Thursday, May 31, 2012

I stand in solidarity with my Cherokee friends and relatives

This is my Grandmother. Like most people from the Ross family, she has predominantly Scottish heritage. She may also have a bit of Cherokee or Choctaw heritage, but I do not know for sure. We have family names on the Rolls, and I have relatives by both blood and adoption who are Indian, but I haven't taken the time to find out for certain if any of those in my direct bloodline were also Native American. I was raised Irish/Scottish-American. That is who I am; that is my culture. I know that even if I do turn out to have some minimal Cherokee or Choctaw blood, this does not make me Indian.

Like Elizabeth Warren, I grew up assuming some of my distant ancestors were Native American. In addition to all the Ross relatives among the Cherokee and Choctaw, I have Scottish and Irish ancestors who lived in community with Native people in Indiana and Montana, and in more distant generations among the tribes in the Carolinas. As far as we can tell, some of their descendants still live among those tribes now. As a child I occasionally attended cultural events that were open to non-Natives; I ate pumpkin fry bread with Seminoles in Florida, and attended a salmon bake and dance on an island in the Puget Sound. But because I knew real Native Americans, I knew I was not one. Unlike Elizabeth Warren, my belief about my ancestors led me to work in solidarity with Native people, to support their struggles for tribal sovereignty and protection of sacred sites. Unlike Elizabeth Warren, I did not "check the box" on college or job applications; I did not choose to exploit vague family stories in order to gain unfair advantages in addition to the white privilege from which she and I already benefit.

I stand in solidarity with my Cherokee relatives. I was initially planning on voting for Elizabeth Warren. I am one of the people who signed the petition to get her on the ballot. But given what we now know about her lies about her heritage and, even worse, her treatment of the Cherokee people who have tried to talk to her about this, along with her dismissal of issues of Native American Sovereignty as "unimportant", I cannot vote for her. If she meets with the authorized Cherokee representatives who are protesting her, sincerely asks how she can make amends, and then makes amends to the satisfaction of the Cherokees she has insulted and exploited, I will reconsider. But not unless and until she does these things.

I stand in solidarity with my Cherokee friends and relatives.


Kathryn Price NicDhàna said...

Deb Reese has some good suggestions about how Elizabeth Warren could turn this into a teachable moment:

About Elizabeth Warren's Family Story about being Cherokee

Why this matters to me

I am not one of the people of Massachusetts, but I am a citizen of the United States, and, I'm enrolled at Nambe Pueblo, a federally recognized sovereign nation. If elected, Warren will vote on legislation that will have bearing on me and Nambe Pueblo. To do that and do it well (from an informed position), she's got to let go of this story!

Instead of asking voters to move on, she could say that:

1. She was raised to believe that that she is part Native American, and based on that belief, she claimed Cherokee identity at various times in order to meet people like her. She knows, now, that...

2. There is a Cherokee Nation that has policies in place that determine who its citizens are, and, she is not a citizen of the Cherokee Nation.*

3. There are a lot of people like her who believe they have Cherokee ancestors and they, like her, proudly assert that ancestry.

4. The hard reality is that she doesn't know what it means to be a Cherokee, and that her heartfelt pride is based on romantic ideas and stereotypes. That she embraced that identity uncritically because schools in the U.S. don't teach children that, in addition to the federal and state government, there are tribal governments with inherent powers to determine who its citizens are. She could point out that, instead of an education about tribal governments, students learn about Indians at the First Thanksgiving, and how they did cool things like using every part of the buffalo, and that it is sad that Indians are all gone, now.

5. In other words, she'd be saying she is ignorant, and that America's collective ignorance can't go on unchecked because it gets in the way of being able to see American Indians in today's society for who we are. Instead of knowing American Indians as we should, Americans choose to know and love them in an abstract stereotypical way that does more harm than good.

Why this should matter to you...

*[note - There are only three legitimate Cherokee "Tribes" - The Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma (CNO), The United Keetoowah Band (UKB), and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBC). Warren is not eligible for enrollment in any of them. -kpn]

And a note for my kind readers who may not know that identifying as Native American is different from identifying as, say, Irish American: The difference is, as Deb mentions above, that the Indian nations are sovereign nations that just happen to be located within the American landbase. Being a Native American is not like being an Irish American, it's the equivalent of being a citizen of Ireland.

Kathryn Price NicDhàna said...

And Rob Schmidt has been following developments in the Warren situation:

Cherokee website targets Warren

"The website tells us why Elizabeth Warren's case is an important issue. She's claimed to be Native and been touted as such by her employers.

"If she can do that, so can Ward Churchill, Johnny Depp, Miley Cyrus, and the rest. A fraction of Native blood, or the belief that they have a fraction of Native blood, will be enough for everyone. A few million real Indians will be swamped by tens of millions of wannabes."

Comment: Before this got to the point of websites and news articles, Cherokee people tried to open a dialogue with Warren. When polite callers told Warren's staff they were Cherokee, they were hung up on. NDN people took a lot of insults from this alleged progressive before finally taking this public.

Warren skipped Native events

"I wouldn't expect a busy politician or professor to attend any particular event. But as I've said, Warren's claim of listing herself as Native in directories to meet people is shaky.

"The way to meet Natives is to join Native organizations and attend Native events such as powwows. There's no evidence Warren has ever done anything like that.

"If she was proud of her 1/32 Native heritage, why not spend 1/32 of her time (about nine days a year) on Native activities? That she didn't makes you wonder if she had an ulterior motive for listing herself as 'Native.'"

Warren told schools she was Native

"Warren claims she forgot that she told Harvard she was Native. Really? You forgot whether you told people you were white or Native? Did you also forget whether you told them you were male or female? Because that's about the same magnitude of error.

"But let's assume she did forget. The correct answer in her previous comments would've been "I don't remember what I told Harvard." Not "I never told Harvard I was Native." If you don't remember, you say "I'm not sure" or "I don't know."

"As I said before, the more she listed herself as "Cherokee" or "Native," the more she required evidence. Now we learn it was official. She helped her schools mislead the federal government on their diversity reports.

"She didn't say she was white with Native ancestry, which might've been accurate. She flatly said she was Native despite having no known tribal ancestors. Indeed, despite having nothing but unreliable family rumors.

"At a minimum, this listing let the schools deflect the hiring criticism they were receiving. They could say they had one "Native" professor so they didn't need to look for others. Consequently, did Native professors get less consideration for job openings? Quite possibly.

"Although there's still no evidence that Warren used her imagined ancestry to get a job, it's looking more and more like she engaged in box-checking to get ahead. She can't claim she told her schools she was Native to meet other Natives--her prior flimsy excuse. The only reason you inform officials you're a minority is to benefit from it--officially."

Other Warren-related posts on Newspaper Rock.

Kathryn Price NicDhàna said...

Thanks to Rob for this link (some of the info about what Warren has and hasn't claimed in the press (as her statements have been inconsistent) is out of date in this developing story. However, it's a good summation of why Warren is ineligible to enroll in any Cherokee Band or Tribe, and why it's inappropriate for her to claim to be Cherokee or any other type of Native American, even if genealogy or controversial DNA testing ever turns up a non-Caucasian ancestor.):

Is Elizabeth Warren Native American or What?

"Elizabeth Warren is not a citizen of the Cherokee Nation.

"Elizabeth Warren is not enrolled in the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.

"And Elizabeth Warren is not one of the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee.

"Nor could she become one, even if she wanted to.

"Despite a nearly three week flap over her claim of "being Native American," the progressive consumer advocate has been unable to point to evidence of Native heritage except for a unsubstantiated thirdhand report that she might be 1/32 Cherokee. Even if it could be proven, it wouldn't qualify her to be a member of a tribe: Contrary to assertions in outlets from The New York Times to Mother Jones that having 1/32 Cherokee ancestry is "sufficient for tribal citizenship," "Indian enough" for "the Cherokee Nation," and "not a deal-breaker," Warren would not be eligible to become a member of any of the three federally recognized Cherokee tribes based on the evidence so far surfaced by independent genealogists about her ancestry."

(continued next comment)

Kathryn Price NicDhàna said...


"To enroll as a member of the Cherokee Nation, an individual must have had a direct ancestor listed among the more than 101,000 people enrolled on the "Final Rolls of the Citizens and Freedmen of the Five Civilized Tribes in Indian Territory" between 1898-1914, now known as the Dawes Rolls. The Cherokee Nation is very strict about this, even keeping descendants of siblings of men and women on the rolls out of the tribe, as well as descendents of Cherokees who were living out of the area at the time the lists were drawn up in what was then Northeastern Oklahoma.

"'If she does not have an ancestor listed on the Dawes Rolls, she cannot be considered Cherokee through this tribe,' explained Lydia Neal, a processor with the registrar's office of the Cherokee Nation."
"No direct-line relatives of Warren are listed on the Dawes Rolls, according to Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak (the doubled name is not a typo), the independent genealogist who identified Michelle Obama's slave ancestors in 2009 in a project with The New York Times.

"'The Dawes Rolls don't lend support to [Warren's] claim,' she told The Atlantic.

'The Eastern Band of the Cherokee, for their part, have since 1963 required individuals to be at least 1/16 Cherokee to enroll -- and also to have "a direct lineal ancestor" on "the 1924 Baker Roll of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians." Even were Smith discovered to be Cherokee, Warren would not be eligible to join the tribe as someone who also lacks a direct-line ancestor on the 1924 rolls, according to Smolenyak's research.

"'If she has Native American ancestry, it's likely quite a ways back and not reflected in more contemporary resources,' Smolenyak said.

"'In her immediate pedigree there is no one who is listing themselves as not white,' the New England Historic and Genealogical Society's Child told the Boston Herald after looking at her maternal line in late April.

"And while many have pointed out that the current principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, Bill John Baker, is only 1/32 Cherokee, his background is not like Warren's; he was "born and raised in Cherokee County" and is a direct descendant of "Nancy Walker Osage, an early Tahlequah business owner and Cherokee Healer" listed on the Dawes Rolls."
"Warren would need to be certified by the Bureau of Indian Affairs as at least 1/16 Eastern Cherokee on a CDIB to be eligible to join the Eastern Cherokee. The United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee has an even stricter enrollment cut-off: "a minimum blood quantum requirement of one quarter (1/4) degree Keetoowah Cherokee blood" documented via a CDIB plus a direct descent from someone on the Dawes Rolls. Tribal citizenship standards are set by the tribes themselves, and not the U.S. government."

Comment: There are of course fake tribes who will give non-Natives worthless "enrollment" cards. These are at best heritage clubs, and at worst con artists. Those who don't know that there are only three legitimate Cherokee tribes may have been confused by meeting someone from a fake tribe. This video should help explain the situation:

Cherokee Nation: What is a real Indian Nation? What is a fake tribe?

Kathryn Price NicDhàna said...

Some followup on my genealogy and ancestry, updated twice after multiple waves of research:

Part one of two:

Last year one of my Cherokee sisters* and I started looking into ye olde genealogy. At first we found what most people who claim Cherokee heritage find: that my ancestors who I assumed were Native are actually recorded as white in the censuses. I also found pictures of them and they look as Scottish and Irish as their names.

While I thought I was prepared for this result, this turned out to be much more disorienting than I expected. It was even rather shocking, made me a bit depressed, and forced me to reevaluate my self-image. I mean, I know I'm white. But I didn't think I was that white.

Turns out I was looking at the wrong ancestors.

It wasn't the Rosses at all, but other lines entirely where we found my Indigenous ancestors. I had just assumed, given the historical relationship between the Rosses and the Eastern Band Cherokee.

It wasn't until last week that things changed. We got more data, and have now narrowed down which of the ancestors were or weren't Indigenous (or were or weren't my ancestors).

Some of what we found is exactly what I expected: my blood ancestors are most likely Cherokee or Choctaw, which we knew, but also maybe some distant Powhatan, plus some from the Plains and even the Southwest (I had no idea about the latter). As is obvious, just based on recent history and what I look like, I have very low BQ. About 3/128. It would be enough to enroll with CNO, but none of my known ancestors are on the rolls.

The research has also confirmed that I have a number of ancestors whose siblings married into the Choctaw Nation, and some Plains nations, and their descendants are my cousins.

Connecting with relatives has also turned up photos of a number of darker-skinned recent ancestors, who are mysteriously listed as white on the census. This has led down some false leads as well as opened doors to areas I never considered.

(Continued in next comment)

*"NDN way." Ooooooold way. As in, we're still looking into whether or not we're related by blood, but in the meantime we've just gone ahead and adopted each other.

Kathryn Price NicDhàna said...

Part two of two:

As is almost always the case with vague stories of Cherokee ancestors, I had assumed that at least some of my ancestors were probably African-Americans and Jews. We've now confirmed that I do have a bit of heritage from both groups, including a bit of West African ancestry (so, even though I may have been the palest person at those Yoruba ceremonies, those actually were my ancestors we were calling). This has led to the mysterious "Black Dutch" milieux - communities in Pennsylvania and New York with Sinti (German Gypsy) and Sámi immigrants, who chose to pass as whatever their neighbors were (sometimes Jewish, sometimes other ethnicities). It looks like I have a little bit of blood from all of the above groups, though as the Rom family changed their names several times, tracing many more details about their history may prove impossible.

The ones who changed their names are proving very hard to trace back very far, but other lines have turned up distant Sámi ancestors who married in to Scottish and Irish lines via the Norse. After finding the Sámi ancestors I've been spending some time looking into the Sámi culture, and am now a member of some descendants' groups.

While my Irish-American ancestors are recent immigrants, most of the Scottish lines have been here for quite a while. In a few cases my direct, Scottish ancestors and their siblings were raised by Native mothers and foster-mothers, who married a great-something grandfather after his first wife died. In some of those cases it is not clear which wife was the birth mother of the children, so, not clear which type of ancestor they are - foster or blood. But whether or not I carry these ancestors' blood, I also owe my life to these NDN women because they became part of our family and raised my blood ancestors as their own. Some of these women were Powhatan, and others were most likely Cherokee and Choctaw.

I am glad to have finally found out more about these particular ancestors, and am sorry their lives were so hard that they had to assimilate and hide who they were from their descendants. I am glad that I can do my part in reconnecting my family with this part of our history, and with finding relatives now.

Aside from now knowing a lot more about my specific ancestors, like that the war leader Gwenliian of Wales is my 25th and 30th great grandmother, and that I have five lines of direct descent from Brian Boru (!), and now having cool stories about what my ancestors have gone through, not much has changed. I haven't done all the lines yet, so I guess some things could still turn up.

While it's interesting, it hasn't changed the way I was raised. Culturally, I'm still a Diasporan Gael. Just with more diverse ancestry than I knew.

Kathryn Price NicDhàna said...

It's good having diverse relatives.

Kathryn Price NicDhàna said...

Fake tribes keep reporting the CNO video to YouTube. Photos taken at public events, used in the videos under fair use conventions, are being fraudulently reported as violations. Let's see how long this one stays up:

What is a real Indian Nation What is a fake tribe?

Kathryn Price NicDhàna said...

April Youpee-Roll weighs in with an excellent piece updating the Warren situation:

Mistaken identity
Elizabeth Warren's chance to do right by American Indians

June 23, 2016

"That national teachable moment I'd hoped for was lost, distilled to base mythology and caricature, largely because Warren refused to admit that she lacked an understanding of modern Indian identity.

"After Warren defeated Brown, most of the discussion of her Cherokee claim was relegated to the dark corners of the internet, where ad hominem attacks in the form of photos of Warren in photoshopped headdresses linger. They are attacks, in my mind, that denigrate native people more than they have ever hurt Warren.

"But now, as national attention again focuses on her identity, Warren must do what she failed to do in 2012: listen and learn. Indian identity is not a mythical connection to a long romanticized (and assumed long dead) people. It's not a commodity, up for grabs and outside definition. Indian identity is alive. It's a conversation that native people are having right now about kinship, family, civic participation and nationhood.

"Here are the facts: Elizabeth Warren is not a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians or the United Keetowah Band of Cherokee. She is not eligible for citizenship because she has no traceable Cherokee ancestors. The Cherokee are the most common target of specious claims to Indian ancestry, a fact some scholars attribute to early romanticism of the Cherokee struggle for sovereignty, developing as a justification for the anti-federalist sentiment in the antebellum south. Often these claims are traced to family lore and legend, sometimes of a "Cherokee princess" great- grandmother. I believe such claims are ultimately rooted in a natural desire to belong; it's understandably hard to stomach that we all live on stolen land, but that is the unpleasant truth of this nation's colonial roots."


Kathryn Price NicDhàna said...


At some point I'll switch this over to a format that records the actual date.

Updates in ancestry land. The rumours are true: The tribes keep better records than most of the non-Native families did. Much has happened in the years since I first wrote this initial blog post.

I grew up with a genealogist, a professional librarian, as one of my aunties on my mother's side of the family. So I already knew quite a bit about that group of ancestors, but very little about my father's side of the family (beyond his parents and siblings). Over the past decade, as Native relatives have looked into our overlapping family histories, we've discovered that some of the ancestors we had assumed were Cherokee are actually Catawba. And an adopted sister of mine has turned out to also be my distant cousin.

Some of my great-aunt's stories, recorded by hand in family journals, have now turned up in records kept elsewhere, which is also pretty cool. I trusted her to record things honestly, but once things have been passed down for so many generations, you never really know. Lots of relatives now. Of all sorts.

But I'm still not checking any boxes ;)

Knowing the actual stories and Nations of these ancestors, where they lived, what languages they spoke, and who my relatives are now, has increased my sense of responsibility: My responsibilities to my relatives, to this landbase, and to the communities I'm a part of. It does not change the fact that I have white privilege, that, even though I faced plenty of struggles growing up I was raised with white privilege, by people who also have and had white privilege.

Just like being a diasporan Gael gives us different challenges than those faced by our relatives in the Celtic Nations, being a white or white-passing person who also has distant heritage is a very different road than simply being Native. It's yet another way I find myself in a liminal place. Though, as should be apparent from most of what I'm writing these days, most of my time and energy is in Indian Country and the Gaelic worlds. I don't relate much to mainstream America. Not that I ever did...

Kathryn Price NicDhàna said...

Well, even though BQ is irrelevant in this situation, I've found that it's higher than I thought, and I have more Catawba ancestors than I realized. Some of the specifics around the ancestors will never be completely clear, due to the time period and the records of that era. What matters is who are our people now, who claims us, who we are accountable to, and where our loyalties lie. I am doing my best to be a good relative, to all of the above.