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Cherokee descent

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Cherokee descent, "being of Cherokee descent", or "being a Cherokee descendant" are all terms for individuals with some degree of documented Cherokee ancestry but do not meet the criteria for tribal citizenship.[1] The terms are also used by non-Native individuals who self-identify as Cherokee despite lacking documentation or community recognition.

As Gregory D. Smithers has discussed, a large number of Americans believe they 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."[2] By contrast, as of 2012 there were only 330,716 enrolled Cherokee citizens (Cherokee Nation: 288,749; United Keetoowah Band: 14,300;[3] Eastern Band: 14,667[4]).


There are three federally recognized Cherokee tribes: the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (ECBI) in North Carolina, the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians (UKB) in Oklahoma, and the Cherokee Nation (CN) in Oklahoma.[5] Enrollment criteria are different for each nation.

  • Eastern Band citizenship requirements are as follows:
"1. A direct lineal ancestor must appear on the 1924 Baker Roll of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.[6]
"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."[6]
  • United Keetoowah Band requirements are as follows:
"To be eligible for UKB membership, Cherokees must be able to provide documentation that they are a descendant of an individual listed on the 1949 United Keetoowah Band Base Roll or of an individual listed on the final Dawes Roll."
"The UKB has a minimum blood quantum requirement of one quarter (1/4) degree Keetoowah Cherokee blood."[7]
  • 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."[8]

Social recognition[edit]

Kim TallBear (Dakota), author of Native American DNA: Tribal Belonging and the False Promise of Genetic Science,[9] has written extensively that Indigenous identity is not about one distant (and possibly nonexistent) ancestor, but rather political citizenship, culture, kinship, and daily, lived experience as part of an Indigenous community.[10][11]

There are very specific tribal enrollment rules from tribe to tribe, it's pretty complicated. Those rules sit within a broader idea though, that one needs to have relatively close or lived social relations with other tribal kin that you are claiming. Being able to produce the genealogical documentation to access tribal citizenship is one way of showing that a tribe claims you. They can claim you through official legal means. But you can also have your tribal community claim you through social means that are not official legal means.[11]

Reasons for self-identification without citizenship or social recognition[edit]

"Self-identification" is when a person claims Indigenous identity or descent with no confirmation or acceptance from the tribe they claim.[12][13] There are many reasons people have given for self-identifying as Cherokee or as descendants, despite not meeting enrollment criteria and without being part of the Cherokee community:

  • Many Cherokee heritage groups, organizations that explore Cherokee history and culture, exist across the US, as well as unrecognized organizations claiming to be tribes,[13] with one estimate putting the combined number as high as 200.[14] Membership in these groups, in some cases, requires genealogical proof of Cherokee ancestry, but many others have no requirements at all.[13]
  • Many non-Indigenous American families, especially white and Black families with roots in the South, have a family oral history of Cherokee ancestry.[15] This has sometimes been called "Cherokee Princess Syndrome", or having a family "Blood Myth."[2][16][17] Many white Americans cite their supposed Cherokee descent to explain physical traits that they believe are evidence of non-European ancestries, such as "high cheek bones", tan skin, straight dark hair, and keloid scars.[18][19] African Americans, particularly light-skinned African Americans, may claim some of those same features as evidence of Cherokee descent even though descent from a white enslaver is a more likely explanation.[20]
  • 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."[21]
  • Anthropologist Kim TallBear describes some individuals discovering what they believe to be Native American ancestry through DNA testing, who begin searching for "Cherokee ancestral lines" after this. She notes, however, "There is no DNA test to prove you're Native American."[9] and that this group mostly continues to identify as white.[10]

Issues with descent-based identity claims[edit]

Individuals who claim Cherokee descent do not meet the criteria necessary to claim Native American identity under the provisions of the American Indian Arts and Crafts Act,[22] except for those that pay for membership to the dozens of state-recognized tribes who identify as being Cherokee.

The academic Joel W. Martin noted that "an astonishing number of southerners assert they have a grandmother or great-grandmother who was some kind of Cherokee, often a princess", and that such myths serve settler purposes in aligning American frontier romance with southern regionalism and pride.[23]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Circe Sturm, Becoming Indian: The Struggle over Cherokee Identity in the 21st Century. Santa Fe: School for Advanced Research Press, 2011, p. 5
  2. ^ a b Smithers, Gregory D. (October 2015). "Why do So Many Americans Think They Have Cherokee Blood?". Slate.
  3. ^ "Pocket Pictorial". Archived April 6, 2010, at the Wayback Machine Oklahoma Indian Affairs Commission. 2010: 6 and 37. (retrieved June 11, 2010).[failed verification][full citation needed]
  4. ^ EBCI Enrollment Office (10 July 2012). "EBCI Enrollment facts". Cherokee One Feather. Retrieved 15 July 2017.
  5. ^ "Tribal Directory: Southeast". National Congress of American Indians. Retrieved June 9, 2017.
  6. ^ a b "Enrollment".
  7. ^ "Enrollment - United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians in Oklahoma".
  8. ^ "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2018-12-30. Retrieved 2018-12-30.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  9. ^ a b Geddes, Linda (5 February 2014). "'There is no DNA test to prove you're Native American'". New Scientist. Retrieved 15 July 2019.
  10. ^ a b TallBear, Kim (2013). Native American DNA: Tribal Belonging and the False Promise of Genetic Science. pp. 132–136.
  11. ^ a b Gupta, Prachi (16 October 2018). "'Our Vote Matters Very Little': Kim TallBear on Elizabeth Warren's Attempt to Claim Native American Heritage". Jezebel. Retrieved 29 March 2019.
  12. ^ Cornsilk, David. "Cherokee by law in response to wannabeism". Wayback Machine. Archived from the original on 2019-06-14. Retrieved 21 December 2020. Being Cherokee has nothing to do with what an individual thinks of themselves or their own personal claims of heritage and blood. Cherokee law says that you must be recognized by the Cherokees in order to be a Cherokee. There is no other legitimate law that can or does make someone a Cherokee; certainly not the individual claims of lost descendants of long ago Cherokees or their equally non-Cherokee counterparts, the infamous wannabe.
  13. ^ a b c Crawford, Grant D. (4 October 2019). "'Fake tribes' can threaten federally recognized ones, genealogist says". Talequah Daily Press. Retrieved 29 March 2021. Usually the way those form, there's already existing groups within the state and the state then grandfathers those groups in, requiring no proof whatsoever that they're even of Indian descent - let alone a tribe - and then allows them to grant recognition to other groups," said Cornsilk. "Alabama is probably the most notorious for doing that.
  14. ^ "Going 'Native': Why Are Americans Hijacking Cherokee Identity?". 23 July 2018.
  15. ^ "The Cherokee Syndrome - Daily Yonder". 10 February 2011.
  16. ^ "Elizabeth Warren and the myth of the Cherokee princess". 25 May 2012.
  17. ^ 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, November 15–17, 2001.
  18. ^ "How I came to understand I am not Cherokee". Women AdvaNCe. 2 December 2020. Retrieved 2023-08-05.
  19. ^ "Warren explains minority listing, talks of grandfather's "high cheekbones"". CBS News. 3 May 2012. Retrieved 2023-08-05.
  20. ^ Gates, Henry Louis Jr. (29 Dec 2014). "High Cheekbones and Straight Black Hair?". The Root. Retrieved 5 August 2023.
  21. ^ Browder, Laura (2003-06-20). Slippery Characters: Ethnic Impersonators and American Identities. Univ of North Carolina Press. ISBN 9780807860601.
  22. ^ "Buying". US Federal Trade Commission. June 2012. Retrieved 6 July 2021.
  23. ^ Martin, Joel W. (1996). Bird, Elizabeth (ed.). 'My Grandmother Was a Cherokee Princess': Representations of Indians in Southern History. London: Routledge. {{cite book}}: |work= ignored (help)