Neeley and Kelsey

Aaron Neeley, left, and Chris Kelsey visited the Cherokee Nation Registration Department to apply for Cherokee Nation citizenship Thursday.

Many people claim Cherokee ancestry, but they don't understand the difference between heritage and being a citizen of a federally recognized tribe.

The Cherokee Nation is the largest Native American tribe in the U.S., with around 365,000 citizens in its 14-county jurisdiction and beyond. The CN Registration Department receives about 1,000 to 1,200 applications for citizenship every month, which means the tribe continues to grow. However, not just anyone with Cherokee ancestry can become a tribal citizen.

Cherokee Nation citizenship is a legal determination based on a person's ability to trace his or her ancestry back to the Dawes Rolls. These lists were created by the U.S. Dawes Commission when the Five Civilized Tribes - Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee Creek and Seminole - were forced to agree to a land allotment plan. For those who would like to become citizen of the Cherokee Nation, finding an ancestor on the Dawes Rolls is the only way.

"We have a lot of people who call in, and they don't realize they have to use the Dawes Rolls, or they don't know what the Dawes Rolls is," said Gene Norris, genealogist at Cherokee Heritage Center. "Our process is to prove or disprove it. Most of the time, we end up disproving it, because it's just somebody with the same name and not the same person."

Unlike some tribes, including the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians in Oklahoma, the Cherokee Nation does not have a "blood quantum." That means while percentage of Native blood may be listed on a CDIB card, there is no minimum requirement to be a citizen.

The CN Registration Department has its own process, but it's easier to prove Dawes Roll lineage for some people than others. The time it takes for the department to process an application varies, depending on the applicant.

"If a mom and dad are already enrolled and they're just enrolling their children, all of the legwork has been done, and we don't have to go very far," said Derrick Vann, interim tribal registrar. "The paperwork has already been done, the child has their birth certificate, so stamp it and go on to the next one - that one's already complete."

A treaty between the U.S. and Cherokee Nation in 1866 stated that all African-American slaves who were taken as property by the tribe would become citizens. But in 2007, the tribe held a special election, and citizens voted to exclude the Cherokee Freedmen descendants from citizenship unless they met the "Cherokee by blood" requirement.

Between 2006 and 2007 - before the election - the CN registration department took "a whole bunch of applications" from Freedmen descendants, but the applications were never processed because of the vote, according to Vann.

"We didn't process them, we just held on to them until the ruling came down, which came down ten years later and the court said they are tribal citizens so go ahead and treat them just like any other tribal citizen," said Vann.

In August 2017, a U.S. District Court judge ruled that descendants of the Cherokee Freedmen do have the right to tribal citizenship. However, because generations of Freedmen descendants never applied to for Cherokee Nation membership, it takes more paperwork to prove their claims.

"When we look at Freedmen, we have to have all of the necessary death and birth certificates, going all the way back - generation to generation - to the Dawes [Roll]," said Vann. "That shows paper fact that you are who you say you are and that's your lineage all the way back. That's why it takes so long to process those applications, because we have to have every piece of paperwork."

Vann said some Freedmen applicants have died and others have moved, making it difficult to process their paperwork. Still, Vann added that the registration department is close to finishing all the applications submitted during the period between 2006 and 2007.

Recent controversy has centered on Sen. Elizabeth Warren's DNA test that she released in October, indicating Native American ancestry. She took the test in response to comments made by President Donald Trump, who has called Warren "Pocahontas" on multiple occasions, which he did after she made earlier claims to having Cherokee ancestry. However, the Cherokee Nation has already made it clear the DNA test was "useless to determine tribal citizenship."

Thursday, CN Secretary of State Chuck Hoskin Jr. said people should understand the existence of the Cherokee Nation is a result of "our people enduring the Trail of Tears, and rebuilding a society, and rebuilding a government in what is now northeast Oklahoma."

"It's more than simply having a DNA test that indicates you may have North or South American Native blood," said Hoskin. "It is about your connection to a people that have had a continuous presence on the continent as an identifiable tribe in a continuous government to government relationship with the U.S. Those things are important, so it's way beyond simply family lore or having some DNA test."

The Cherokee Nation has a reason for its stance on ancestry and citizenship. With so much attention on Warren's "Cherokee" ancestry, some may get the idea that members of Indian tribes are identified by race. Earlier this year the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced a new policy to allow states to require Medicaid beneficiaries to work, including members of Native tribes, because the department "contends the tribes are a race, rather than separate governments," according to a report on Politico.

Hoskin said rhetoric that classifies members of Indian tribes into races, rather than members of sovereign nations, is a concern to all tribes. He said for one of the U.S. agencies to make race-based determinations "flies in the face of a couple of centuries of the federal government's position on members of Indian tribes."

It also hurts the Cherokee Nation's stance on the Indian Child Welfare Act, which was found unconstitutional in October for giving Native American families preferential treatment in adoption proceedings for Native American children based on race. The Cherokee Nation plans to appeal the decision, but the race conversation is how the act was deemed unconstitutional in the first place.

"The proposition that members of Indian tribes are merely identified by a race is what underpins the negative Indian Child Welfare decision out of the federal court in Dallas," said Hoskin. "It's what underpins HHS's decision to look at tribes - and how medicaid is administered - as racial groups. Those things all erode what it means to be a sovereign Indian nation with citizens who are identified as their political, legal status - not their racial status."