The Contemporary Cherokee

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By Tennessee Loy

What is a contemporary Cherokee? The answer the age-old question of what exactly Native American identity is. No one person knows what Native American Identity is, I am just Cherokee. I have the Cherokee experience, you will get no argument from me that we Cherokee are the most overly claimed tribal identity. The 2000 federal census states there are almost 730,000 Americans who identified as Cherokee. It is also true that we have no blood quantum, we trace our lineage back to the Dawes roll. In the Cherokee Nation if your ancestor signed the roll you can be a citizen of the Cherokee Nation. Blood quantum is an easy answer, but a western answer it is not a Cherokee idea. “An Indian is an Indian regardless of the degree of Indian blood or which little government card they do or do not possess” –Wilma Mankiller.  As citizens of the Cherokee Nation, we do not let blood quantum define who we are as a people.

Citizenship is only a small part of Native American identity, there is so much more than being a citizen of a tribal nation. Cherokees have a lot of people who claim its heritage and culture for their own, who are so inherent that they are Cherokee. Even if an individual could prove that they do indeed have Cherokee blood. It wouldn’t matter; their ancestor may have left their detachment on the Trail of Tears or gotten lost or separated. Perhaps, but even if it was proven beyond a reasonable doubt. The facts of the matter are if an individual didn’t sign the Dawes roll they were, in fact, giving up their rights to citizenship.

Citizenship is only a small part of the equation but it is an important factor. It is the key to validation; Cherokees are one of the most documented races in the world. An individual may look Native American and know their history but if they cannot pass the criteria for citizenship it undermines their claim. This proves especially true for individuals in academia or those who take part in activism. Native Americans as a whole is the only race that requires documented proof to be a citizen of a nation. But do not forget that we are also the only race that has the documentation to do so. Cherokee identity is part of the problem, there are numerous Cherokee Nation citizens who don’t speak up or don’t try to participate in cultural activities. This is because they do not look identifiable some are afraid of being singled out, that they will be judged to be not Cherokee enough. They don’t feel Cherokee, one of my friends adamantly refused to enroll. Despite the fact he needed money for college and tribal scholarships would have supplemented his education.  On the other hand, we have Cherokees who are of a high blood quantum who are only citizens when it is convenient for them. Although citizenship is the key the rest of Native American identity comes from the individual. It is hard to explain in words but I will do my best. There is a cloud that hangs over Native Americans the history, the traditions, language, and the overall culture makes up this cloud. They the most important part of culture, its’ tribal identity it is essential to the continuation of all tribes. Native Identity, in general, is shaped like any one person’s identity is shaped.  Our environment, family, experiences shape who we are.  The difference for Native Americans is the weight on our shoulders from that cloud.  How you respond to that pressure is what Native American identity is. Frustration over that identity is at the core of all the problems in Indian Country, suicides, dropout rates, drugs and alcohol, poverty.

Problems are part of the environment we grow up in. Poverty is shaping Native American youths, their identities. Sexual assault is shaping our Native women. Drugs and alcohol are shaping us all. It is all over Indian Country, the poorest counties in the state of Oklahoma are in the heart of the Cherokee Nation. Native youth in general is exposed to it every day; they aren’t been taught how to cope with it. There are too many people who allow themselves to be defined by all the problems in Indian Country. They refuse to see that we can be greater than our circumstances. When the one thing we have to take from our ancestors’ plight is resilience. The ability to overcome is innate for Native Americans, after all we are all descended from ancestors who overcame. If they hadn’t you wouldn’t be here today.  There is a bond that we all share, all Native Americans can relate to the atrocities done to our ancestors. As long as we continue to allow idle ideas to influence who we view are as Native American within our own tribes we can never progress. How can we continue to build stronger tribal nations while we marginalize tribal citizens? It doesn’t matter if they look identifiable; we are all descended from the strong people. If you want to preserve your tribes’ language and culture, then we need to stop excluding citizens and stop dis-enrolling them.