September 01, 2011

Churchill and Clinton are Cherokee?

To make a point I posted the following on Facebook:

Famous Cherokee

Sir Winston Churchill, President Bill Clinton, Kevin Costner, Anita Bryant, and Miley Cyrus...does everybody agree that these people belong on the same list as Major Ridge, Sequoyah, Will Rogers, Wilma Mankiller, and Wes Studi?

This led to the following discussion between James and Elizabeth (in italics):Actually, Winston Churchill had Iroquois ancestry through, though I've never seen the specific tribe named. Though Cherokees are Iroqouian people, people usually don't associate the two and given his mother's New York birth, she's probably from one of the main Iroquoian tribes up there. Also, Johnny Cash has never claimed to be Cherokee or American Indian in general.

Also, in response to your question, yes, some of these people are actually of Cherokee descent. Why is that a big deal? I mean if someone had, say, a bit of Welsh ancestry and claimed it, they wouldn't be questioned as to whether they belonged on the same list as Dylan Thomas and Tom Jones. I think it's silly then that Miley Cyrus and whomever else can't mention their ancestry without so-called "purists" crying foul. Sure there are many people who have a misguided sense of their ancestral "Cherokee Princesses," but it also doesn't mean that everyone who is perceived as "white" is lying when they have traceable Cherokee lineage. It is a FACT that there were high rates of intermarraige between Cherokees and Scots Irish, English and German settlers in the Appalachain region. Why is it alright for these folks then to celebrate the latter heritages and not the former? That to me is what's silly.

Problem is the vouge status it carries. Like the Paris Hilton and a pet dog--notice how many chihuahuas are in shelters because they are not as fun and easy as everyone thinks they are. I absolutely condone people celebrating their heritage--after all, where would we be without our ancestors, right? I am saddened though by it being more in style and a fad than celebrating a way of life.

Heritage loses its inherent meaning when it is seen as a fad.

Is it really just a fad though? If you look at Will Rogers, he didn't look terribly Indian, and yet he was proclaiming his Cherokee lineage in the 1920s. Same with John Rollin Ridge in the 1840s. It certainly isn't any more of a fad than being Irish has become with the Celtic music and dance revivals and people drinking green beer on St. Patrick's Day and talking about the sliver of them that is actually Scots Irish, but they don't know the difference. I don't see recent Irish immigrants calling them out on it.

This isn't about features, because one could argue I look more German despite having more of a quantity of UK blood. That said, I am more frustrated with Hollywood's weak interpretation. My comment had nothing to do with the person celebrating who they were, I am more disgusted with a person making it look cool to be Indian, because hipster fads always follow. It looks cool for a person to say they are Cherokee, rather than genuinely being proud of who they are, because every one of these aforementioned celebrities would rattle off their entire genetic makeup, rather than pointing out the cool bits. That is what I meant. For those who do have Indian heritage, they are growing increasingly frustrated at this. Anyone would. While I am happy to hear that many share my ethnic background, I will take a "pass" on those mentioning it because its the "in" thing to do.
Rob weighs in

The list is titled "Famous Cherokee(s)," not "Famous People of Cherokee Descent." There's a big difference.

This list is using the one-drop rule to claim these people are full-fledged Cherokee Indians. The implication is that they represent the Cherokee people as much as Wilma Mankiller or Wes Studi.

Same with people like Miley Cyrus. If she wants to celebrate her Cherokee ancestry 1/16th or whatever of the time, great. If she tells people she's "Cherokee" or "Indian" and nothing else, not so great.

It's a misrepresentation of her heritage done for faddish, wannabe reasons, as Elizabeth said. Judging by her public behavior, Cyrus doesn't know jack about being Cherokee. She thinks it involves loving feathers and dreamcatchers and Pocahontas, which is stereotypical and wrong.

Why do people believe Indians = feathers and dreamcatchers and Pocahontas? Because people like Cyrus tell them so. If we give her credibilty by agreeing that everyone with a drop of Cherokee blood is Cherokee, we're letting her redefine what "Indian" means. It becomes all about the superficial trappings--the feathers and headdresses--not about the history and culture.

As for your Irish counterexample, claiming to be Irish won't get you treaty-backed government services, casino payments, ethnic-oriented jobs (e.g., academia or acting), or cultural cachet. Nor have the Irish had to deal with the same level of stereotyping over the last century. (With Irish presidents, lawyers, and scientists, no one thinks the Irish are only drunken brawlers these days.)

If the Irish did have to deal with the relentless, one-note stereotyping that Indians still face, they might do more to police their image. But they're part of the mainstream now. They don't have to worry about public perceptions. No one is opposing their businesses, reducing their services, or beating them up because they're "savages."

For more on Irish stereotypes, see Fighting Sioux vs. Fighting Irish. For more on the Cherokee and identity issues, see Cherokee Supreme Court Expels Freedmen and "Minimal Bloods" = Greedy White People?


Anonymous said...

IIRC, Allied leaders were made honorary chiefs of some tribes. And yes, this includes Stalin.

Jaine said...

unless your Irish Catholic and live in Northern Island, then most of what you listed applied till very recently (at least the 1980s)

Jaine said...


dmarks said...

You mean "Northern Ireland". Which is kind of a misleading name for the region, as it is not part of the nation of Ireland at all, even though it is on the island. I sometimes call it the "Northwest United Kingdom".

Jaine said...

oops yes I did mean Northern Ireland (living in NZ means I'm used to writing North Island and South Island).

"Northwest United Kingdom" Ew, colonial justification. It will be always Northern Ireland to many people. Tiocfaidh ar la