Recently, representatives of the three federally recognized Cherokee tribes (the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, and the Keetowahs), have announced they will engage in a protest of Elizabeth Warren at the Massachusetts Democratic convention in Springfield on June 2. These representatives are taking umbrage that Ms. Warren claims Cherokee heritage without documentation, and uses this claim to further her career while doing nothing special for the people she claims kinship with.
As an American Indian (and yes, Cherokee activist, organizer, and writer, no scratch that, as just a plain old Cherokee Indian person) I too get a little hot under the collar about non Indians claiming Indian heritage without any knowledge or experience whatsoever of the culture or the numerous struggles we have been engaged in over the last several generations.
What makes this worse, is that virtually every nebulous claim of Indigenous heritage gravitates towards supposed Cherokee ancestry. I don’t know why. I’m sure it’s one of those basic science questions like why is the sky blue, why is grass green, and why is fire hot. I know there’s a scientific explanation for it somewhere, but I’m just not that caught up in the details. It just is.
Sure, as a “civilized tribe”-i.e. non-nomadic farmers, we tended to intermarry with whites earlier and thus experienced more mixed bloods within our societies. For this or whatever reason, it seems claims of Cherokee ancestry have exploded during the last generation. It’s a far cry from when I was a child and even Indians were ashamed of being Indian. But I digress.
As for documentation, this strikes at the heart of the most divisive and sensitive issue in Indian Country today, identity. America decided to document Indian populations in the late 1800’s via rolls, and therefore we have our pedigrees on paper, just like dogs.
While many traditional Indians have rejected this mindset and view Indian-ness via societal acceptance and cultural mores, by way of colonization proving one’s ancestry on paper has embedded itself into Indian communities now to the point where you have the haves and have nots.
Pedigreed, documented Indians look down their noses at those who know or believe they have ancestry but cannot prove it due to lost records, political chicanery, or some other reason. Again, it is not a traditional practice or belief to reject someone due to the absence of a piece of paper.
To make this situation even more insulting to many of us, scores of those who can prove ancestry on paper, do not look, live, believe, talk, worship, or even care to be Indian in any way. It’s a bonus to them that they got born to the right family tree and in many cases can claim benefits by being a descendant of a culture they know nothing about and have no interest in.
Conversely, many who know and live the culture are denied formal acceptance due to some missing records somewhere in their family history. The documentation of heritage has nothing to do with culture, but in a day and age of casinos and growing tribal benefits, the white man’s paper has taken on a whole new monetary importance. None of this has anything to do with being Indigenous. A person who can pass as white but claim benefits on paper has won the lottery twice. Colonization is a bitch, and then some.
So it happens that like so many others, Elizabeth Warren claims to have Cherokee ancestry but cannot prove it. Yes there are elements of this that are insulting, but so what? Would it be great for her to reach out to Cherokees and forge a relationship? Absolutely. Would it be nice for Ms. Warren to act like being Cherokee was important at a time other than when pursuing a job? Sure.
However, people exploiting supposed American Indian ancestry is nothing new and isn’t likely to end anytime soon. We’ve already had people elected to Congress claiming Indian heritage when it suited them, only to forget our people once elected. These vague and indecipherable claims aren’t going away.
Elizabeth Warren isn’t the first or the last to claim heritage without documentation or even cultural knowledge of said ancestry. With so many socio-political needs facing our people, it would be nice for the politically mobilized Cherokee to focus on more important issues. I don’t know if she has Cherokee blood or not, and frankly I’m not that concerned about it. For the rest of us Cherokees, this is u tsa ti gv wa du wi dv u tla go hu s di, much ado about nothing.