The Cherokee Syndrome

Why do so many people want to claim Native American ancestry (making the Cherokee the most prolific ethnic group in the world)?

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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.

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 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.

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.


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