Government Census Numbers on Indian Population Way Off Target

Chipa Wolfe

My god, can the government even count?

The United States Census recently assessed that the Native population in America has grown a staggering 39 percent in the past decade. It seems that there are now 5.2 million Native Americans across the United States, as opposed to the 2.2 million reported by the census a mere 10 years ago. A few years back the Census Bureau had a representative at one of the pow wows I produce, and I found that he was encouraging everyone to register as a Native American who had a great-grandmother story. Therefore, everyone who showed up as a guest and was moved by the sound of the drums, savored the smell of frybread or had a high cheekbone, signed up with the census as a Native American.

As long as the census is adding these state-incorporated Cherokee tribes and others to their count there will never be a real accountability of Native people. States across America have allowed little Indian clubs, organizations and hobbyists to be recognized as state tribes, which is a direct insult to the three real Cherokee tribes and their members. No one is saying that some of these people are not of Cherokee linage, but if you don't meet the criteria to be on the rolls of the Eastern Band, the Keetoowah or Cherokee Nation, then just be proud to assess yourself as a descendent. I am guessing that the legitimate Cherokee Tribes of North Carolina and Oklahoma can appreciate the support of people with remnant blood stock and/or the mere love of the Cherokee culture, but they do not need anyone else's help to make babies or new tribes as they have paid dearly to remain culturally identifiable while others sat back until it was either fashionable or profitable to try and recognize themselves as a tribal member.

I myself am not a tribal member of any group nor do I wish to be but I do value the working alliance that I have had with all the federal Cherokee tribal factions as an advocate for many of their concerns. During the late 1980s during a land occupation in Georgia, I was supported by the Keetoowah, Cherokee Nation and the Snowbird EBC in which they allotted me their flags and allowance to represent them regarding sacred site conservancy. You can help save the whales, dolphins, trees, etc., without becoming one. As an animal welfare advocate I have found myself speaking up for those who can’t speak for themselves, but the Cherokee people and other Native people have tongues, minds and hearts and do not need myself or others to speak on their behalf nor to create offshoot tribes as associates. It's one thing to be a historian, a descendant and/or a collaborator for and/or with tribal entities or individuals, but it's entirely different to profess yourself as a tribal conglomerate composed of an existing tribe.

Anyhow, the state of Georgia and others have been shameful with their quick stroke of the pen when initiating little fad-oriented groups into state tribes as though they are made up of people who have sustained their native identity via their language, the arts, religious/spiritual and agricultural practices, etc. The Appalachian culture is a fusion of Scotch, Irish, German and European Cultures along with that of Native Peoples and it has proud roots of its own that flourishes throughout the eastern United States.

In many cases when you hear how an element of Native people hid out in the mountains during the Forced Removal, they either regrouped with an alliance of Natives that now make up Cherokee, North Carolina, Snowbird or other Indian communities recognized by the Eastern Band or they splintered off into non-Native groups. So for the most part, it is most likely that the hearsay tale of an ancestor hiding out in the Eastern Mountains of Alabama or Georgia during the Trail of Tears either perished or intermarried into one of the Euro-groups that settled in the Cherokee region. With all of that said, it does not mean that one's Cherokee blood has dissipated nor that one's love for the Native culture does not exist. However, to claim tribal membership outside of an existing tribe by incorporating a tribe is cultural and spiritual piracy and for state governments to endorse and/or support the incorporation of Cherokee tribes outside of the three existing legitimate Cherokee tribes is a blatant attempt to create the illusion that these states have reconciled with those they forcibly—and I might add, illegally—removed from their rightful homeland in 1838-39. As a intertribal historian and cultural event producer, I am of Native descent myself and quick to point out that where my wife is full blood and my children more so than I, if I get a nose bleed I might not be Indian tomorrow but I will still be their father and Native in origin.

I have been producing cultural events for almost a quarter of a century and have friends and family comprised of several tribes but that does not make me more Indian than white. I have pun-fully stated that I am “Redneck & Indian” and in the Indian exploitation business but in real life I like many others have a real affinity, reverence and respect for Native cultures. Where I have friends and extended family in the Cherokee Nation and within the Eastern Band, I am not tribally associated with them nor do I speak for them, but I do feel for their plight in which they have to combat the sometimes belittling and often exhausting individuals and groups that plagiarize their identity as a tribal entity. To claim Cherokee heritage or any other linage that you may belong to via documentation or family hearsay is a right of passage throughout our lives but to undermine the relevance of another is less than savory and disfiguring to oneself. So, if a person of descent does not meet the criteria to be on the rolls of a legitimate tribe, it does not necessarily mean they are not Indian. But it also does not justify their creating piggy-back tribes that lend to state governments lending credence to them or allocating any prospective state or federal appropriations to them and/or their state tribe affiliate members. Maybe, just maybe, some of these little groups might want to simply create an Indian association or some other advocacy organization that supports a cultural interest that so many people have come to love.

The “Trail of Tears Association” has done a lot to restore, preserve and maintain historic sites and trail-ways and where some of these folks are of Cherokee descent, many are just plain ol' hard-working people who want to do something adventurous and nice for the people they say they love so much and/or may even be descendants of. Someone once said, "One percent Cherokee, 100 percent!" Okay, I like that saying but for crying out loud, don’t let the Federal Census hear that or the next time they take a survey the New Cherokee Tribes will have more members than Chief Zuckerberg and the Facebook Tribe.

Either way, have a happy day.

Chipa Wolfe is an earth activist, writer, cultralist, historian on intertribal affairs, cultural educator and performer.

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wovokanarchy's picture
You forgot to include the African slave into the mix of " the Appalachian culture" A lot of people in the south probably has at least one or more African ancestors in their genetic tree. I wonder why you don't have the same quest among white people to identify with African people/black people as you do with the Cherokee people? Racism and entitlements are both contributing factors in how one identifies oneself. In the south you have people who benefiting enormously from the expulsion of the Cherokee and who probably had ancestors and relatives who participated or witness to black lynchings now claiming "Cherokee'' ancestry. It's insulting. The narrative of Indian people ''hiding in the mountains'to remain in their lands instead of being with their families or mothers/fathers on the march is total fiction created by the same people trying to claim Cherokee ancestry. It's no wonder why the word "Cherokee'' is a long running joke in Indian country that equates to the word with ''wannabe'' or ''falseness''. I don't know why the Cherokee nation does not sue people like Ward Churchill and others for fraud.
rosemarymeling's picture
My father was Cherokee, my mother German/Irish. I have always, since childhood, resented forms which asked me about race because, until very recently, there was no option for mixed race. My father died when I was 3 so I was raised by my mother who, fortunately for me, was proud that my father was Cherokee and passed that pride on to his children. But it has put me in an odd place. Life has been a struggle and I've never had time to investigate my family history or establish evidence. Even if I had it grieves me to say that, however much my heart and sympathies are with the Cherokee, I was raised in ignorance of the Cherokee language,way of life and world view. How could I, with that kind of ignorance, ever truly understand and fit in? In sad truth, US government policies did succeed in driving many Cherokee away from their homes and heritage.
dljjr's picture
Perhaps you are not aware that some Cherokees were slave owners who brought their slaves on the Trail of Tears. The Cherokee Nation sided with the Confederate Army during the Civil War, and have recently attempted to kick the freedman out of their tribe (descendants of the slaves their Cherokee ancestors owned). Thus, I cannot believe one group is more racist than the next. It is not likely that the Cherokee Nation will sue any entity whose members claim Cherokee descent since they are likely to lose. On the other hand, I do believe that many state governments will eventually termination their relationship with state tribes just like the federal government would like to terminate its relationship with federal tribes. Assimilation is the goal---as history has proven. One drawback for the Cherokee Nation is their lack of required blood degree for their citizens. Some of the state tribal members could most likely provide proof they are more Cherokee blood than many federally recognized Cherokees. Personally, I don't see any difference in the Cherokee, Lumbee, or any other state tribe. Maryland is the latest state to recognize state tribes. They do not have a nation-to-nation relationship with the federal government which often includes trusts and treaties. However, state tribes do have a relationship with their state government on some level.
wovokanarchy's picture
Rosemary, why didn't you just go ask your grandparents? Your father's mother and father or his brothers and sisters to ''investigate you family history"? How hard is a phone call? Call the tribal office to put you in touch with your father's relatives on the reservation.
gyasiross's picture
"I myself am not a tribal member of any group nor do I wish to be..." That's similar to, when we were kids and someone was about to fight, one of the kids would say "I'm not scared of you." Why would that kid feel a need to say that, when no one else brought it up, unless it were true? This is hilarious--a white lady that writes and is a "historian of intertribal affairs" but makes it very clear (even though no one challenged her about it) that she does not want to be a tribal member of any group... I'm sorry--I couldn't read past that point.
titloup's picture
I read your opinion piece twice before I decided to comment. I found the tone of the article somewhat distressing. You seem to believe, based on what you experienced at a powwow, that no one should be checking the Indian box on their census form unless they are enrolled members of some white sanctioned federally recognized tribe! Keep the Cherokee politics to yourself. This kind of crap is what keeps native people divided.
kimberlyelsifor's picture
I agree with Mr. Wolfe in that too many people are being counted as Cherokee who may not have any connection to any of the Cherokee tribes, but only want to claim it. Every time I met someone at the powwows I attend it always seems they are Cherokee, and after awhile I thought this had to be the most prolific tribe in the country, then I started to think that many of these people may well be "wannabes" fans of the Native American and they take it too far. It is like the cult like fans of Rob Zombie who identify themselves as Zombies--they aren't sci-fi dead nor true kin to the rocker but just true over the edge fanatical fans. This may be the case for some of these self-proclaimed but not truely identified Cherokees. In my opinion those people need to drop the act, be proud of who they really are and be ADVOCATES. I am a Human/Animal/Earth rights advocate and I have advocated for Native Americans on several ocassions, but I am a VERY proud IRISH woman and I won't dig deep for something that isn't in my lineage such as Native American blood. I can advocate and still be who I am. As for the Census count, the best fix would be for the Native Nations to do the count themselves and then turn it into the government, but funny or tricky thing to this is if the numbers are lower the money the government allots will also be lower, so the padded count, though it may seem insulting, may be somehow beneficial...working the system so to speak. Think about it.
ppmickey's picture
I understand fully what you are saying. However, is it okay to put on the census that you are 1/8th Cherokee if you are indeed so? My great grandfather was 100% Cherokee and my grandmother was 1/2 Cherokee. I just recently found this out after my parents had died and I contacted my paternal birth family. My husband is 1/8th Lakota Sioux from his paternal birth family. We aren't trying to infringe on any tribe and think that fringe groups trying to form new tribes is a ridiculous idea. I have a question though. When I was four years old, Chief Big Buffalo, when he was babysitting me one afternoon, went through a beautiful adoption ceremony that I will remember till my dying day. He wore white leather with fringe and beads, a beautiful feathered headdress, had a peace pipe with leather and beads attached, used corn, something that must have been sage, and performed this ceremony first in his native language and the second time in English for me to understand. At the end of the ceremony, he told me I was his adopted Cherokee granddaughter and a member of his tribe. I would like to find out what tribe he belonged to. He was born in 1861 and died in 1956 about four months after the adoption ceremony. I was left with him often when my birth father didn't know what to do with me. I grew to love "Chief", as everyone called him, more than my birth father and he loved me. He was also a great friend to my grandmother and helped her keep in touch with her Cherokee heritage. He was friends with my grandfather as well. He sometimes stayed in the furnace room of the vast downstairs basement of Glendale Cemetery's caretaker house. My grandfather was caretaker and my family lived in the upstairs apartment. My birth father was my grandparents younger son. I do not plan to claim to be a member of the tribe he belonged to, as I feel I have no right to since he's been dead for so many years. He's buried in Glendale Cemetery in Akron, Ohio and lived at the Portage Hotel. He'd been part of Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Show featuring Annie Oakley and many other Native American's, mostly plains Indians. After a bad train wreck Annie Oakley was no longer able to participate in the show. After Bill Cody died, Chief Big Buffalo joined a carnival and ended up in Akron. He was elderly by then and my grandfather gave him a job but didn't require him to work. When Chief died, he was given a burial plot, #27 by the road, and my grandfather paid for the burial and paid off his outstanding bills with his own money. When I asked to see him I was told he'd gone home to his tribe. I remember crying and missing him, but now understand that he had died. I was surprised to run across his name on Google in Akron, Ohio as one of their celebrities. He's listed under "A Virtual Cemetery" created by Mr. Ed. At the end of the article, it mentions he's looking for more information about Chief Big Buffalo and gives his e-mail address. I had never known till I looked up his name last week that he had been in the Wild West Show. I knew he'd lived at the Portage Hotel and that he always wore garlic around his neck to ward off evil spirits, but I only knew him as a child, as someone I dearly loved. Would you have any idea what tribe he belonged to? I am so curious to find out. There is a new tombstone on his grave from what my grandfather had laid there. If I'm out of line in asking you these questions, please let me know. I don't want to offend anyone.
hontasfarmer's picture
You talk of state recognized tribes, in general, as if they were all just a bunch of false Cherokee social clubs. Let me remind you of groups such as the Pamunkey and Mattaponi of Virginia. Who's tiny state reservations are the only remnants left from the Powhatan chiefdom. Those are Pocahontas's people. They had treaties with the British that the USA did not assume responsibility for. Not to mention all the other Virginia Indian tribes. What magic will happen to their genes and blood latter this year when the congress votes to finally recognize them? none.
whitehorse's picture
Mr Wolfe has submitted a well research and well written article. But Mr. Chipa Wolfe to those that have encountered Chipa Wolfe now looks like a Hypocrite. In 2011 The Florida American Indian Movement was protesting an offensive parade float of non-natives offensively portraying Natives on this parade float that is used to advertise the Chasco Fiesta. A meeting was held and Chipa Wolfe (not an enrolled member in any tribe)stood against the Florida American Indian Movement and said, "I see no problem with whites playing NDN." Seriously pick a side, when he is in Florida Chipa Wolfe supports white people playing and stealing Native culture. Chipa Wolfe goes to Georgia and is now against it? Chips Wolfe you CAN NOT play both sides! Chips Wolfe was flashing around a folded up piece of paper claiming it was from Leonard Peltier but would NOT show us the "letter." Chipa Wolfe also threatened to call Dennis Banks, that Dennis Banks would support the whites playing NDN. But again he never made the call. Chipa Wolfe appears to be a non-enrolled man that sides with whoever is paying him that day. A protest of the Chasco Fiesta parade float is scheduled again this year. If you are interested in joining us contact the Florida American Indian Movement.