Native American Roots, Once Hidden, Now Embraced

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Nearly every day, some determined person with pale skin and blue eyes comes to Lela Ummerteskee from far away, ready to fulfill a dream and register as an American Indian.

Not everyone has a rock-solid pedigree. The tribal enrollment officer for the Cherokee Nation has been presented with everything from an X-ray of a head purporting to show Indian cheekbones to scraped-off patches of skin — all offered as proof that a distant ancestor was Native American.

Only those with an unbroken chain of family documents are enrolled, and even many of those people first knew of their Indian past only by way of a great-great-grandparent whose story they learned as children. 

The 1,000 people streaming to Ummerteskee’s door every month are testament to a nationwide trend that demographers have seen accelerating over the past three decades: Increasing numbers of people are identifying themselves as American Indians.

In the 2000 Census, which for the first time allowed people to mark more than one race, 4.1 million Americans said they were at least partly Native American, more than double the 1990 figure. Both alone and in combination with another race, American Indian population numbers are soaring far beyond anything that can be explained by birthrate.

The growth is not surprising in states lying in the heart of Indian country, such as Oklahoma, where more than 11 percent of the population claims at least partialAmerican Indian ancestry.

But the trend is striking in many states where Native American tribes and culture are sparse. In Virginia and Maryland, for example, the number of people who said they were at least partly American Indian was three times the number who said they were just American Indian in 1990. In New Jersey, it more than tripled.

Even among those who described themselves only as American Indian and no other race, the number soared 39 percent in Virginia and 19 percent in Maryland.

Experts and tribal officials say several factors explain the increase: gambling revenue, minority scholarships and affirmative action guidelines, widespread interest in genealogy and perhaps most important, the erosion of the stigma once borne by Native Americans.

“It’s cool to be an Indian now,” said Ummerteskee, who has watched her tribe more than double to 230,000 members over the past decade, rivaling the Navajo as the country’s largest tribe.

The trend seems to be happening independently of a Census Bureau campaign to encourage Native Americans to fill out their census forms. For decades, their numbers have been disproportionately undercounted, in large part because of their historical mistrust of federal officials who came around to expropriate their land.

In the 2000 Census, many tribal officials encouraged their members to check only American Indian so they wouldn’t dilute numbers that can be used for appropriating federal funds.

The census numbers even understate the vast number of Americans who can trace at least one root of their family tree to a Native American. Some were able to escape discrimination and “pass” as white, while others have become identified as another minority.

“There are millions of Americans with at least a little Indian ancestry,” said Karl Eschbach, a University of Houston sociologist who has studied tribal identification. “When there was a ‘choose one race’ question, they always had to make a choice. They don’t have to choose anymore.”

But the choice raises questions about who has the right to claim, “I am an American Indian.” Are people who know nothing of traditional culture still Native Americans because their grandparents were? Conversely, are people who follow the traditions faithfully any less so because of generations of intermarriage?

The questions are particularly apt for Cherokees. Since the first European settlers arrived in what they called the New World, many Native American tribes have tolerated and even welcomed those of mixed race. The Cherokees’ most famous chief, John Ross, was seven-eighths Scottish. It was Ross who led the tribe westward to Indian Territory along the Trail of Tears when they were forced from their land in the East in the 1830s.

Today, American Indians often can state with hairsplitting precision what fraction of their parentage is Native American. In order to be enrolled as a Cherokee, for example, people must obtain from the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs a Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood, quantifying their Indian ancestry to the 100th or even 1,000th degree.

Some tribes use this “blood quantum” as a standard for enrollment. One-quarter is a typical requirement. Other tribes require that members be direct heirs of Native Americans listed in an earlier roll. The Cherokees, for example, have members who are as little as 1/4,096th Indian.

But a bloodline considered too thin for tribal membership is no barrier to self-identification on the census.

“I’m one-eighth Nez Perce and one-sixth Cherokee, and the rest is Scotch Irish,” said Melissa Lineberry, a retired teacher who lives near Roanoke and organizes annual powwows in Virginia.

Lineberry, who says her great-grandmother was Cherokee and her great-great-grandfather took up with three Indian women, marked only white on her census form because her blood quantum is too low to qualify for tribal membership. In practice, she spends much of her spare time attending powwows across the country and studying Indian lore and traditions. She considers herself Native American.

“It’s finally losing its stigma that encouraged families not to name their Native American heritage,” she said.

Tribes across the country — from the nearly 600 that are federally recognized to the countless tribes so small and tenuous that even the states don’t recognize them — are scrambling to keep up with everyone who wants to join.

The Lumbees, a tribe of 40,000 in North Carolina, open their enrollment for only a few months every two or three years because they are swamped with thousands of applications. Many are descendants of Lumbees who moved away six or seven decades ago seeking jobs and now have practical reasons to reestablish a connection.

“They have children going away to college and want to get financial aid,” said James Hardin, head of the Lumbee Regional Development Association. “Or they’re in business and want to get a minority designation. Some folks who apply may not even be Lumbee. They’re just hoping someday we’ll have a casino.”

But many tribal officials say most applicants simply come to their door in search of themselves.

“Most often the reason people give me is it’s an identity issue,” said Alex Ritchie, an official with the Tohono O’odham, a tribe of 24,000 in Arizona with a casino that earns each member $1,800 a year. “They’re not Hispanic; they’re not white; they’re not black. They just want to know what they are.”

Such a quest for validation drew Alice Thomas Shannon from her home in Noel, Mo., to the Cherokee Nation recently. She came armed with little more than vague stories about a Cherokee great-great-grandmother whose name did not appear in the tribe’s historical records.

With her pale, pink skin, hazel eyes and white-blond hair, Shannon, 42, looks so little like a stereotypical American Indian that she said a census taker tried to talk her out of checking both white and Native American.

“She said I couldn’t use it because I didn’t have a card,” Shannon said, referring to a blood quantum card. “She said, ‘You don’t look [Indian]. You’re so white and blond.’ I said that I didn’t know you had to look a certain way to be Indian. I got upset. It’s like she was telling me I’m not Indian. But I am. I’m a white American Indian. I wanted that on the census. I wanted them to know. It means something to me, from my heart.”

It would have meant something to Shannon’s father, too. He died without ever pinning down his Cherokee roots and obtaining his blood card as he had talked of doing. A cousin who has started attending powwows sang a Cherokee burial song at his funeral.

“It has nothing to do with any benefits,” said Shannon, an independent house contractor who suspended work for a day to begin her research. “It will mean I know where I come from.”

From Shannon’s sparse family history, Cherokee enrollment officials suspect she may be descended from one of the Cherokees who dropped out along the Trail of Tears before it ended in the rolling hills of what is now Oklahoma. Thousands died along the way. They were never listed on the old federal head count that forms the base roll for the Cherokee Nation, so their descendents can’t enroll.

The pull to join has been so strong that at least 215 Cherokee tribes or bands have been established across the nation, some by people ineligible for one of the three federally recognized Cherokee tribes.

For some American Indians, the eagerness ofseemingly white Americans to adopt Indian culture is a cause of much amusement and some resentment. Some Cherokees scornfully refer to the “new agers,” “wannabes” and “pretendians.”

“I look at a lot of these people and what I see are white people,” said Richard Allen, a tribal policy analyst who has written a serious academic paper on the phenomenon with a facetious title: “My great-grandmother was a Cherokee princess and my great-great grandfather was Chief John Ross or Sequoyah or somebody like that, I can’t remember.”

“They may have Cherokee blood, I don’t dispute it,” he said. “But culturally, they’re not Cherokee. They have no understanding of the traditions, of the ceremonies, of what it’s like to be Cherokee.”

While many of the poseurs are harmlessly laughable, Allen says, some are outright insulting. Two men with curly blond hair and blue eyes, both purporting to be Cherokees, attended the tribe’s national holiday celebration wearing beaded headbands and leather Plains shirts.

“A lot of full-blooded Cherokees were standing around laughing at them, and I was one of them,” Allen said. “But the tourists didn’t see us. The tourists were taking pictures of them. They saw the people with Hollywood garb on. There’s a certain lack of dignity when they present themselves as American Indians. Real American Indians don’t hold themselves in that manner.”

Chad “Corntassel” Smith, the principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, dismisses what he terms the “bubbling complaints” that some tribal members somehow aren’t Indian enough.

“The obligation of the Cherokee Nation and of the federal government to the ancestors of those who lived hundreds of years ago is not diminished by blood quantum,” he said.

In the 23 years she has worked in the tribal enrollment office, Ummerteskee has found it becoming harder, not easier, to define who is an Indian.

“I recently enrolled a teenager who is 1/128th Indian, but he’s more Indian than a half-blood or a full blood who doesn’t live here,” she said. “It’s a question of cultural identity. But who am I to say? My mother speaks Cherokee. I understand some words. My kids don’t, and my grandkids won’t. I can’t say who’s an Indian and who’s not anymore.”

As more Americans say they are, Hastings Shade, the Cherokee Nation’s deputy chief, sees the fulfillment of a prophecy. A Cherokee legend tells of a white snake that devours Indian land and people. Many generations later, a young Indian learns its ways and drives a stake through its heart.

“In the end,” the legend concludes, “only Indian blood will be left, and people will be lining up to try to prove they have Indian blood.”

“In the legend, it took 14 generations,” Shade said.

For the Cherokee Nation, that milestone came just a few years ago when it enrolled a new member whose Indian ancestor was 14 generations removed.

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Carol Morello is a staff writer for the Washington Post