Cherokee descent is a term used by and for individuals who have, or state that they have, Cherokee ancestors, but do not meet the criteria for tribal citizenship. As Gregory D. Smithers has pointed out, a large number of Americans belong in this category: ""In 2000, the federal census reported that 729,533 Americans self-identified as Cherokee. By 2010, that number increased, with the Census Bureau reporting that 819,105 Americans claimed at least one Cherokee ancestor." By contrast, there are only 316,049 enrolled tribal members..
There are three federally recognized Cherokee tribes: the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in North Carolina, the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians (UKB) in Oklahoma, and the Cherokee Nation (CN) in Oklahoma.. Enrollment criteria vary between each tribe.
- Eastern Band requirements are as follows:
- "1. A direct lineal ancestor must appear on the 1924 Baker Roll of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.
- 2. You must possess at least 1/16 degree of Eastern Cherokee blood. Please note: Blood quantum is calculated from your ancestor listed on the 1924 Baker Roll."
- United Keetoowah Band requirements are as follows:
- "The UKB has a minimum blood quantum requirement of one quarter (1/4) degree Keetoowah Cherokee blood."
- Cherokee Nation requirements are as follows:
- The applicant must "provide documents that connect you to an enrolled lineal ancestor, who is listed on the “DAWES ROLL” FINAL ROLLS OF
CITIZENS AND FREEDMEN OF THE FIVE CIVILIZED TRIBES, Cherokee Nation with a blood degree."
Reasons for self-identification without citizenship
There are several reasons that an individual may self-identify as Cherokee without taking up tribal citizenship:
- Blood quantum rules mean that some individuals who have ancestral ties to either United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians or the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians minimum requirements for Cherokee blood.
- Cherokee people and Cherokee Freedmen who had not established residency in the Cherokee Nation in Indian Territory (now Northeast Oklahoma) prior to 1889 would not have been eligible for inclusion on the Dawes Roll, and thus would not be eligible for citizenship to the Cherokee Nation.
- Many Cherokee heritage groups, organizations that celebrate Cherokee history and culture, exist across the US, as well as unrecognized organizations claiming to be tribes, with one estimate putting the combined number as high as 200. Membership of these groups in some cases requires genealogical proof of Cherokee ancestry, but others do not.
- Many non-Indigenous American families have a family oral history of Cherokee ancestry. This has sometimes been described as Cherokee Princess Syndrome.
- Laura Browder notes that some light skinned African American families in the late 19th and early 20th centuries wrote "themselves into Native American identity and out of whiteness or blackness"
- Kim Tallbear describes some individuals discovering Native American ancestry through DNA testing, and begin searching for "Cherokee ancestral lines" after this. She notes, however, that this group mostly continues to identify as white. 
- Circe Sturm, Becoming Indian: The Struggle over Cherokee Identity in the 21st Century. Santa Fe: School for Advanced Research Press, 2011, p. 5
- "Why do So Many Americans Think They Have Cherokee Blood?". October 2015.
- "Pocket Pictorial". Archived April 6, 2010, at the Wayback Machine Oklahoma Indian Affairs Commission. 2010: 6 and 37. (retrieved June 11, 2010).
- "Tribal Directory: Southeast". National Congress of American Indians. Retrieved June 9, 2017.
- "Enrollment - United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians in Oklahoma".
- "Going 'Native': Why Are Americans Hijacking Cherokee Identity?".
- "The Cherokee Syndrome - Daily Yonder".
- "Elizabeth Warren and the myth of the Cherokee princess".
- R.L. Allen, "Creating Identity at Indian Expense: Public Ignorance, Private Gain." Paper presented at Native Stories and Their Keepers: Telling the Public, Sequoyah Research Center Symposium, University of Arkansas at Little Rock, November15–17,2001.
- Browder, Laura (2003-06-20). Slippery Characters: Ethnic Impersonators and American Identities. ISBN 9780807860601.
- Kim Tallbear, Native American DNA, Minneapoli: University of Minnesota Press, 2013. pp132-136.