My Grandmother Told Me We Have Indian Blood: Memory, Heritage & Native American Identity

>>From the Library of
Congress in Washington, DC.>>Roberto Salazar: Good
afternoon and welcome to the Library of Congress. Native American History Month
programming is made possible in part by the Office of Equal Employment
Opportunity and Diversity Programs in association with the
American Folk Life Center and Native American
Employees of the Library. Illustrating today’s program also
is a display of collection items from the holdings of the
Library’s Curatorial Divisions and the Veterans History Project. We’re very thankful to the
Curatorial Divisions for providing of their time, their staff
time to select, present, and safeguard these
treasures that include maps, manuscripts, photos, and books. One item of special note
is theCherokee Phoenix, a rare original volume which is
described as a gold-level treasure from the vault of the Serial and
Government Publications Division. One of four volumes,
it documents efforts to connect Cherokee nationals and
gain support for Cherokee autonomy. We invite you to peruse
and view these items after today’s presentation. You will also be able to purchase
a book from today’s presentation,The Cherokee Diasporafor
a very special price of $32 and our guest speaker, I’m sure,
will make himself available, we hope, to sign your
copy of the book. My colleague, Carrie
Lyons, will now join me in introducing today’s program
and our featured speaker.>>Carrie Lyons: Thank you, Roberto. Good afternoon to everybody. I am Carrie Newton Lyons. I am a section research
manager and attorney at the Congressional
Research Service. I’m also an enrolled citizen of
the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. First, I’d like to thank everybody
for coming to our program today to celebrate Native American
Heritage Month and I’m going to give a special thanks to
all of my colleagues at CRS who are out here to support me. So thank you very much. My deepest gratitude to all of you. This program came about — about
six months ago in a meeting that Jennifer Manning
and Eric Eldridge and I were having in my office. We were discussing how we needed
to get an early start on planning for Native American Heritage Month. And naturally, I got off topic and
started commenting on my desire to write an article about
the belief of many Americans that they have Native American
ancestry or Indian blood. Well, I was talking about
it because I’d had a friend who had recently revealed that he thought he might have
some Native American ancestry. And I’m sure you’ve seen
all of the commercials for these DNA testing
companies where people discover that they have a percentage
of Native American blood. Well, two weeks later,
Jennifer sent me an article fromSlate Magazinetitled “Why Do So Many Americans Think
They Have Cherokee Blood?” And I had been scooped
by our speaker today, Professor Greg Smithers [laughter]. But it became very clear that
issues of identity and questions about who are our people are
incredibly important in America. And the further evidence
is the success of these DNA testing
companies and the multitude of genealogy research sites that
you can find on the internet. It also became clear that Professor
Smithers would be a great person to come and speak to us in honor
of Native American Heritage Month. And that his research, and his
articles, and his books are helping to resolve some of those issues
that we’re all grappling with. Now, before I turn it over
to Professor Smithers, I just want to give a few
brief details about him. He received his BA in History from
Australian Catholic University and his PhD in History from the
University of California at Davis. He currently teaches at Virginia
Commonwealth University in Richmond. And he is the author of
several books including one that you could purchase
today on race and history. I am thrilled to have
him with us here today. So please help me welcome
Professor Greg Smithers. [ Applause ]>>Gregory Smithers: Thank
you all for coming today. Special thanks to Carrie
Lyons, of course, and Roberto Salazar for inviting me. I’m delighted to be here. And before I get started, let me just acknowledge the
Algonquin-speaking ancestors who are the traditional
owners of the soil that we are now all standing on. I’ve been teaching for quite
some time now in various parts of the world, in Australia where
I was born and raised, in Hawaii, in Scotland, and of course,
here in the United States — in various parts of
the United States. And it never has ceased to
amaze me when I teach classes on Native Americans in the
Southeast, how that student body who takes that class
insists that they — as the title of this lecture
indicates, have a grandmother or more typically a great-great
grandmother who has stories of their Cherokee ancestry. So common was this several years ago
that I started taking a head count. And it never ceases to amaze me. It’s about 25% of the class
of about 40 students who claim that they have Cherokee ancestry. And this has been the case whether
I was working at the University of Aberdeen in the north of
Scotland, or giving guest lectures at the Australian National
University in Canberra, or working back here in Virginia and
other parts of the United States. This is quite extraordinary and so,
that was the genesis for this book, to try and understand
why so many people think that they have Cherokee ancestry
in their family and I do apologize to Carrie for scooping you
on thatSlatearticle. But I do believe there’s much more
to be written about this topic. I don’t believe that anything that
I had written or other scholars of the Cherokee experience
have written is the final word. I think this is an
ongoing conversation that we are having
and are involved in. I’m hoping that our knowledge
is being deepened by the work that we are producing both for
academic audiences but also for popular audiences
and the readers of publications like
Slate Magazine
. Today, there’s approximately
one million Americans who self-identify as Cherokee. That is people who believe that they
have a Cherokee ancestor somewhere in their genealogy. That’s become an important article
of an individual’s identity, it seems, in the late 20th
and early 21st century. And this explosion — for
one of the better expression, in people who claim
Cherokee ancestry, begins in its modern formation around the late 1960s
and early 1970s. And it seems to have become
mainstream during the early 1970s and it coincides with a
public service announcement that featured the gentleman
you see there on the screen. He’s — his stage name
was Iron Eyes Cody. Some of you are no doubt old
enough to remember that commercial and his work in Hollywood,
in film and on television. Iron Eyes Cody was the child of Sicilian immigrants,
born in New Orleans. He appropriated an identity
for himself as a Cherokee man and he became quite a
successful actor in his own right. If you ask his descendants, his son
and grandchildren, they will insist that Iron Eyes Cody
was indeed Cherokee. Now the evidence is contrary to that
but the question remains, well why? Why were there so many people like
Iron Eyes Cody who appropriated such an identity in the late 20th
century — from the 1970s forward? Part of the answer to
that is directly related to what some historians
and sociologists refer to as the ethnic revival movement. Ethnic revivals begin in the 1970s and what they basically entail
are Americans rediscovering and reconnecting with their
ancestry — their ethnic ancestry. This is also the era one must
keep in mind of multiculturalism. The Western world is
embracing ideals around multiculturalism
in the 1970s and 1980s. And it’s during this era then when
people discover that they’re Irish, that they’re German, that they’re
Hungarian, that they’re Italian, and that they’re Native American. That these identities — excuse me, begin to proliferate
throughout American culture. Part of this is a cynical attempt, as the historian Matthew Frye
Jacobson has pointed out to try and mitigate the impact of racial
tension that existed in 1960s and 1970s America to try and
flatten out racial experiences. That we are all immigrants and
that in some way, racial suffering and racial experiences have a
degree of equivalency about them. And that’s — that is,
indeed, misleading. And I can go into more
details about that. But that gives you some
sense in the modern context of where this proliferation in people claiming Cherokee
identity comes from. Navajo was, at one point, the
most popular identity for people to self-identify with in the
United States in the 1950s and ’60s and that’s largely a product
of Hollywood filmmaking. Thank you, John Wayne. But Cherokee becomes the identity
of choice and it still is today for people who insist that
they have Cherokee ancestors. So I’m going to come back to this
question then and take a detour through some of the
major points that I talk about inThe Cherokee Diaspora
because it’s in that book that I wanted to understand
this modern phenomenon.The Cherokee Diasporais really
a book about origins and becoming. It’s a story that places
history and heritage in conflict. Heritage is that phenomenon scholars
point out of creating meaning. And that’s what many Americans have
been doing not only since the 1970s but for quite some time,
almost from the beginning — indeed, from the beginning of
our republic trying to create and cultivate some sense of meaning. Historians sometimes in a rather
snobbish fashion are dismissive of the heritage industry. We trade in evidence we
like to convince ourselves. We get at the facts of the past. But as I like to remind my
students, all facts are mediated. They don’t understand what I’m
talking about but by the end of 16 weeks, they get it [laughter]. I nail it into them. So who are the Cherokee people then? Let me give you a brief
introduction to the Cherokee people, their culture which I have devoted
my career and adult life to. The Cherokee are an
Iroquoian-speaking people descended possibly from migratory people
from the Northern Great Lakes. And they migrated southward
and settled in and claimed as their hunting territory
parts of what is today Virginia, West Virginia, North and
South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, and Kentucky. The linguistic and ethnic heritage
that the Cherokee brought with them to help them found their
communities in the — that were thriving by the time
the Spanish encountered them in the 16th century,
carried with them the legacy of their Northern Great
Lakes heritage. Iroquoian etymology is evident
in a number of the town names in Cherokee country
in the southeast. Towns such as Seneca and
Kituwa underscore those links. Most archaeologists believe that
the Cherokee people have been in the southeast, in the Appalachian
Mountain region of the southeast for at least 4000 years,
if not longer. And the archaeological evidence
is dynamic and constantly changing so that we’re always
reevaluating that chronology. By about 1000, the Cherokee
understood themselves to be “the principal people”, the Tsalagi
became politically identifiable as town and clan communities
throughout the southeast. And as I mentioned, when De Soto
and his Spanish entrada moved through the south from
modern-day Florida all the way through the mountain south and
interior south during the period between 1539 and 1542, they
encountered wonderfully dynamic, sophisticated and I should point
out, interconnected societies. Societies that had long engaged
in trade, diplomacy, marriage. Most Native People in the
southeast practiced exogamous marriage practices. That is they married
outside of their clan groups. These were incredibly rich
and sophisticated societies that the Spanish encountered. Above all, it’s important to note that the Cherokee people
lived in towns. Their identities were
centered on towns, in fact, by the 17th and 18th century. The Cherokee people, many
schoolchildren come to my classes. By the time they get to college and
they have some rough understanding that Cherokee people
belong to matrilineal clans. And that is absolutely true, seven
matrilineal clans connect people from the different towns in
the 17th and 18th century. But on a day-to-day basis, if you
were to meet your average Cherokee, say on the upper trading
path that ran through the Overhill Cherokee
towns in modern-day Tennessee, you would encounter people
who would identify their name and which town they were from. Which gives you a sense of what was
most important to their identity as Cherokee people in the
17th and 18th century. It was a connection to place and
ecology, the ecology of a region and an ecology that connected
one’s town to a region as well. And this is what makes the
removal of Cherokee people in the early 19th century
so traumatic. Because this is literally a ripping
of people from a sense of place that leads to a discombobulation in
one’s mental compass of the world and their sense of community. And above all, community was hugely
important to Cherokee people. These are people who
nurtured reciprocal cultures for many hundreds and thousands
of years in the southeast. At the same time, as
I detail in the book, the Cherokee people also
nurture migration stories. There are some wonderful migration
stories that the Cherokee relate to Europeans when they begin
to arrive in the interior south on a more regular basis in
the 17th and 18th centuries. Some of these stories talk about Cherokee ancestors crossing
a great bridge that later sank to the bottom of the ocean. Others talk about Cherokee
ancestors, the Ani-kutani, a group of priests — seven
priests who allegedly migrated from a mythical island in the
middle of the Atlantic Ocean and ultimately settled and helped
to establish the seven mother towns in Cherokee country
in the southeast. And there are other stories too,
of movement and resettlements, about stories of Cherokees migrating
to the darkening lands, that is, lands west of the Mississippi River. And some, the so-called Lost
Cherokee, migrating to the base of the so-called Mexican
Mountains — you might all know them as the
Rockies — and not returning. So there are stories of
movements, resettlements that exist within Cherokee folklore
and mythology and Cherokee oral histories. And in some ways, I think
that these histories are part, though part of the way to explaining
why there are so many people in the United States, Canada,
Mexico, and other parts of the world who believe that there are
connections to a Cherokee ancestry. Cherokee people have
long been mobile. They have been willing
to adopt outsiders into their communities and families. So it comes as very little
surprise then that there would be so many people who have these vague
stories that have become vaguer over time that connect
them to some sense of Cherokee-ness or
Cherokee identity. On the screen there, what you see
is a reproduction or a recreation, I should say, of a
typical Cherokee town that Europeans would have
encountered on a regular basis in the 17th and 18th century. This is a town where one’s identity
would have been totally consumed by the day-to-day operations
of agricultural production, of cultural engagements, of
educating children which was the job of the women of the town and
the uncles of the children. Fathers had very little
to do with their children in most Native Southern societies
during the 17th and 18th century. And that’s a product of these
being matrilineal societies. Cherokee people began
to move their towns over the course of
early 18th century. Certainly after the major schism that occurred throughout the Native
South that led some societies to reform after the
Yamasee War, a major battle that took place very near the Lower
Creek towns in 1715 through ’18. This had an impact. This war had an impact on
all of the Native South. For the Cherokee people, this war in the early18th century was
the beginning of sustained and almost daily contact
with the British. The British coveted the Tennessee
River, the little Tennessee and the other navigable rivers
that ran through Cherokee country as highways of the 18th century
that would provide them with access to the Ohio and Illinois Valleys
to connect plantations and markets and make settlement possible. The problem was that chiefs
like John Jolly who you see on the screen there, they
controlled the Native South. This was Native country. And it’s really not until
the late 18th century that the British are able to acquire
the type of control that they hoped for and indeed the ultimate
control over the Native South. It really doesn’t come until the
Removal Era in the 1820s and 1830s. It requires effort to remove over
70,000 Native Americans from East to North America before Anglo-Saxon
people can dominate the Native South and the Ohio and Illinois Valleys. Now for many Cherokee
people like Chief Jolly, who you see on the screen there,
they begin to grow despondent and resentful of the
aggressive of Europeans. And they begin to relocate
their towns. They begin to do that firstly by
relocating towns to the interior of Cherokee country which goes a
long way to explaining why there are so many Cherokees removed
from Georgia in 1838 and ’39. They had been taking refuge
in what becomes the colony and ultimately state of Georgia since the middle of
the 18th century. That’s not enough for some people. Certainly, it’s not for
John Jolly and his followers who become what I refer to inThe
Cherokee Diaspora
as the vanguard of diasporic communities. They migrate to Arkansas
Territory and they migrate not as they had once done as men engaged
in hunting and slave-raiding. They migrated as entire communities with relatively balanced
gender ratios. This is something that is entirely
new in modern Cherokee history than at the beginning
of the 19th century. By way of party knowledge perhaps,
Chief John Jolly is the man who adopts Sam Houston as his son. And indeed, when Sam Houston’s wife
leaves him while Sam Houston is governor of Tennessee, Mr.
Houston has a mental breakdown and seeks refuge and comfort from
his adoptive father, Chief Jolly, and indeed migrates with the “old
settlers” to Arkansas Territory. The movement of Cherokee
people west then begins to really accelerate
during the first couple of decades of the 19th century. The man you see on the
screen there and I’m not sure if there’s a picture of him. This image is from the Library of Congress collections,
I should point out. And in fact, most of the images from
the book do come from the Library of Congress’ collections. This is Tahchee or Dutch. He becomes — he’s a
great warrior chief and historians have written much
about his knife and various poses that he has throughout
his adult life, prominently displaying his knife to the artist making
the rendering of him. He is — he’s a celebrated
war chief among the Cherokees and he leads a group of
Cherokees into Arkansas Territory and ultimately into Texas. What’s interesting about Dutch — and I go into much more detail
about Dutch in the book, but what’s interesting about Dutch’s
followers is many of them break off and settle in Northern
Mexico during the 1830s. This is as a result of the Texas
effort to remove Native Americans from the Republic of Texas. Others try to stay in
Texas and assimilate into white settler communities
or join Comanche communities who continue to terrorize
Anglo-Texan communities well into the 19th century. And others ultimately of Dutch’s
followers are relocated in 1837, ’38 into Indian Territory. One of the more interesting things
about Dutch’s followers is that some of them seem to exist
as small communities, very small communities isolated
from both settler communities and other native communities
that are indigenous to Texas and its Cherokee search
parties that find them. Chief Ross, when he’s reestablishing
government in Indian Territory after the Removal crisis, sends
out Cherokee search parties to look for lost Cherokees and they’re
often delighted to discover that there are people
who speak their language and they can be reconnected
with a sense of community again. And this is very important. This sense of community remains
important through the 19th century through the trauma of Removal. And I should point out
something about Removal. It is an effort that embodies
the exploitation of peoples, the expropriation of their
lands, and the use of technology. Railroads, steam boats, and so
forth to relocate tens of thousands of people from land that southerners
covet for their slave plantations. And so in the midst of all of
this, how does one maintain a sense of community which is so
important to being Cherokee? Part of the answer to that
resides with people like Sequoyah who you see on the screen there. Sequoyah is the man
who is responsible for inventing the Cherokee
syllabary, a phonetic system of writing that does catch fire
among Cherokee people during the early 19th century. Sequoyah is — Sequoyah
makes quite a deal of money actually selling jewelry that he manufactures during his
adult like and he’s something of a cattle rancher for a period
as well during his early life. He has links to some of the great
Cherokee chiefs of the late 18th and early 19th century such
as Tahlonteeskee who I write about in great length in the book. Tahlonteeskee is one of those
chiefs who leads the vanguard of Cherokee settlements
in the early 19th century. So in other words, Sequoyah grows
up, certainly not impoverished but certainly not willing
to be passive in the face of settler encroachment
upon their lands and settler cultural imperialism. And so he sees — the story
goes in his adult life, Cherokee people being intimidated
by European Americans being able to speak without talking. “There’s nothing special in
that,” Sequoyah allegedly says. And so he sets about trying to
come up with a system of writing that can connect Cherokee
people, to enable Cherokee people to speak without talking. Now, sure but now the Cherokees
think he’s absolutely nuts when he’s doing this. But as I say, it does catch fire
very quickly and you do have as over here, you can see
after the talk an example. One of the great examples
of bilingualism in early 19th century
America, the Cherokee Phoenix which in many ways is a product
of Sequoyah’s fabulous invention and the hard work of Elias Boudinot, the first great editor
of the Cherokee Phoenix. Who also plays a significant role
in using language and culture to try and connect people over vast
distances in this new reality that is Cherokee life in an
American imperial context. So it is then by the 1830s
in that awful era of Removal that separates families —
Cherokee families that leads to great suffering on the part
of Cherokee communities — that creates two separate
homelands for the Cherokee people. One that the Cherokees have to
recreate for themselves in diaspora in Indian Territory,
which is located in modern-day Eastern Oklahoma. This becomes a political homeland for Cherokee peoples living
throughout the Americas and beyond. But what gives that homeland — that political homeland its enduring
meaning during the 19th century and into the 20th century is the
recognition that there are some of our ancestors the Cherokees
note in their writings, in their lectures and so forth. Cherokees who remain in North
Carolina, in the ancestral homelands and it’s very important then that
these political and western — political homeland remain
connected to the ancestral homeland of the Appalachian region. And we do see and I talked — I write about this in
great length in the book. Cherokee people coming,
traveling back and forth on a regular basis during the
19th century and the 20th century to remain to try and cultivate
a renewed sense of community. And it is quite possible within the
context of that movement of people that new relationships are
forged with non-Cherokee people that give rise to these family
stories that I hear so often in my classes from my students. I should point out also at
this point that in the decades between the 1830s and the outbreak
of the American Civil War in 1861, there is a phenomenon
sweeping across the Old South. It is the phenomenon
of white men claiming that they have Cherokee
grandmothers. This is not a phenomenon. Why? Why did this catch fire
in the Antebellum Decades? Well part of the answer
goes to the idea that American colonialism
had successfully in the minds of white Americans
removed all Cherokees from Eastern North America. And so by claiming
a Cherokee identity like claiming an Indian mascot,
you are engaging in a form of cultural appropriation
and cultural imperialism that denotes your — in this
context racial, political, and military superiority. That’s one aspect of this. But the other aspect of this relates
to the growing tensions that emerge between North and South
during the Antebellum years, the 1830s through the 1850s. This growing suspicion that
there was this authoritarian, overreaching federal
government that was trying to impinge upon the rights
of Southerners were just like the Cherokees who were
removed by this overbearing, overreaching federal government
in the 1820s and 1830s. And so there’s this
false sense of identity and misleading use of history. Indeed, I would say a cultivation
of a heritage here that goes part of the way to explaining
why you have this phenomenon in the Antebellum Decades. And it’s this phenomenon and many
of the students that I’ve had here and oh, down in Virginia tell
me that their ancestors relate that it is during the early 19th
century that their relatives, they found letters in old suitcases
and so forth, of relatives talking about their Cherokee
ancestry during these decades. I think that is very revealing
about the cultural context then in which this belief
begins to emerge. At the same time — at the same
time and I should say it’s easy to be cynical about
some of this stuff. But at the same time that
all of this is happening, Cherokees continue to be
moving throughout the Americas. The image on the screen there is
an image of the California road that Cherokees regularly took
to California in search of gold? But some settled and of all the
satellite Cherokee communities in the United States today, the
satellite communities in Northern and Southern California
are among the most active. And many of them can trace their
ancestors back to Tennessee, Georgia, and the Old
Nation prior to Removal. Interestingly, this
California road didn’t end when it got to California. Many Cherokees decided after they
didn’t find gold in California that they would hop on a steamer
in San Francisco Bay and head to the antipodes, to
Australia, and try and find gold in the Victorian Gold Rush that
was occurring simultaneously. This was quite an extraordinary
transnational exchange of cultures that took place then. Many Cherokees returned
again impoverished from their efforts
to try and find gold. But there are examples
of Cherokees who did stay and intermarry in Australia. And I’ve met many of those ancestors over the years while I’ve
been researching this book. The overarching memory that
dominates Cherokee stories of migration and resettlement
is what was called in the 1830s by the Cherokees, the
Great Immigration. I’m not going to tell
you how that term, the Trail of Tears came into being. You have to buy the book to
find that out [laughter]. But this was truly, as I mentioned,
an example of the use of technology, political power, military power. And it’s this migration, this forced
migration that dominates narratives of what it means to be Cherokee
going into the late 19th century. And it’s really not until the era
of the Dawes Act and Allotment that we begin to renew conversations
about what it means to be Cherokee. During that latter
period in the 1880s, when the Dawes Commission is doing
its work and land is being allotted in Indian Territory,
what becomes Oklahoma — there are many Cherokee people
who refused to have anything to do with the commissioners. They are both disdainful of and
distrustful of federal officials. And with good reason. They’ve heard the stories. There are many stories that
I collected from the 1920s — that date to the 1920s and
’30s which go a long way to explaining why many
Cherokee people would avoid federal officials. Now that has an enduring impact
upon Cherokee identity to this day. Because there are tens of thousands
possibly of Cherokee people, some of them working in academia,
who now have a very clear sense of their Cherokee ancestors but they
do not appear on the Dawes Roll — that list of names that
determines one’s connection to the Cherokee Nation
and eligibility into the Cherokee Nation. So this is really a
fraught period that’s in some ways marks a
new beginning then. If the Great Immigration of
the 1830s marked this sort of dramatic beginning for
Cherokee people’s living en masse in diaspora, then a period of
relative stability certainly upset by the Civil War which I
talk more about in the book, is again unsettled and
new understandings emerge out of the Allotment Era. And in many ways, the debates
about what it means to be Cherokee that emerged out of the 1880s
and 1890s are even more fraught and traumatic and really
quite visceral and violent in some cases during this era. This is also the era then
in the late 19th century where we do see a further
dispersal of Cherokee people. Cherokee people deciding that this
is no longer Indian Territory. Oklahoma is no longer a viable
option for their families. Many people choose
to live in diaspora. Narcissa Owen is one of those. She’s well known in
Washington, DC at the turn of the 19th and 20th century. She marries a prominent railroad
engineer and lives for a period in Lynchburg, Virginia and travels
back and forth during her life between the Cherokee
Seminary which is located in the Cherokee Nation
and Washington, DC. But Narcissa Owen is
in some ways fortunate. She was able to put her
name on the Dawes Roll. She was able to prove beyond a
reasonable doubt her Cherokee ancestry at the end
of the 19th century. But many others were not. And I want to sort of
conclude by pointing to the Cherokee Citizenship
Commission which, to my mind, the evidence suggests that this
commission has an enduring impact upon what it means to be
Cherokee in the 21st century. This is the commission
as I detail in the book which separates families
based upon race, ethnicity, language, and culture. There are some really
quite heartbreaking stories of Cherokee Citizenship
Commission as using their positions for political reasons to
punish political opponents. Now this is not uniquely Cherokee. This is something that
is very human, I think, in a modern context
to do such things. But nonetheless, many of
the stories that emerged out of the Cherokee citizenship
commission are really quite fraught and for African-American
people in particular. The Cherokee Citizenship Commission
is something of a disaster for many thousands of people
who by genealogy and by virtue of their ancestors being
enslaved by Cherokee slaveholders at the beginning of
the Civil War are cast out of the Nation during
this period. Their evidence, no matter how
clear it is of Cherokee ancestry or connection to Cherokee citizens
is deemed never quite good enough by most of the commissioners. So then, this brings us to today
then and the 2000 census where “Cherokee” emerges as the
largest self-identified segment of the Native American population. At that time, there was a
little under 730,000 people who self-identified as Cherokee. The second largest group at the
time were the Navajo with a little under 270,000 people
self-identifying as Navajo Indians. By 2010, that number had
increased again to a little under 820,000 Americans who
self-identified as Cherokee and according to some of the latest
data as I mentioned in the beginning of this talk, there is now
close to a million Americans who self-identify as Cherokee. Keeping in mind that there are only
three federally recognized Cherokee tribes, the Cherokee Nation,
the Keetoowah band of Cherokee, and the Easton band of
Cherokees in North Carolina. These groups keep a very,
very close eye on all of these people claiming
to be Cherokee. And in fact, both the Easton band and the Cherokee Nation have
established what they refer to as fraud list, a list that —
there are hundreds of these groups. It’s really quite extraordinary
how many groups there are out there claiming to be Cherokee. And I’m more than happy to
address some of the complexities of that fraud list and the history
behind it in question and answer. But it does, I just want to conclude
by saying that one of the reasons — at the end of the day,
one of the reasons I think that so many people do
claim to be Cherokee is because I do think Cherokee people
are victims of their own success. They are — as I was mentioning
to someone before the lecture, they have a history of being superb
diplomats, excellent lawyers, wonderful self-promoters and this
is something that is evident. I wrote a piece in theJournal of
Native South
a year or two back that talks about the role that Cherokee heritage making
among the Easton Band had in attracting ordinary Americans to
Cherokee country in North Carolina. That success, I think, has
contributed and led to the 1970s in the era that we’re
still living in — in by helping to explain why so many Americans believe they
have a Cherokee grandmother or great-grandmother. And on that note, I’ll
leave it there. And thank you for your
attendance and more than welcome to take your questions. Thank you. [ Applause ] Yes, ma’am.>>In the beginning of your
talk, you mentioned that it was in the late ’60s or early
’70s when Americans started to discover their [inaudible]
their ethnic ancestry. Was this even before Alex
Haley publishedRootsor are there [inaudible]?>>Gregory Smithers: When
does Haley publishRoots? Isn’t that like 1971 or thereabouts? Who can correct me on that one? It’s about the same era. Yeah, it’s part of this general
sort of cultural movement in the United States at the
time for people to reconnect with their ethnic origins
and their heritage. And I mean, ultimately this gives
way to this sort of modern stuff that Carrie was talking about in her
introduction with the DNA testing.>>1976?>>Gregory Smithers:
1976 — thank you. And I should point out too,
the popularity of shows like “Who Do You Think You Are” and I
think PBS has genealogical detectors or detectives or something. This is — this is — we’re
still in this moment, I think, of ethnic revival and
people reconnecting with their ethnic heritage. One of the things that’s
interesting about this from my personal professional
experience is that when I taught in the UK for several years,
English and Scottish kids and adults that I spoke to couldn’t
understand why Americans were so obsessed with this stuff. They really — they did not
— surprise, to my surprise, did not have that same sense
of connection or desire to find out that connection
that Americans do. And I think that must be — that it had something to do with
the settle colonial experience of the late 20th century that
helps to explain that, I think. That sort of all the turmoil
that went on in the 1960s and that resulted in so much urban
unrest, I think people then sort of — and the embrace
of multiculturalism, I think it was then more
acceptable post Jim Crow and post racial segregation
and lynching to then fully trying
to embrace one’s roots.>>Do you have a question? Yes, [inaudible] in the corner?>>Would you say a little bit about
Cherokee language revitalization?>>Gregory Smithers: Yeah, that’s
something that’s very important that has been accelerating in
both — among all of the tribes, federally recognized tribes
since the Second World War. The Easton Band put in place
language revitalization programs in the 1950s and they sort
of went dormant for a while. But they’ve been reignited again
over the past 10, 15 years. And the Cherokee Nation is
doing the same thing as well. So — and this is urgent work. I should point out
that it’s being done because the language is the
more dire report that I saw about six months ago suggested that there are only 500 fully
fluent Cherokee speakers left in the United States. There are many more who have
some smattering of the language and knowledge of the language. But in terms of being fully fluent
and being able to relate the stories of what it means to be
Cherokee and Cherokee folklore and historical narrative in the
language — to lose that would be — would be a total tragedy
and tantamount to a form of great cultural loss. So it’s urgent knowledge
that’s being — urgent work, I should
say, that’s being done. The problem, as I understand it
from linguist friends that I have is that many children in Cherokee
communities don’t see the relevance of learning the language. Again, sort of universality
of kids, I guess, and they don’t recognize the
cultural importance of this stuff until often it’s too late until
they’re well into their middle age. And then their brains
are not as plastic and — why are you laughing,
Carrie [laughter]? Our brains are not as
nimble and able to sort of grasp the intricacies
of learning a new language. So that’s one of the major
challenges that those involved in these efforts are facing. Just this one further
thing about that. I will say that I have some good —
there are some good friends of mine and colleagues working at the
University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and they are being
very aggressive and very proactive in trying to ensure that
the language remains alive. They are connecting with the
Easton Band on a regular basis. They are holding symposia and
workshops for both Cherokee and non-Cherokee people in the hope
that this language will not die. So there are efforts that are
being — that are ongoing.>>All right, next is [Inaudible] –>>[Inaudible] you shared some of
those [inaudible] that your comment on Cherokee in the [inaudible]. Is it likely that that’s
really what they looked like or there was some artistic
[inaudible].>>Gregory Smithers:
That’s a very good question. Yeah.>>But they don’t — I
wouldn’t have thought.>>Gregory Smithers: Now
there’s a couple of ways to actually answer that question. One is the artists often did
take liberties and imposed on those Cherokee chiefs. We see this in 1730
and again in the 1760s, in 1763 when there are Cherokee
emissaries who go to London. Some of the artists who
reproduced the likenesses of those chiefs reproduced
them in this sort of noble Greco Roman kind of form. This is, you know, the noble
savage motif and imposing a sense of authenticity, indigenous
authenticity on these, on these men. So that’s one way to look at it. The other thing and I think
there’s more than a grain of truth to this is that by the 18th century, and certainly by the early
19th century when some of those images were produced, the
Cherokee people had a long history, several centuries now
of intermarriage. And so many Cherokees looked awfully like your average back
country settler of Scottish or Irish ancestry. It was very difficult to distinguish
based upon physical features. Cherokees from poor white
settlers or white settlers, period. So that also, I think, goes to explaining the
nature of those images.>>I was just wondering when
you talked to your kids about — your students, I’m sorry,
not your kids [laughter].>>Gregory Smithers:
They are my children.>>What do you normally
[inaudible] about, you know, how many of them identify
as Cherokee or how many — so you talked a lot about heritage but do you ever discuss the
differences between people who culturally identify as
Native American or Cherokee and the difference between
people who just say, “I have a great-grandmother.”>>Gregory Smithers: That’s a
wonderful question actually. Yeah, I do. We talk a lot about that. And for a lot of people, it’s not
something that’s really lived. It’s something that’s just there. You know, Granny or Great-Grandma
talks about it as you know, we have this Cherokee ancestors. And it makes us kind of exotic is
the sense I get from these students. So there’s not the sense
that they’re living. They’re not living at a
sense of Cherokee identity and this is very important
because experience and experiential knowledge is at
the core of traditional knowledge. So in that sense, what they’re
actually articulating, I find, is a racialized sense
of indigeneity. That is to say, this sort of
“Well, I have X amount of blood that is Cherokee, or Creek,
or Choctaw and this makes me in some ways connected to
this larger Cherokee diaspora or community of indigenous people.” And it elides the sort of important
cultural and linguistic factors that we’ve been talking about and
sense of community that remains at the core of Cherokee
identities in the 21st century. So yeah, so at the bottom line is
my overarching sense of all this is that people have a very
superficial understanding of what Cherokee identity means
and when they do give voice to it, it’s in this sort of very
racialized blood quantum sense.>>So I know [inaudible]
from Australia. I was wondering in your research,
did you find any similarities between Cherokee Nation
and the aboriginal tribes in Australia in terms of oppression?>>Gregory Smithers:
Oh, yes [laughter]. My goodness, we don’t have
enough time to go into that. I’ve written about that and I have
a revised edition of a book coming up calledScience, Sexuality
and Race
which talks about that in great detail. Yeah, the parallels
are quite striking and I originally got my start in
studying Native American history as an undergraduate when I was
working as a research assistant at ATSIC which is the Aboriginal and
Torres Strait Islander Commission. You see, I came of age in Australia
at a time when land rights, recognition of aboriginal
land rights was foremost in everyone’s political
consciousness. And as an undergraduate,
as a college student, I worked on researching, doing
the historical research for some of those legal briefings that were
being put together during the late ’80s and early ’90s. And it’s at that moment
that I realized, well there must be a
broader context to this. And indeed there is. And it goes beyond
the United States. In fact, it touches every
set withcolonial nation state that there is today. So yeah. So the parallels are really
quite striking of frontier violence, of the removal of people to
access their lands and resources, the forced use of indigenous labor
which is not often something we talk about but the British colonies could
not have been possible if it was not for the Indian slave
trade of the 17th century. And the selling of so many
thousands of unnamed “Indians” into slavery throughout the British
colonies and the Caribbean as well. So the connections then are
just quite extraordinary across both time and space.>>You [inaudible] –>>Thank you very much
for your presentation. Fascinating and really interesting.>>Gregory Smithers: Thank you.>>There was an earlier question
about the notion of when identity for Native Americans comes
sort of into a vogue or part of the vocabulary and I think ’76
is perhaps as [inaudible] goes, ’76 is perhaps a little
too late in the game. Unlike, you alluded to the Civil
Rights Movement, for instance, of 1960s and certainly you’d
want to take into account things like the occupation of Alcatraz
by Native American [inaudible].>>Gregory Smithers: Oh, I
absolutely agree with you.>>Yeah and of course, you have
AIM and the Second Wounded Knee, the massacres and, you know,
also for instance that 1968, you have the Poor People’s Campaign
which brought together people from Native American communities
with African-Americans. And also Hispanic people to march
on Washington and actually set up a tent city which was the last
major thing that Dr. King did and was planning on
before he was assassinated. They still went ahead anyway. And then, you know, I was
in the southwest recently and identity becomes a
very interesting thing because you see the histories
of people who had to go serve in the war with the Navajo
Code Talker [inaudible]. But there were other groups
from Native American — from Indian country who were also
recruited precisely to do the kind of work in the trenches
and do a lot of, you know, break codes [inaudible]
transmit secrets in languages. But yet, their polarization
came when they came back and were denied full
citizenship even though, you know, they had fought for the
country in World War II.>>Gregory Smithers: Right.>>So I think there is a — it’s
a moving target [inaudible].>>Gregory Smithers: Oh, I
absolutely agree with you.>>And then as you said, it’s very
complex but it’s something to think about because in all
these instances, identity is not just a claim
in the name of multiculturalism but it’s a very political act. It’s a violent political act.>>Gregory Smithers: Right, yeah. No, I agree. I agree. No, I completely agree
with everything you’ve said. For non-indigenous community
members though, I think, it’s really this culmination
is, you know, the appropriation is
what I’m referring to in the late ’60s and early ’70s. But you’re absolutely right
about that pre-history that you’re talking about. A term that I don’t
particularly like to use but yeah, Cherokee Code Talk, as
I should point out too and I mention this in the book. There were as many
Cherokee Code Talkers or Code Breakers during
the Second World War as there were Navajo
Code Breakers as well. So yeah, so this — and during
the Second World War also, I should point out, that
Cherokee people living in places like Illinois and Ohio throughout
the east, in New England, in the Mid-Atlantic,
they were very clear when they enlisted, who they were. So yeah, this is absolutely a
political statement on their part but it’s also just a statement
of their being as human beings. They did not want any — a
single molecule of their identity as human beings to be taken
from them by bureaucracy, or popular culture, or so forth. So I think that those are
extraordinarily valid points you raised.>>Go ahead.>>Follow-up question. Were there among Cherokee people
the same set of circumstances that happened with the
Removal and the Indian Schools which their whole point was to
[inaudible] Native American kids? Is that — is there a similar
thing going on with the Cherokee?>>Gregory Smithers: Yup, there is. Yeah and it lasts well into
the 20th century as well. And again, this is one of the
tragic consequences of the Dawes Act and the Era of Allotment
more generally is that the federal government closes
down those educational institutions that the Cherokee Nation had built
and cultivated since Removal. The Cherokee male and female
seminaries were the first advanced level educational institutions
west of the Mississippi. And they are closed down by the
federal government during the Allotment Era and this leads
to this sort of tragic era of dispersing children throughout
all corners of the United States and that is indeed
something that I talk about in the book at great length. Because the consequences of it are
really quite tragic, because many — many children feel so ashamed
of their indigenous heritage that they go to great
lengths to try and hide it. So much so that some
of those children refer to themselves as Swiss. You know, adopt this sort of Aryan
identity in the early 20th century. So it’s really quite sad
and tragic what happened.>>Please join me in welcoming
him and thanking him [applause].>>Gregory Smithers: Thank you. [ Applause ]>>This has been a presentation
of the Library of Congress. Visit us at

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