The Cherokee Syndrome
[imgbelt img=girl-paper-doll.jpg]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.
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