“I cannot say when I first heard of my Indian blood, but as a boy I heard it spoken of in a general way,” Charles Phelps, a resident of Winston-Salem in North Carolina, told a federal census taker near the beginning of the 20th century. Like many Americans at the time, Phelps had a vague understanding of his Native American ancestry. On one point, however, his memory seemed curiously specific: His Indian identity was a product of his “Cherokee blood.”
The tradition of claiming a Cherokee ancestor continues into the present. Today, more Americans claim descent from at least one Cherokee ancestor than any other Native American group. Across the United States, Americans tell and retell stories of long-lost Cherokee ancestors. These tales of family genealogies become murkier with each passing generation, but like Phelps, contemporary Americans profess their belief despite not being able to point directly to a Cherokee in their family tree.
Recent demographic data reveals the extent to which Americans believe they’re part Cherokee. In 2000, the federal census reported that 729,533 Americans self-identified as Cherokee. By 2010, that number increased, with the Census Bureau reporting that 819,105 Americans claimed at least one Cherokee ancestor. Census data also indicates that the vast majority of people self-identifying as Cherokee—almost 70 percent of respondents—claim they are mixed-race Cherokees.
Why do so many Americans claim to possess “Cherokee blood”? The answer requires us to peel back the layers of Cherokee history and tradition.
Most scholars agree that the Cherokees, an Iroquoian-speaking people, have lived in what is today the Southeastern United States—Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, North and South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama—since at least A.D. 1000. When Europeans first encountered the Cherokees in the mid–16th century, Cherokee people had well-established social and cultural traditions. Cherokee people lived in small towns and belonged to one of seven matrilineal clans. Cherokee women enjoyed great political and social power in the Cherokee society. Not only did a child inherit the clan identity of his or her mother, women oversaw the adoption of captives and other outsiders into the responsibilities of clan membership.
As European colonialism engulfed Cherokee Country during the 17th and 18th centuries, however, Cherokees began altering their social and cultural traditions to better meet the challenges of their times. One important tradition that adapted to new realities was marriage.
The Cherokee tradition of exogamous marriage, or marrying outside of one’s clan, evolved during the 17th and 18th centuries as Cherokees encountered Europeans on a more frequent basis. Some sought to solidify alliances with Europeans through intermarriage.
It is impossible to know the exact number of Cherokees who married Europeans during this period. But we know that Cherokees viewed intermarriage as both a diplomatic tool and as a means of incorporating Europeans into the reciprocal bonds of kinship. Eighteenth-century British traders often sought out Cherokee wives. For the trader, the marriage opened up new markets, with his Cherokee wife providing both companionship and entry access to items such as the deerskins coveted by Europeans. For Cherokees, intermarriage made it possible to secure reliable flows of European goods, such as metal and iron tools, guns, and clothing. The frequency with which the British reported interracial marriages among the Cherokees testifies to the sexual autonomy and political influence that Cherokee women enjoyed. It also gave rise to a mixed-race Cherokee population that appears to have been far larger than the racially mixed populations of neighboring tribes.
Europeans were not the only group of outsiders with which 18th-century Cherokees intermingled. By the early 19th century, a small group of wealthy Cherokees adopted racial slavery, acquiring black slaves from American slave markets. A bit more than 7 percent of Cherokee families owned slaves by the mid-1830s; a small number, but enough to give rise to a now pervasive idea in black culture: descent from a Cherokee ancestor.
In the early 20th century, the descendants of Cherokee slaves related stories of how their black forebears accompanied Cherokees on the forced removals of the 1830s. They also recalled tales of how African and Cherokee people created interracial families. These stories have persisted into the 21st century. The former NFL running back Emmitt Smith believed that he had “Cherokee blood.” After submitting a DNA test as part of his 2010 appearance on NBC’s Who Do You Think You Are, he learned he was mistaken. Among black Americans, as among Americans as a whole, the belief in Cherokee ancestry is more common than actual blood ties.
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 20th centuries, 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 19th century. 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.
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.
Gregory D. Smithers is associate professor of history at Virginia Commonwealth University and author of The Cherokee Diaspora.