Sophomore year of college, my class was discussing Native American mascots, as I sat wearing my Armuchee Indian sweatshirt. “How dare they,” I thought. “I am 1/16th Cherokee. I’ve never been harmed by the Indian mascot.” Just then, a Native American student stood up to speak.
He shared with us how deeply offensive he found Indian mascots. He described the difficulties he encountered when he moved off the reservation. He met people who said they thought “real live Indians” were “extinct.”
The curriculum in his new schools underemphasized the horrific treatment of Native people in recent history and failed to even mention the continuing existence of Native tribes and people today. He talked about how schools in Georgia often use cultural markers of the tribes from other regions, such as teepees and feather headdresses, which were markers of the tribes of the Great Plains region.
This is when I realized that despite my upbringing in a community that claims Native American culture as its own, I knew nothing about the culture of the tribes that lived here, and even less about Native Americans today. My knowledge was based on misrepresentations and a watered-down version of events that stopped at the Trail of Tears.
All my life as a self-proclaimed 1/16th Cherokee, proud member of the Armuchee Tribe, I failed to even realize that the mistreatment of Natives had never ended, that Native Americans are not an extinct group, that their culture is carried on by lived experience. I had unknowingly participated in something that Native Americans find extremely offensive, while claiming to be Native American myself.
I suddenly did not feel the need to protect the memories of the times I had painted my face, worn a feather in my hair, and yelled “Go Indians” in the name of my community’s culture, because I realized that the culture of Native Americans will live on through, well ... Native Americans.
Whether my great-great-grandmother was Cherokee, the similarities between me and this young man stopped there. My experience with Native ancestry was an interesting anecdote, and his experience included generational trauma stemming from years of systemic mistreatment, income inequality, resource deprivation, broken promises of our government, watching his reservation lose its sovereignty over time, and finally, having to explain to people like me that his culture and his people are very much still alive, not ancient characters that we exploit for our own entertainment, cultural nostalgia, or school pride.
In the years since then, an official campaign was launched by the National Congress of American Indians to end the use of Indian mascots. There are over 1000 Native organizations that are advocating to discontinue the use of Native mascots. In July 2020, Oneida Nation won their campaign to end the use of the racial slur “rdskns” by the NFL. An empirical review published in 2020 confirmed the position that the American Psychological Association has held since 2005; evidence shows the use of native mascots does actual, measurable harm to Native students. Also in July 2020, the Supreme Court ruled to protect the reservation status of the tribes of Eastern Oklahoma, including the descendants of the actual tribes who once lived in Armuchee.
Last and least importantly, I submitted DNA from myself and two fellow Armucheeans who believed they had Native ancestry. Current technologies did not detect any Native ancestry in any of us. This doesn’t change anything, because having one Native American ancestor would not justify my participation in trivializing the culture of Native Americans, no matter what my intentions. Even if I was a descendant of the Cherokee tribe, I am not Native American in terms of cultural understanding or life experience, and the stereotypes that I have used to demonstrate my identity as a member of the Armuchee Tribe would not have been relevant to the culture of my great-great-grandmother, who may or may not have been Cherokee.