This is what I heard all my life, from my youngest days into adulthood. “You’ve got your grandmother’s high cheek bones,” people would say. “Her dark skin and hair. Her nose.” Yes, I did have all those things, but I looked very much like my mother, who had all those things too.
My grandmother claimed to be a descendant of Cherokee Chief Donnahoo of Yadkin County, who married an English woman named Mary Elizabeth Wentworth in the 1700s and went on to have gobs of children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. My grandmother, if the story was true, would have been 1/132 Cherokee. She believed so much in the Native heritage that she named one of her sons after Donnahoo’s granddaughter, Betty Pledge (a name which my uncle later repudiated), and in 1906, applied for membership in the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians in an attempt to receive her share of reparations paid to descendants of the Trail of Tears. She and all the nearly 800 people who applied under Donnahoo’s lineage were denied membership, because Donnahoo’s records could not be verified.
A lot of people—including well-known politicians and celebrities—claim to have a Cherokee ancestor on some far-reaching branch of the family tree. In fact, according to National Congress of American Indians scholar Vine Deloria, Americans from Maine to Washington have claimed Cherokee ancestry. “More often than not, that ancestor was an ‘Indian princess,’” says Deloria in Slate magazine, “despite the fact that the tribe never had a social system with anything resembling an inherited title like princess.” There’s a reason the myth of the Cherokee grandmother is so common: the Cherokee were a progressive people and saw great benefit in developing strong relationships with Europeans during the 17th and 18th centuries, and exogamy—marrying outside one’s clan—was common, according to Slate. In the case of Donnahoo, if all 800 alleged descendants who were denied tribal membership in 1907 multiplied through generations since, the numbers of ancestors today would be staggering.
Like Elizabeth Warren, Johnny Cash, Johnny Depp, and many, many others, I’ve said it: “I’m part Cherokee,” and I’ve pointed to that skin, those high cheek bones, those keloid scars, as proof. It’s a romantic notion, one born of a desire to belong, to be Native, as though, especially for Southerners, to claim Cherokee heritage is to be more authentic. And yet. And yet.
It’s taken me years of reading, talking, becoming more aware of who I am and who I am not to understand the truth: I am not Cherokee. I’m not even close.
I have no doubt that my grandmother believed for all of her 94 years that this was her heritage, and I honor that in her. I didn’t know her well, so I never knew how much she learned, acted upon, or embraced that culture. But I, her granddaughter, have come to realize that to be Cherokee means much, much more than to trace one’s ancestors back to the notion of a chief named Donnahoo or even to have one drop of Native blood.
To be Cherokee means to be raised in the culture and community of the Cherokee people, to have learned the traditions, to have suffered the injustices and the prejudices. Not my grandmother, not my father, and not I or my siblings were raised Cherokee. We were children from a small-town neighborhood, children of a mill worker and a teacher. “Cherokee” to us meant that place in the mountains where our maternal grandparents took us to buy tomahawks and fake headdresses.
A conversation with Nicki Faircloth, Co-director of Women AdvaNCe, helped me clarify the issue even more. She described the experience of meeting someone for the first time and getting that “dreaded” question, “What are you?”
“Every single Native person I have ever encountered has experienced this,” she says. “It’s like no matter what, YOU are never enough.”
“It’s not about what you claim in our communities, it’s about who claims you,” she continues. “So if someone did their genealogy, found the facts, participated and learned the culture, became active in the community, and then ultimately was accepted by the community and referred to as Cherokee by them, then in fact they would be Cherokee. But just to claim it when it’s convenient and never in any other context is just strange.”
“They don’t get those dreaded ‘what are you?’ questions,” Nicki says. “Nor have they experienced a lot of things our communities experience everyday, like having a parent in prison, large amounts of missing or murdered people, or everyone knowing someone with an addiction and little resources to help them. It’s easy to identify as something when it’s convenient, but to live it each and every day is another story.”
According to my family story, I have been part Cherokee all my life. But, I have come to realize, I have no right to claim this. Maybe that’s what my uncle intended when he changed his name.
I loved my grandmother, don’t get me wrong. But I loved her as the woman I knew her to be: strong-willed, hard-working, full of sass.
No, she wasn’t Cherokee, and neither am I.
And all of us with an inkling of a story need to quit saying that we are.