The 'Part Cherokee' Factor: Pew Survey Misrepresents Indian Country, Critics Say

Simon Moya-Smith

On Friday, news broke that the president of the NAACP chapter in Spokane, Washington is under investigation for misrepresenting her black identity after her parents said she is not African American.

Rachel Dolezal, 37, who has claimed to be African American on at least one application, has been lying about her race, her parents said.

“She is Caucasian by birth,” Dolezal’s mother, Ruthanne Dolezal, told NBC News affiliate KHQ in Spokane.

Dolezal also claims to be part Native American, which her parents do not dispute, though they do deny their daughter’s claim that she was born in a teepee.

The Dolezal scandal comes on the heels of a new report by the Pew Research Center released Thursday on the growing number of multiracial adults in the U.S.

According to the report, 6.9 percent of the adult population “could be considered multiracial,” and that biracial adults who claim to be white and Native American “comprise half of the country’s multiracial population – by far the country’s largest multiracial group.”

The report also states that the biracial white and Native American population is more likely than other multiracial groups to be politically conservative.

Following the release of the report, Native Americans began excoriating the survey for not taking into consideration the “part Cherokee factor,” Tara Houska, a tribal attorney in Washington, D.C., told ICTMN.

Houska, who is Ojibwe, said if the report was taken at face value, “half of America has a Cherokee grandmother.”

“[The] Pew Research presents their study as if it is fact, and makes little to no mention of participants self-identifying their race,” she said.

Dr. Juliana Menasce Horowitz, associate director of research at the Pew Research Center, told ICTMN that in their surveys about race, conclusions are based solely on self-identification. Horowitz added that, for this survey, they did not ask for one’s tribal affiliation.

“We have to take people at their word for how they identify themselves,” Horowitz said. “In surveys, you have to trust what people are saying is true.”

The study also found that whites and blacks who claim to be Native American have little to no ties to their alleged Native American heritage. Sixty-one percent of people who claim to be white and Native American reported that they have more in common with whites than with Native Americans.

Responding to criticizm of the survey, Horowitz emphasized that this was a research project and not an official government survey. She said there was no incentive for the 21,224 adult participants to lie about their identity.

But for Houska, there is no incentive needed for people to misrepresent themselves as being Native American.

“Identifying as Native American has become trendy, just as appropriating pieces of our cultures is now fashionable,” she said.

Dr. Adrienne Keene, who is Cherokee and blogs about Native American cultural appropriation, told ICTMN that the survey is a demonstration of the growing percentage of people who claim to be Native American.

“We’re used to being misrepresented,” she said. “For us, it’s not a surprise that the data is so skewed.”

Keene said there is a “danger” when conducting surveys. She said there are no guarantees that participants are going to be honest, and that it is widely known such surveys produce large margins of error.

“There’s no easy answer to it,” she said. "[But] there clearly has to be a better way.”

Horowitz said she does not see the Pew Research Center implementing ways to prove in their surveys that an individual is Native American by blood. 

According to the survey, American Indians who report their tribal affiliation on the U.S. Census data collection has been steadily falling since 2010. People who claim to be multiracial Native American are less likely to state which tribe or nation they allegedly have blood ties to. 

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