Why Do So Many Americans Claim to Have Cherokee Blood?Nov 14, 2019
Throughout my entire life, I was told that I had Cherokee blood. My dad claimed to be 1/16th and my mother always said she was 1/8th. Although, I never heard a convincing story about any Cherokee relatives.
My dad and mother both claimed that some great something-or-other married a Cherokee woman at some point in the nebulous past. I always believed they were telling the truth. In fact, I wanted it to be true.
As a blonde-haired kid from suburban Los Angeles, I thought that having Cherokee blood made me a lot cooler than being a run-of-the-mill white boy. It made me feel more spiritual and, in a small way, part of a meaningful struggle.
My sister took an Ancestry.com DNA test and low-and-behold, she wound up being 99.8% European (English, Irish, Scandinavian) and 0.2 North African.
Not one drop of Native American blood.
Which pretty much means that I have zero Cherokee blood as well. I’m white as a tuna casserole.
I’m far from the only American that has incorrectly believed they have Cherokee blood. In 2010, the Census Bureau reported that 819,105 Americans claimed at least one Cherokee ancestor. Among them are Senator Elizabeth Warren, Miley and Billy Ray Cyrus, Bill Clinton, Johnny Cash, and Johnny Depp.
Are all of them right?
“There’s a running joke in Indian country,” a spokesperson for the Cherokee Nation said in 2012. “If you meet somebody who you wouldn’t necessarily think they’re Native, but they say they’re Native, chances are they’ll tell you they’re Cherokee.”
The good news is that if you think you have a Cherokee ancestor, it’s easy to find out.
“Cherokees are among the best documented people in the world,” David Cornsilk, a researcher of Cherokee genealogy, said according to Timeline. “We probably come in third after royalty and Mormons.”
A large number of Americans who claim Cherokee blood are from the southeast, where the Cherokee lived from around 1000 CE.
When European colonialists came to America in the 17th and 18th centuries, the Cherokee altered their traditions to meet the challenges of the times. One way was by creating alliances with the European settlers through intermarriage. This allowed some Cherokee and Europeans to bond over shared kinship.
In the 19th century, a small group of wealthy Cherokees purchased black slaves from the European settlers. Many of these slaves joined their Cherokee owners in forced migration, from the southeast United to Indian Territory (what is now eastern Oklahoma) in a tragedy known as the Trail of Tears.
Intermarriage and slavery both worked to change the ethnic makeup of America and meant that some white and black Americans had Cherokee blood.
By the end of the 19th century, the U.S. government adopted a system of “blood quantum” to determine Native American identity. This was to distribute land allotments after the government terminated Native American self-government.
Native American tribes responded by developing their own ways of determining blood to vanquish false claims of tribal ancestry.
During the 1820s and 1930s, most white Americans that lived with the remaining Cherokee in the southeastern homelands saw them as a nuisance and the federal government attempted to relocate them to reservations.
However, as tensions between the north and the south grew over slavery in the 1850s and ‘60s, white southerners began to develop a romantic vision of the Cherokee as an outsider who fought back against the federal government.
White Southerners began to claim they had a Cherokee grandmother to provide a deeper connection to American soil and push back against the northerners.
“Shifting one’s identity to claim ownership of an imagined Cherokee past is at once a way to authenticate your American-ness and absolve yourself of complicity in the crimes Americans committed against the tribe across history,” Gregory D. Smithers wrote in Slate.
So for those who aren’t sure if they are of Cherokee descent or just another person who’s been taught to believe in the enduring colonial myth, there are no better people to ask than the Cherokee people themselves.
“There are thousands of linear feet of records created by colonials, missionaries, U.S. officials, schools, travelers and newspapers that trace our ancestries to the mid-1700s. Much of this paper trail was created by the tribe itself,” Cornsilk told Timeline.
But be prepared to be disappointed. “If there were enough Cherokees to produce all the wannabes now claiming to be us, we would have never lost the war!” And by war means the genocide committed by European settlers who murdered millions of indigenous people.
Photo credit: Kjell Reigstad, Flickr, Pinterest, Civil War Virtual Museum.