My god, can the government even count?
The United States Census recently assessed that the Native population in America has grown a staggering 39 percent in the past decade. It seems that there are now 5.2 million Native Americans across the United States, as opposed to the 2.2 million reported by the census a mere 10 years ago. A few years back the Census Bureau had a representative at one of the pow wows I produce, and I found that he was encouraging everyone to register as a Native American who had a great-grandmother story. Therefore, everyone who showed up as a guest and was moved by the sound of the drums, savored the smell of frybread or had a high cheekbone, signed up with the census as a Native American.
As long as the census is adding these state-incorporated Cherokee tribes and others to their count there will never be a real accountability of Native people. States across America have allowed little Indian clubs, organizations and hobbyists to be recognized as state tribes, which is a direct insult to the three real Cherokee tribes and their members. No one is saying that some of these people are not of Cherokee linage, but if you don’t meet the criteria to be on the rolls of the Eastern Band, the Keetoowah or Cherokee Nation, then just be proud to assess yourself as a descendent. I am guessing that the legitimate Cherokee Tribes of North Carolina and Oklahoma can appreciate the support of people with remnant blood stock and/or the mere love of the Cherokee culture, but they do not need anyone else’s help to make babies or new tribes as they have paid dearly to remain culturally identifiable while others sat back until it was either fashionable or profitable to try and recognize themselves as a tribal member.
I myself am not a tribal member of any group nor do I wish to be but I do value the working alliance that I have had with all the federal Cherokee tribal factions as an advocate for many of their concerns. During the late 1980s during a land occupation in Georgia, I was supported by the Keetoowah, Cherokee Nation and the Snowbird EBC in which they allotted me their flags and allowance to represent them regarding sacred site conservancy. You can help save the whales, dolphins, trees, etc., without becoming one. As an animal welfare advocate I have found myself speaking up for those who can’t speak for themselves, but the Cherokee people and other Native people have tongues, minds and hearts and do not need myself or others to speak on their behalf nor to create offshoot tribes as associates. It’s one thing to be a historian, a descendant and/or a collaborator for and/or with tribal entities or individuals, but it’s entirely different to profess yourself as a tribal conglomerate composed of an existing tribe.
Anyhow, the state of Georgia and others have been shameful with their quick stroke of the pen when initiating little fad-oriented groups into state tribes as though they are made up of people who have sustained their native identity via their language, the arts, religious/spiritual and agricultural practices, etc. The Appalachian culture is a fusion of Scotch, Irish, German and European Cultures along with that of Native Peoples and it has proud roots of its own that flourishes throughout the eastern United States.
In many cases when you hear how an element of Native people hid out in the mountains during the Forced Removal, they either regrouped with an alliance of Natives that now make up Cherokee, North Carolina, Snowbird or other Indian communities recognized by the Eastern Band or they splintered off into non-Native groups. So for the most part, it is most likely that the hearsay tale of an ancestor hiding out in the Eastern Mountains of Alabama or Georgia during the Trail of Tears either perished or intermarried into one of the Euro-groups that settled in the Cherokee region. With all of that said, it does not mean that one’s Cherokee blood has dissipated nor that one’s love for the Native culture does not exist. However, to claim tribal membership outside of an existing tribe by incorporating a tribe is cultural and spiritual piracy and for state governments to endorse and/or support the incorporation of Cherokee tribes outside of the three existing legitimate Cherokee tribes is a blatant attempt to create the illusion that these states have reconciled with those they forcibly—and I might add, illegally—removed from their rightful homeland in 1838-39. As a intertribal historian and cultural event producer, I am of Native descent myself and quick to point out that where my wife is full blood and my children more so than I, if I get a nose bleed I might not be Indian tomorrow but I will still be their father and Native in origin.
I have been producing cultural events for almost a quarter of a century and have friends and family comprised of several tribes but that does not make me more Indian than white. I have pun-fully stated that I am “Redneck & Indian” and in the Indian exploitation business but in real life I like many others have a real affinity, reverence and respect for Native cultures. Where I have friends and extended family in the Cherokee Nation and within the Eastern Band, I am not tribally associated with them nor do I speak for them, but I do feel for their plight in which they have to combat the sometimes belittling and often exhausting individuals and groups that plagiarize their identity as a tribal entity. To claim Cherokee heritage or any other linage that you may belong to via documentation or family hearsay is a right of passage throughout our lives but to undermine the relevance of another is less than savory and disfiguring to oneself. So, if a person of descent does not meet the criteria to be on the rolls of a legitimate tribe, it does not necessarily mean they are not Indian. But it also does not justify their creating piggy-back tribes that lend to state governments lending credence to them or allocating any prospective state or federal appropriations to them and/or their state tribe affiliate members. Maybe, just maybe, some of these little groups might want to simply create an Indian association or some other advocacy organization that supports a cultural interest that so many people have come to love.
The “Trail of Tears Association” has done a lot to restore, preserve and maintain historic sites and trail-ways and where some of these folks are of Cherokee descent, many are just plain ol’ hard-working people who want to do something adventurous and nice for the people they say they love so much and/or may even be descendants of. Someone once said, “One percent Cherokee, 100 percent!” Okay, I like that saying but for crying out loud, don’t let the Federal Census hear that or the next time they take a survey the New Cherokee Tribes will have more members than Chief Zuckerberg and the Facebook Tribe.
Either way, have a happy day.
Chipa Wolfe is an earth activist, writer, cultralist, historian on intertribal affairs, cultural educator and performer.