Groups such as the National Congress of American Indians worked toward the self-determination of American Indian nations and also tackled the problem of false claims to membership. According to the work of Vine Deloria, one of NCAI’s leading intellectuals, “Cherokee was the most popular tribe” in America. “From Maine to Washington State,” Deloria recalled, white Americans insisted they were descended from Cherokee ancestors. More often than not, that ancestor was an “Indian princess,” despite the fact that the tribe never had a social system with anything resembling an inherited title like princess.
So why have so many Americans laid claim to a clearly fictional identity? Part of the answer is embedded in the tribe’s history: its willingness to incorporate outsiders into kinship systems and its wide-ranging migrations throughout North America. But there’s another explanation, too.
The Cherokees resisted state and federal efforts to remove them from their Southeastern homelands during the 1820s and 1830s. During that time, most whites saw them as an inconvenient nuisance, an obstacle to colonial expansion. But after their removal, the tribe came to be viewed more romantically, especially in the antebellum South, where their determination to maintain their rights of self-government against the federal government took on new meaning. Throughout the South in the 1840s and 1850s, large numbers of whites began claiming they were descended from a Cherokee great-grandmother. That great-grandmother was often a “princess,” a not-inconsequential detail in a region obsessed with social status and suspicious of outsiders. By claiming a royal Cherokee ancestor, white Southerners were legitimating the antiquity of their native-born status as sons or daughters of the South, as well as establishing their determination to defend their rights against an aggressive federal government, as they imagined the Cherokees had done. These may have been self-serving historical delusions, but they have proven to be enduring.
The continuing popularity of claiming “Cherokee blood” and the ease with which millions of Americans inhabit a Cherokee identity speaks volumes about the enduring legacy of American colonialism. Shifting one’s identity to claim ownership of an imagined Cherokee past is at once a way to authenticate your American-ness and absolve yourself of complicity in the crimes Americans committed against the tribe across history.
That said, the visibility of Cherokee identity also owes much to the success of the three federally recognized Cherokee tribes. Today, the Cherokee Nation, the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians, and the Eastern Band of Cherokees comprise a combined population of 344,700. Cherokee tribal governments provide community members with health services, education, and housing assistance; they have even teamed up with companies such as Google and Apple to produce Cherokee-language apps. Most Cherokees live in close-knit communities in eastern Oklahoma or the Great Smoky Mountains in North Carolina, but a considerable number live throughout North America and in cities such as New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and Toronto. Cherokee people are doctors and lawyers, schoolteachers and academics, tradespeople and minimum-wage workers. The cultural richness, political visibility, and socioeconomic diversity of the Cherokee people have played a considerable role in keeping the tribe’s identity in the historical consciousness of generation after generation of Americans, whether or not they have Cherokee blood.