“There are Cherokee citizens who have no Cherokee blood.”

I ran across this quote in a New York Times article. It was attributed to the deputy attorney general of the Cherokee Nation. It got me to thinking, what does it mean to be Cherokee exactly?

There are three federally recognized Cherokee tribes, and at one time or another every one of them has claimed that all of the others were either completely fraudulent or at least less then legitimate. Not to mention the vitriol directed by certain self-appointed and self-important members of the federal tribes towards the various state-recognized and independent communities of Cherokee descendants that exist in different places.

The U.S. Department of Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs, the organ of the federal bureaucracy charged with dealing with Native Americans, defines Cherokees as belonging to one or more of four categories. They are as follows.

(1) “Living persons who were listed on the final rolls (Dawes Commission Rolls) of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, now known as the Cherokee Nation, that were approved and their descendants. These final rolls were closed in 1907.”

(2) “Individuals enrolled as members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians of North Carolina and their descendants who are eligible for enrollment with the Band.”

(3) “Persons on the list of members identified by a resolution dated April 19, 1949, and certified by the Superintendent of the BIA’s Five Civilized Tribes Agency, and their descendants who are eligible for enrollment with the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians of Oklahoma.”

(4) “All other persons of Cherokee Indian ancestry”

Under Category 4, the Bureau goes on to say the following:

“(4) ALL OTHER PERSONS OF CHEROKEE ANCESTRY: Information about any Cherokee ancestry of individuals in this category is more difficult to locate, largely because the Federal government has never maintained a listing of all Cherokee Indians and their descendants that also shows their tribal affiliation, degree of Cherokee Indian blood, or other data.”

So again, what does it mean to be Cherokee?

Obviously, there are different answers to this question. To the blonde-haired, blue-eyed urban professional whose blood quantum may be 1/800th and who has never been exposed to Cherokee culture or spirituality, it may be nothing more then a passing curiosity. A subject of passing conversation over cocktails, or to add alluring mystery on a first date.

Depending on which federal tribe that person is enrolled with, there may also be financial advantages to go with that enrollment card.

To the traditional Cherokee who lives in a traditional community, is perhaps a member of a ceremonial ground, speaks the Cherokee language fluently and believes in the old ways, the meaning of being Cherokee is more likely to be more personal. to this sort of person, the experience is in all probability going to be based on family, spirituality and faith.

To the addict who happens to be a member of a tribe that offers a per capita payout, being Cherokee may mean nothing more than another source of money to feed an addiction. Hopefully this is a very small minority.

To the typical “Category 4” being Cherokee is more deeply personal. In my experience the average “Category 4” is someone who has a very deep connection to their ancestors and to the legacy of the same. There is no financial incentive to persons in this category to embrace their “Cherokeeness.”

In fact, persons in this category, in my experience at least, contribute more money, dedicate more volunteer hours, and offer more effort toward Cherokee causes and the protection of Cherokee historical sites then does the average federal enrollee.

Different people will always bring different perspectives to the table. Depending on the time, identity, and the politics thereof, will vary. The federal tribes set their own enrollment criteria, which is their right. The state-recognized tribes have rights as set down by their respective states.

What is absolute and unchanging, regardless of what category we find ourselves in, is our sacred birthright as the children of Selu. The one element of “Cherokeeness” that is absolute, unchanging and worth fighting for.

Fulton Arrington is the president of the Friends of the New Echota State Historic Site. He can be reached by email at fultonlarrington@yahoo.com.