decendents?  When someone tells me they have Cherokee ancestors I don't automatically assume they are wannabes.  Their family histories may not be documented and for good reason.  Documenting your native heritage could mean immediate removal to the lands to the west, seizure of property, expulsion from church, and children sent to "indian" schools to have the "heathen beaten out of them".  This is a complicated story, yes many do make claims that are not accurate or fabricated.  The more people that are interested in the history of our native people the better.  Show patience.  When the student is ready the teacher appears.

I resent how "real" indians treat "wannabes'

I couldnt have said it better dhannah !

I have been searching my family tree for years to prove the stories that I have been told all of my life. I totally agree that in a lot of instances there is just not the paper work to prove what we have been told all of our lives. My family is proud to be Scot- Irish so why would they make up something just to say they are Cherokee. Years ago the opposite was true that is why so many are not on the rolls.  I agree that sometimes people are mistaken but sometimes they are not. 

I have been seaching for my Native connections and even though i always believed I had native blood, the way some native people act about us "wannabes" makes you not even want to be associated with them. 

I believe that if I met our ancestors before such things as "rolls" they would accept me 

PS: I recently found one of the ancestors I was looking for. I am part Cherokee so there goes the "wannabe" title. And I dont wannabe Cheroke anymore than I want to be any other heritage that I am. Its all good ! Its just nice to know what your real heritage is just for your own satisfaction of putting all the pieces in place after all these years of hearing your great grandparents talk about family history!

Cherokee Syndrome

Excellent article Mary.  Just had a wonderful discussion about some of these issues this week at U of I Champaign Urbana. Students mentioned there seemed to be more people claiming tribes other than Cherokee, these days.  Some of those mentioned in the discussion were Metis and Aztec. The discussion soon led to legal definitions of enrollment in a United States tribe.Thank you for keeping the discussion alive.

Don't the Cherokeees have any normal women?

I hear the "great grandmother was a Cherokee princess" thing a lot.

It makes me wonder: Does this mean that there are no normal Cherokee women?

Are they all princesses?

I ususally never comment ,but....

This article stopped me in my tracks.

My husband is of Native American Heritage(his mother is from the Rosebud Sioux Reservation).

I don't think I've ever wanted to crawl under a table so much as when my in-laws

met my family for the first time!My husbands family had just had me over for dinner a few days before and they were all joking about how white people always seem to claim Indian blood (particularly Cherokee)but back in their day no one wanted to be Indian.

Well, there we all are a few days later when my Aunt seems like the one thing that would impress my new family is that her niece has Cherokee ancestors!!!!So she continues until a change of subject and they just listen politely. They all seemed to have a knowing smile with a hint of "this woman is crazy".

(I was never so mortified though and this affected me so that I wanted to study Native American history to kill any other misconceptions that I might ever encounter and asked my mother-in-law and her sisters plenty of questions about their past on the reservation)

I am always amazed that to this day EVERYONE of the non-Indian people in this world I've known has the exact same misconception -that ALL Indians live off the government!

To me its obvious,non-indians make up this propaganda in their own minds from the start of Indian assimilation, simply to make themselves feel better,so they say "See,the Indians really didn't/don't suffer -they've got it made in fact".

Sorry for was such a great article!



The Lost Children

Many children were taken from Native American homes. Not everyone with legitimate heritage was made aware of that heritage. I am a descendant of a SE Alaska tribe. I was premature and supposed to die. My birth mother never knew of my existance until 15 years ago. That's when I learned the rest of my heritage . . . that does not make me a 'wannabe.'  Since my birth father died at sea I only have a few welcoming cousins who stand up for me . . . and I treasure those cousins as the best and greatest of my family.

Cherokee 'Indians"

I always get that said to me at my job. I interact with the public at a local Native American themed dinner cruise. A lot of pale skinned people tell me that they are native. A direct quote: I'm Cherokee on my Grandmothers side. I can't prove it because my family records were lost in "The Church Fire"!!!! My Indian name is "Kills Bears". Then they stand there glaring at me like it's a dare to dispute the claim they just made. One gentleman even went on  to tell me, Rather Forcefully, that he was a Chief but an indepth search later uncovered - - -nothing anywhere on his background of such an enormous position of authority was in his family heritage. This man was clad in psuedo bone necklaces with taiwan beads hanging from his neck, a Northwest Coastal designs tattooed on his arms. A woman was standing next to him then said to me; You must be Honored to have a Real Indian Chief shake your hand. It is embarrassing to have this sort of behavior acted out on me in public. I'm really dark skinned and sometimes I'll announce to a white crowd; Hey, I'm 1/16 Scandinavian on my Grandmothers side but my family records were lost in the fire. The reponse is something like; Get Outta here ya &odd@mn#d drunk Indian. It's a very one-sided street where true Native American claims are worthless but White American claims to Cherokee Heratige are to be treated as statements of fact where there is aabsolutely to be no despute. I have people, always white, announce to me, I'm Cherokee, It's gotten to where i can hear whats going to be told me before it's actually said. I asked my boss, Why can't it ever be a tribe like Sac and Fox or Oneida, or Huron? Why is it Always Cherokee?

Cherokee Indian claims

I totally agree with you Skyhawk. Ive met so many ppl in the A.A. community make this claim, yet have no idea about their claimed Cherokee heritage. Sometimes I want to ask them if they knew the Cherokee owned slaves and sided with the Confederacy during the Civil War, but thats another story. Ive noticed ppl tend to make these claims because of an ancestors features rather than facts. Ive seen plenty of biracial children who possess features ppl would consider Native American, hint hint to the ppl that claim great grandmother had longer beautiful hair and very light skin.

poor case pale face

I'm just a little bastard I guess..It really hurts having no family..I cant stand white people, they are evil. But I do have Cheerokee in my blood, and whether you want to believe or not, I have my Indian ancestors that guide me and show me many things, so , I understand the frustration we little bastards provoke but never again does the white man have power to degrade me and neither do you!

Famous tribes

Beyond Cherokee , I tend to give people the side eye when they say they are part of any famous tribe. Or if they cannot identify an exact family mother was born on the quinalt reservation but is squaxin island Indian, but was adopted into a white family. We were reunited with her birth family (my moms birth sisters, as her mother died in the 1980s) and since we've slowly built a family relationship. I have since been tribally enrolled, but still feel a disconnect growing up not knowing anything about my family history.. Anyway, I digress. Most of the actual Indians I have met have been from local or smaller tribes...

Cherokee Princess

What really stinks is when you're mostly white (don't know which tribe), but grew up actually Cherokee in the 14 counties.  I speak my language, eat plenty of frybread, beanbread, grape dumplins, and kanuche, but if I ever visit other tribes and tell em I'm a Cherokee, they look at me like the green-eyed white devil who sired my grands.  I don't even bother telling most people of my family, especially if they're Indians.  All those wannabe, wishtheywuz, and generokee tribes claiming my peeps make it awfully hard on a yoneg atsuts' like ME!


I am an urban shoshone woman who lives in Portland oregon, home to all hippies that wandered away from San Fran in a fog of weed smoke and Cherokee "Medicine". More and more it seems every single person I meet says they are Cherokee, and, yes, there are quite a few people out there who are mixed blood and really are Cherokee but at this point the amount of Cherokee "medicine men" and "chiefs" is ridiculous. I always want to ask why they choose to parade their Indian heritage around instead of the much more likely black, italian, celt or french heritage? Why choose to claim something that you have no involvement in? I have known people who are 1/4 or 1/8 who are much more traditional than some full bloods I know and the Cherokee Syndrome is detrimental to these people. And inevitably these people say that one day they are going to enroll to "get their checks" it's only a matter of tracking down this mysterious Grandmother, (which quickly changes to great-grandmother, or great great grandmother), and her parents names. I never say anything rude, but there have been many times that I have been berated by these people because Indians today are "lazy and whiny and living off the government" when we should be more like this mysterious grandma who lived just fine off the resevation. Honestly, I know most people mean no harm and are only looking for a connection to the land that they now call home, but in many ways claiming your heritage just for the sake of "rights" to America or as an explanation of the "visions" you have is insulting to Natives who live as traditional people, it implies that Natives are mythical and a relic of the past, it also disregards the struggles of our people in the modern age, if you are not ready to go to the rez and fight the poverty, hopelessness, and loss of language and culture you should not call yourself Native, even if you are a full blood. When people tell me about their visions and "full-blood grandma" who was born in a tepee, who  "you can totally tell is indian because she had high cheek bones and thick black hair"it makes me feel like I did every thanksgiving in school when kids would "war-whoop" at me and fake rain dance around me and call me pocahantas. It makes me feel like a bug on a dissection table.

If you do have heritage, then get involved in the culture because you are really welcome, but if you are only interested in being a stereotype and getting all that "casino and college money", keep it to yourself. Natives need to bring our children home to heal our wounds, not another century of the noble savage image.

Cherokee Syndrome

I found this sight by accident. I typed in Why does everyone say they are Cherokee. The reason I am researching this is because I have a sister 2 yrs older than me who all of a sudden is claiming to be (You guessed it) Cherokee. She has gone so far as to tell everyone she has been asked to helped translate a book written in Cherokee. I just dont know how this can be since shes only started saying she was Cherokee less than a year ago. She doesnt even write english very well so Im wondering who would want her on such a commitee? Im thinking she either has mental issues or she is trying to work some kind of con. What kind of con I have no idea. Im just not wired like her. She and I were given away never adopted just given away. I was a cotton top. I dont know if there were cotton top indians. I kind of doubt it. I am in no way knowledgable when it come to things Indian. I wish I were but.....

I guess what Im wanting to ask is how do I address her when she is posting Cherokee words that Im thinking she googled before posting it on FB to all her other "Cherokee on their mothers side" friends.. It reminds me of fortune cookies with the Chinese words on one side.

Thank you for any feedback.

The Ancestors

I think that the amount of Ancestors in the blood of Anglos in this country is greater than we know. To be fair, the majority of people claiming Cherokee blood probably are correct. The Cherokee were a great nation. Intermarriage amongst them was quite common. Perhaps they hear the voice of the Earth and the Ancestors. DNA and mitochondria studies are proving how powerful blood is. Even Native stories speak very much about the strength of our Ancestors. Such a thing was a part of many prophecies, after all. It has long been said that the Original people would lead the white brothers to the path of peace. Many people with great medicine view this awakening as a direction towards this healing. The Great Spirit has united the Native Americans with the rest of the world as planned, as prophesied. The Great Spirit does not love one people more than the other. The Great Spirit mourns for all off the Earth.


My great grandmother was full Cherokee in the Appalachians of Kentucky. She married an Anglo and converted to Seventh Day Adventist. Her story was a sad one. In this time there was much shame. I have no papers for this. It is written in my blood. It is written in mountain and forest. It breaks bread with the Jewish and pagan in me. It cannot be taken from me. It has been shared in many silent conversations with many wounded eyes and many broken hearts. It weeps with my grandmother, but it weeps most for the Earth and for the heart of all humans.

A Big Let Down

There is family lore that I am part Cherokee on my mother's side, and part Abenaki on my father's side. It did not take much research to debunk both of those. On my mother's side, I can't find a shred of evidence of any involvement with native americans. On my father's side, a very distant cousin of one of my ancestors married a native american, but I am not descended from that union.

I do, however, understand the "Cherokee Syndrome". For me, it would be a vindication, of sorts. I did not steal anyone's land. I did not enslave anyone. I did not commit atrocities and genocide. Knowing that at least one of my ancestors didn't do those things either would make me feel better.

It is similar to how many people in the north claim some affiliation to the underground railroad. They believe that if they came from ancestors who helped free slaves, then they are somehow better people.

I know it is totally unreasonable to feel that way. You don't have to descend from great people to be a great person. But I guess some people (including me, sometimes) just don't get that.

I am what you call a wannabe

In the 1950s, my father told me that we were decended from a Cherokee princess.  At the time, I didn't believe him because I knew that native americans did not use titles of royality like those in Europe.  While in college, I had a history professor that told me that when the english came to this country, they associated the cheif of the village and his family in terms of british royality.  I did not follow up on this because at that time there was no internet and it would traveling to various state and federal archives.

About 6 months ago, my wife wanted me to do a family tree for her.  She had been told that her grandmother on her father's side was a full blooded Cherokee.  I found very quickly that her grandmother was not a native american. I couldn't find any native americans in her family tree.  But for the fun of it, I also did my family tree.

While checking on my father's side, I found my grandmother was the daughter of Sarah Alice William, who was the daughter of Lucas Williams.  Lucas Williams was the son of Robert S. Williams.  Robert was the son of Philip Williams and Robert's wife was a full blooded Cherokee.  Philip's father was an english indian trader living amoung the Cherokee.  Philip's mother was the daughter of a cheif and was either full blooded Cherokee or half Cherokee.  Philip married a Cherokee woman and lived in the village with her for a time.  Later moved his family to the Big Sandy valley of Eastern Kentucky.  Philip and his wife are buried in Johnson County Kentucky in "The Old Indian Cementry".   There at least 3 grand children of Philip Williams that used their relationship to him for the Guion roll.  This is all documented and Philip Willliams is listed in the Kentucky Native American data base.

I have nothing to gain from being a Cherokee.  As a 100% service connected veteran, I already get more than enough money to live on.  Also, my wife and myself already get free health care also from the VA.  

I am not a wannabe- I am an I am

I AM Cherokee, Scot Irish, Swiss/German, Black and English.

I dont want anything from the government or from the Cherokee Tribe .

I am waiting for my right connection to my heritage. Some nice, understanding,TRUE person that

will accept me for the mixture I am and understand why I want to claim to be part Cherokee.

No I didnt grow up on a reservation and I dont go around saying I am Cherokee. I just list it with my other heritages. I dont know anything about being swiss either but I still claim that heritage.

There are a few people on here that have the right attitude. They understand that there are lots of people espcecially in the South East who claim to be part Cherokee because they probably are on more family lines than one. And yes, we probably are all part African too.  

I dont have any guilt about what my ancestors did, do you? Thats crazy. And as I said I dont want anything from anyone either. 

I am a very spiritual person and I know I dont need anyones approval to be what I am.

Just found proof of one on my Cherokee lines today after years of feeling like a wannabe because you "real" indians are such jerks.