Why Do So Many Americans Think They Have Cherokee Blood?

Slaves owned by Cherokees did join their owners when the federal government forced some 17,000 Cherokees from their Southeastern homeland at the end of the 1830s. Cherokee people and their slaves endured that forced journey into the West by riverboats and overland paths, joining tens of thousands of previously displaced Native peoples from the Eastern United States in Indian Territory (modern-day eastern Oklahoma). We now refer to this inglorious event as the Trail of Tears.

But the Cherokee people did not remain confined to the lands that the federal government assigned to them in Indian Territory. During the late 19th and early 20thcenturies, Cherokees traveled between Indian Territory and North Carolina to visit family and friends, and Cherokee people migrated and resettled throughout North America in search of social and economic opportunities. While many Native American groups traveled throughout the United States during this period in search of employment, the Cherokee people’s advanced levels of education and literacy—a product of the Cherokee Nation’s public education system in Indian Territory and the willingness of diaspora Cherokees to enroll their children in formal educational institutions—meant they traveled on a scale far larger than any other indigenous group. In these travels it’s possible to glimpse Cherokees coming into contact with, living next door to, or intermarrying with white and black Americans from all walks of life.

At the same time that the Cherokee diaspora was expanding across the country, the federal government began adopting a system of “blood quantum” to determine Native American identity. Native Americans were required to prove their Cherokee, or Navajo, or Sioux “blood” in order to be recognized. (The racially based system of identification also excluded individuals with “one drop” of “Negro blood.”) The federal government’s “blood quantum” standards varied over time, helping to explain why recorded Cherokee “blood quantum” ranged from “full-blood” to one 2048th. The system’s larger aim was to determine who was eligible for land allotments following the government’s decision to terminate Native American self-government at the end of the 19thcentury. By 1934, the year that Franklin Roosevelt’s administration adopted the Indian Reorganization Act, “blood quantum” became the official measure by which the federal government determined Native American identity.

In the ensuing decades, Cherokees, like other Native American groups, sought to define “blood” on their own terms. By the mid–20th century, Cherokee and other American Indian activists began joining together to articulate their definitions of American Indian identity and to confront those tens of thousands of Americans who laid claim to being descendants of Native Americans.

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