July 14, 2009

Trafficking in tribal membership

Members only

‘Trafficking Tribal Membership’ hot topic at annual symposium

By S.E. Ruckman
Tonia Williams, a member of the Cherokee Nation in Tahlequah, Okla., said her tribe is against those who pass as Cherokees, such as the Northern Cherokee of Missouri and Arkansas and the Southern Cherokee of Kentucky, who are not federally recognized.

“This fight is all over the place. We’ve had people building an entire career based on being Indian and they’re not Indian.”

Williams said posing as an American Indian happens in academia, arts and politics. The tribe sees several solutions to those who pass themselves off as Indian. Of the scores of Cherokee-based groups, three, the Eastern Band of Cherokees in North Carolina and two Oklahoma groups, the United Keetoowah Band and the Cherokee Nation are the only legitimately recognized Cherokee tribes.

The Cherokees support federal legislation that would make it a felony to knowingly and for gain pass as Native American. The tribe also favors cutting off federal funds to any non-recognized groups as well as stricter scrutiny of “wanna-bes,” Williams said.

But Chief Ken Adams of the Virginia-based Mattaponi was outraged by Williams’ points. He said generalizing those who don’t have federal recognition as phony hurts the identity of innocent groups, including his. The 600-member Mattaponi recently received state recognition and are currently vying for federal recognition.

“I think we’re legitimate. Painting everyone with a broad brush is inaccurate. It’s like saying every Indian lives on a reservation.”
Comment:  Unfortunately, there's no clear dividing line on this issue. Rather, there's a continuum from full-fledged tribes to unrecognized tribes with legitimate claims to wannabe tribes to pure hobbyists such as those in Germany, Turkey, and Russia. As you move along the spectrum, the people have less Indian blood and fewer ties to genuine Indian communities. At some point the Indians become "Indians" and then non-Indians.

For more on the subject, see More Than 200 "Cherokee Tribes" and Too Many Indians, or Not Enough?

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