Tahlequah Daily Press

January 31, 2011

What is a Cherokee?

After centuries of discussion, the question of identity persists, experts say.

Special Writer

TAHLEQUAH — More than 300 years ago, there was little question who was Cherokee: If your mother was Cherokee, you were, too.

Since those days, the concept of Cherokee identity has changed a number of times. It continues to evolve, as evidenced by the ongoing lawsuit between descendants of the Cherokee Freedmen and the Cherokee Nation. The Freedmen recently won a decision in Cherokee District Court, and the Cherokee Nation appealed it this past week to the Cherokee Nation Supreme Court.

Dr. Julia Coates, tribal councilor and professor of Cherokee history, said questions raised centuries ago continue to concern tribal citizens – and would-be tribal members – today. Coates gave the first in this year’s Cherokee Nation history presentations, “Cherokee Identity: From Clan to Citizen,” Thursday at the Tribal Council chamber.

“The subject of identity is so personal to each of us. Every one of us has a stake in it,” Coates said. “In our times, the subject of identity is very contentious, and very fuzzy.”

 There is no “definite definition” of who is Cherokee, or what constitutes Cherokee.

“One of the places people may draw the line is political citizenship in a federally-recognized government,” Coates said. “There are people who feel that a blood degree minimum should be part of the definition – in other words, a racial definition.”

The two federally-recognized Cherokee tribes based in Tahlequah exemplify this dichotomy.

The United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians in Oklahoma require its citizens to have at least one-quarter Cherokee blood. The Cherokee Nation has no blood quantum, but requires its citizens to be descended from Dawes Commission enrollees.

A question of blood quantums

Most tribes with a blood quantum require one-fourth or better, Coates said.

“There are a number of people in this country, people of Cherokee heritage, who can clearly demonstrate it. There are people who can trace their descent from those early rolls, but for various reasons are not qualified to be citizens of the Cherokee Nation, UKB, or Eastern Band [the third federally-recognized tribe, based in North Carolina],” Coates said. “What do we do with those folks? Are they not Cherokee?”

 One of the main misconceptions was that the Dawes Commission, just more than a century ago, determined whether or not people were of Cherokee heritage, Coates said.

That’s not so: Commissioners decided whether applicants qualified as members of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, according to various criteria. Some people of Cherokee heritage did not qualify.

Dawes Commission members also assigned blood quantums, which may or may not have reflected the actual degree of Cherokee blood held by the applicants. Frequently commissioners suggested an amount, as reflected in testimony of the hearings, Coates said. For example, “You look like about half Cherokee, is that right?” and the applicant nodded.

Coates started with Cherokee practices before and in the early days of European contact. Cherokees received their identity through membership in one of the seven clans, and the mother determined clan citizenship.

If someone had a Cherokee father, but not a Cherokee mother, he had no clan membership and therefore no place in the tribe.

“There was a very clear definition of who was and who was not Cherokee. Everybody knew about it and it was agreed upon,” Coates said.

Over the years, the question of who was Cherokee evolved from clan membership, which was a social definition, and the rhetoric of nations, or citizenship.

Much of this began to occur after the American Revolution, when the number of Cherokees plummeted.

“This was a dramatic shift in government,” Coates said.

During that period, 49 Cherokee families accepted a reservation in the Qualla Boundary of western North Carolina. Their descendants form today’s Eastern Band.

The Cherokee Nation adopted several requirements, including residency in Cherokee territory, for tribal membership

 In 1825, they incorporated children of Cherokee fathers and white mothers. During the 1820s, they passed miscegenation laws, forbidding citizens to children of Cherokees and African slaves or freedmen, similar to laws passed in the south.

Migration changes the definition

In 1804, some Cherokees began migrating to Arkansas. This movement continued until 1832 and 1833, forming the group known as “Old Settlers.” By Cherokee law, they were no longer citizens because they had moved from Cherokee territory.

“All of this was basis for many issues still being argued today,” Coates said.

She and several members of the audience referred to “cans of worms” opened then, and implied the worms continue to crawl in discussions about citizenship.

The 1839 Cherokee Constitution, written in Indian Territory after the Trail of Tears, established residency requirements, and allowed the tribal council to readmit those who had left Cherokee lands, but re-established themselves in Indian Territory.

Coates also discussed issues surrounding the 1863 Cherokee emancipation proclamation and subsequent acts concerning the freedmen.

Proponents of citizenship for the freedmen point to an 1866 treaty which established criteria for the incorporation of freedmen and members of some other tribes into the Cherokee Nation. The treaty said the freedmen would have rights but did not define them as Cherokee citizens.

An 1866 amendment to the Cherokee Nation constitution provided citizenship to the freedmen.

These are the legal foundation for the case being debated today, Coates said.

The Cherokee Nation conducted censuses in 1880, 1894 and 1896. People listed in those censuses were granted citizenship when they applied to the Dawes Commission.

During the 1880s and 1890s, the Cherokee Nation conducted citizenship courts.

About 5,000 people who could provide evidence of Cherokee blood  received citizenship, while far greater numbers were rejected, Coates said.

“The vast majority of people who made those petitions knew darn well they weren’t Cherokees,” Coates said.

They were intruders who had moved into Indian Territory. If they appealed a denial of Cherokee citizenship, they could remain in Indian Territory during their appeal, thereby obtaining their objective. By this time, there were more intruders than Cherokees in the area.

Coates also discussed the concept of blood citizenship, saying Cherokees never had a blood quantum, and cultural citizenship. Many people would argue that only those who grew up in a household speaking Cherokee, and who thereby acquired a knowledge of their culture, were truly tribal members.

All these issues continue to be raised today, and so the arguments go on.

What’s next

The February program in the Cherokee Nation history course series will feature Dennis Peterson, archaeologist and site manager of the Spiro Mounds. He will discuss “The Mississippian Culture from the East to the West: Spiro Mounds and its National Connections,” at 10:30 a.m. Feb. 21 in the Cherokee Nation Tribal Council chamber at the tribal complex. Peterson will talk about how leaders at the Spiro Mounds, although Caddoan speakers, forged an alliance with more than 60 tribes, including the Cherokees. He also will discuss cosmological and artistic development during the Mississippian Period, as exemplified at Spiro Mounds. The program is free to the public. For information, call 453-5389.