Having a Cherokee Ancestor Doesn’t Necessarily Make You Cherokee Too

By: Dave Roos
Cherokee Indians, North Carolina
Two Cherokee Native American dancers pose for pictures along the highway on Oct. 22, 2016, in Cherokee, North Carolina. Located near the entrance to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, this area is home to the Cherokee Nation. George Rose/Getty Images

In response to mocking accusations from President Donald Trump that she has lied about her Cherokee heritage, Sen. Elizabeth Warren released the results of a DNA test in October 2018, indicating that she indeed had a Native American ancestor six to 10 generations back. In a campaign-style video released with the results (Warren, a Democrat, is running for president in 2020), she clarified that she's not enrolled in a tribe and that "only tribes determine tribal citizenship."

"I understand and respect that distinction," Warren says in the video, "but my family history is my family history."


Warren asserts that she has never claimed Native American status when applying to school or a job, though she had changed her ethnicity from white to Native American during her time teaching at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. Her DNA announcement was met with disappointment and anger by many Native Americans, including Chuck Hoskin Jr., secretary of state of the Cherokee Nation.

"Using a DNA test to lay claim to any connection to the Cherokee Nation or any tribal nation, even vaguely, is inappropriate and wrong," Hoskin wrote in a statement. "Senator Warren is undermining tribal interests with her continued claims of tribal heritage."

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Warren is far from alone in claiming a family connection to a Native American tribe. Many Americans proudly pass down oral histories of a great-great-grandma who was one-quarter Cherokee or Chippewa, explaining, as Warren did, the origin of the family's distinctive "high cheekbones." What frustrates Native American tribal members about these vague genealogical claims is that they make it seem like anyone with a neat family story or even a DNA test is automatically part of a tribe.

David Cornsilk is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, the largest of the three federally recognized Cherokee tribes in the United States, as well as a Cherokee historian and genealogist. When presented with a case like Warren's, Cornsilk likes to quote a popular Native American aphorism: "It's not about what you claim, it's about who claims you."


Becoming Part of the Cherokee Nation

As Warren mentioned in her video, there's a difference between Native American ancestry and tribal citizenship. Anyone can claim Native American ancestry, but only the tribe and its sovereign government can accept an individual as a tribal citizen. The application process is different for each of the 573 federally recognized Native American tribes, but in the Cherokee Nation, tribal membership hinges on two sets of U.S. government documents drawn up more than 100 years ago.

The Dawes Rolls are late 19th-/early 20th-century census lists that include Cherokee tribespeople who were forcibly resettled in Oklahoma after being driven from states like Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee along the infamous Trail of Tears. To apply for citizenship in the Cherokee Nation, you must be able to trace your direct lineage to an individual on the Dawes Rolls. This is done by providing original birth certificates for each link in the family tree.


The Freedmen Rolls are separate lists of names that include the descendants of freed Cherokee slaves (yes, some Cherokee owned slaves). Following the "one drop rule" of Plessy v. Ferguson, a Cherokee with even a single "negro" ancestor was placed on the Freedmen Rolls, even if the rest of their lineage was full-blooded Cherokee. Sadly, descendants of people on the Freedmen Rolls were denied full citizenship in the Cherokee Nation and several other tribes from the 1980s until 2017, when a court ruling restored their rightful claims.

According to the Cherokee Nation, if you can successfully trace and document your lineage back to individuals on either of those rolls, you can apply for citizenship. You can also apply for citizenship if you marry a tribal member. Any other "proof" of belonging — family trees, photographs of relatives in feathered headdresses, DNA tests — simply won't be considered. (Other tribes have their own requirements for membership, but they're usually along similar lines.)

"We expect people to give deference to our institutions in determining who can claim to be a Cherokee," says Cornsilk. "It's not about descent from someone who abandoned the tribe 150 years ago. It's not about DNA tests that might only represent some statistical noise. And it's not about family oral histories, that like a game of telephone are often fraught with changes that make them very unreliable."


What Citizenship Means

Citizenship in a federally recognized tribe makes you eligible for certain health care and housing programs available through the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs and the tribes themselves. But the Cherokee Nation website makes it clear that tribal members do not receive monthly payments from casino earnings, they still pay U.S. taxes, and tribal citizenship does not mean a free college education.

Warren's DNA test is particularly troubling to Cornsilk for two reasons. First, current DNA testing technology can only confirm that someone in your family was indigenous to either North or South America, not that they were clearly American Indian. Second, DNA tests reinforce the erroneous idea that citizenship in Cherokee Nation has always been based solely on blood lineage.


Cornsilk explains that back in the mid-19th century, the Cherokee Nation had a naturalization process for new citizens that had nothing to do with the applicant's family lineage. Many white people, for example, were welcomed into the tribe.

The issue of blood lineage only arose after Native American tribes surrendered to the U.S. government and were forcibly relocated to places like Oklahoma. As part of these treaties, the federal government promised restitution payments and land allotments to members of each tribe. The question was, who was a true member?

"When the federal government created the dependency which the Cherokee Nation has experienced over the last 100 years, it didn't want to give money to people who had no Indian blood," says Cornsilk.

Over the ensuing century, Native American tribes were given the sovereign authority to draft their own citizenship rules. Tribal members like Cornsilk want to move away from the idea that Cherokee identity is written in blood or DNA. Instead, he promotes the view that Cherokee Nation and other Native American tribes are independent political entities which, like the United States or Canada, can decide who is and is not a citizen regardless of bloodlines or race.

In fact, race is an increasingly problematic issue for Native American tribes. As long as blood lineage is synonymous with tribal identity, it leaves tribes open to lawsuits alleging racial discrimination. Just last month, a federal court in Texas struck down the Indian Child Welfare Act, a 1978 law passed to prevent Native American babies from being adopted away from the tribe and losing their heritage. The judge ruled that the law violates the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment by making adoption decisions based on race.