But this ethnic switching approach has been breaking down as the country as a whole becomes more multi-racial and people are more comfortable identifying with a minority group. Also, with the advent of Indian gaming and casinos, there are all sorts of benefits to being an Indian. In an article entitled "The Newest Indians" in last week's New York Times Magazine, Jack Hitt discusses this trend, especially as seen in the eastern part of the US.
I've seen this myself. Recently I was making small talk with an elderly lady as I was leaving and she was coming in to meet with a local anthropologist. She said, "Three weeks ago, I didn't even know I was an Indian. Dr. _______ checked my genealogy and showed me how I was. It's so exciting!" It's great that people are interested in and comfortable with their ancestry.
One point that Hitt curiously missed in his essay is the use of DNA testing to verify claims of Indian ancestry. That is turning into a business niche for some companies, I have found out. In fact this google ad for a DNA testing service dropped into our blog a couple of weeks ago. These tests are proof positive, but unfortunately for some people, the Indian tribes (Federally recognized tribes) themselves are the arbiters of who is and is not a member. Most tribes do not recognize DNA testing and usually use genealogy to trace to ancestors who were "certified" as Indians by government officials in the past. This has led to some bitter fights here in California, where some of the gaming tribes have reviewed the geneaology of all of their members and dropped people from the rolls based on the results. The outcome was larger slices of the casino money pie for the remaining members. Many tribal members do not like DNA testing for just this reason - they may not like the results they get.
This leads us to this LA Times piece about a woman in Oklahoma who has been trying to prove membership to one of the Cherokee bands in that state. DNA testing supports her claim, but she does not have the right paperwork in the genealogical record and the Cherokee will not recognize her. Her story was especially interesting to me in that her background was as a Black Cherokee.
The history of the Black Cherokee is not commonly known. The Cherokee as well as other tribes in the Southeast had black slaves in the early part of the 19th Century. When they were moved to Oklahoma by the Indian Removal Act in the 1830s, their slaves accompanied them on the well-known Trail of Tears. Approximately 15,000 black slaves came with the Indians to Oklahoma. There were held as slaves until freed by the Federal government in 1866 and were a reason that the Cherokee fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War - another fact not commonly known. These freedmen were usually accepted onto tribal rolls and there was intermarriage between Indians and Blacks. The woman in the LA Times story has this mixed heritage and can prove it with her DNA tests. But one of her freedman ancestors didn't have the right certificate.
The story of the Black Cherokee also takes us to the reasons why the Indian Removal Act was passed and the Southeastern Indians exiled to Oklahoma. Most school history books will tell you that it was a desire to take their traditional tribal lands, and that's true as far as it goes. But there is much more to the story.
By the turn of the 19th Century, the Cherokee (and other tribes to a lesser extent) had taken on a course of partial acculturation to White ways. They kept their unparalleled knowledge of their environment and added to it the benefits of modern technology and European crops and domesticated animals. And they were phenomenally successful! Many had large farms and plantations. Ten percent of the Cherokee owned slaves - roughly the same percentage as in the White population at that time. Some Cherokee lived in houses like this:
This was the home of Chief Vann of the Cherokee located in Northern Georgia. At the time of his death in 1809, he was one of the richest men in the US. This is not what we typically think of as a Native American dwelling. Many lived in European style houses, if not all as grand as this. They sent their children to mission schools and in addition to their farms and plantations operated stores, inns, ferries, and other businesses.
By the 1820s they had organized a republican style government with a written constitution, courts and procedures for law enforcement. Also at this time, the Cherokee Sequoyah
had invented a syllabary or "alphabet" for his language so that it could be written. A newspaper called the Cherokee Phoenix was printed as were the Bible and other books.
So yes, the Whites wanted the Indian lands in the Southeast. But the deeper truth is that the Cherokee were just too successful in White terms. They were too much competition and Whites used their political and military power to get them out of the way.