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Do You Have a Cherokee in Your Family Tree?

by Gregory D. Smithers

Gregory D. Smithers is an Associate Professor of History at Virginia Commonwealth University and the author of The Cherokee Diaspora: An Indigenous History of Migration, Resettlement, and Identity (Yale University Press, 2015). Each fall I teach an undergraduate course titled “Native Americans in the South.” The class is designed for juniors and combines historical narrative with analysis of specific events and/or Native American people in the Southeast. On the first day of class I begin by asking students why they’re taking the course and inquire if any have Native American ancestors. This year proved typical: five of forty students claimed they are descended from a great-great Cherokee grandmother. I’ve become so use to these declarations that I’ve long ceased questioning students about the specifics of their claims. Their imagined genealogies may simply be a product of family lore, or, as is occasionally the case, a genuine connection to a Cherokee family and community.

A second reason for the popularity of Cherokee identity is the place that Cherokee history and culture has in American popular culture. From the 1959 pop song “Indian Reservation (The Lament of the Cherokee Reservation Indian),” which the rock band Paul Revere and the Raiders popularized in 1971, to the National Park Service educating generations of Americans about Cherokee removal, the Cherokee people have occupied an important place in the popular narrative of the American history. While American school children often finish their formal education with only a cursory understanding of Native American history, it’s important to acknowledge that many walk away with at least a cursory sense of the injustice inflicted on Cherokee people at the end of the late 1830s. The story of the Trail of Tears engenders a degree of compassion for the historical experiences of Cherokee people, even if some people use that compassion for self-serving purposes to articulate an individual identification with the Cherokees. A third, and more significant reason, is the actual history of the Cherokee people. As European colonialism engulfed Cherokee Country in the Southeast during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Cherokees began innovating their social and cultural traditions to better meet the challenges of their times. Cherokee chiefs engaged in diplomacy and trade, some Cherokees relocated their towns to escape aggressive frontier settlers, while still others intermarried with people of European (and occasionally, African) descent. The result, by the time the United States became a republic, was a culturally dynamic, ethnically diverse Cherokee population. Increasingly, the Cherokee people also became a geographically dispersed population. The encroaching Anglo-American settler frontier, greedy slave owners who coveted Cherokee lands, and federal officials who extracted land cessions from Cherokee chiefs through treaty-making slowly but surely dispossessed the Cherokees of their Southeastern homelands. There can be no doubt that the forced removal of the Cherokees to Indian Territory (modern-day eastern Oklahoma) during Andrew Jackson’s presidency was one of the most inglorious episodes in American history, but the process of scattering the Cherokees all over the earth started long before the Trail of Tears. It’s the development of diasporic Cherokee communities that may help to explain why the Cherokees occupy a prominent place in our collective historical consciousness. Scattered over the earth by the often-cruel forces of settler colonialism, the Cherokees endured and flourished. The Cherokee people’s history is a compelling story; perhaps that’s why so many Americans hope to find a Cherokee in their family tree.

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