2007: Who is a Cherokee? Many Americans have Indians in the family tree

Steve Hammons

In a special election Saturday, 76 percent of the 270,000 members of the Cherokee Nation voted to remove the black “freedmen” from official tribal membership.

The estimated 2,800 freedman are ancestors of slaves held by Cherokees when they were forced from the Appalachian Mountain region on the “Trail of Tears” in 1838-1839. Over 4,000 Cherokees died from hardships along the way.

Although this specific issue of the position of freedmen is interesting and relevant today, the case brings up several related factors that affect a much larger slice of Americans.

This is because many Americans have Cherokee or other Native American DNA within their genetic makeup.

Some families are aware this, some people have heard rumors or stories from family members about Indian background and some are totally unaware of it. Did great, great, great grandma really have a Cherokee parent?

There may be more Americans with Cherokee DNA in them than of other tribes. This is because Cherokees began intermixing with Scottish and other explorers, hunters and trappers at a much earlier phase in American history – much of it in the mid-1700s.

By the time of the Trail of Tears, there were already several generations of mixed-race families living in the Cherokee mountain regions of North Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee and surrounding areas.

This intermixing goes back further in American history than with many other tribes further west, creating wider dissemination of Cherokee DNA into many family trees.

Socially and culturally, many of these developments in the 1700s occurred before some of the more widespread efforts at domination, removal and near-genocide of the indigenous tribes later on.

Regarding last weekend’s vote, it is important to note that the Cherokee tribe in Oklahoma is the major, but not the only organized Cherokee group in the U.S.

Prior to the Trail of Tears, many Cherokee headed west to Arkansas and elsewhere. Many stayed in the east, where the “Eastern Band” is still located at the Tennessee and North Carolina border. Some had intermixed so much with the Scottish and others that they could “pass” as white.

WHO ARE WE?

As we know, over the decades and centuries, people from many nations and cultures have arrived North America. The mixing of different ethnic groups here has been a fact of life for generations. Many of us can count at least a half-dozen or more different nationalities and ethnic groups in our family background.

And the more this blending has continued with each generation, the more likely that Cherokee or other Indian DNA is within many of today´s American families.

Many don’t know about a Cherokee or Indian ancestor because that side of the family sometimes may not have detailed written records. Maybe the family didn’t talk about it or the connection was forgotten or overlooked.

In addition, some families may prefer to self-identify as “white,” “black” or “brown” as a primary ethnic and racial background.

However, many of these families might technically be “mixed-race” of European and Cherokee, African-American and Indian or Hispanic and Native American. Because of intermixing over the generations, there are certainly now people who are also a mix of Asian and Native American.

Some tribes use what is called the “blood quantum” to identify who has enough Indian “blood” in them to be tribal members. Often, one-sixteenth blood quantum will qualify a person for membership in the official tribal rolls.

So, if grandparents, great-grandparents or great-great-grandparents had some significant measure of Indian blood, based in these blood quantum measurements, a person is considered a tribal member.

To say that someone who is one-eighth is more Cherokee or Native American than a person who is one-sixteenth makes us wonder about the validity of looking at this in terms of percentages.

Most likely, a certain genetic background does not affect a person strictly by percentages. If you are one-quarter, one-eighth, one-sixteenth, one-thirty-second, one-sixty-fourth, does that mean the genetic history within you, which goes back into the ancient past, is not valid?

The idea of racial “blood” is, of course, somewhat outdated. Modern DNA and genetics sciences can now identify our racial and ethnic backgrounds with much specificity. Today, commercial labs offer low-cost DNA testing by mail and will send their customer a report on their findings.

The DNA within each cell of our bodies acts in ways we do not fully understand. The genetic history of our ancestors is passed down over the centuries and comes together in a child in certain ways, creating certain physical features, and, we suspect, possibly psychological and personality tendencies.

Does having a great-great-great grandmother or grandfather who was Cherokee instead of a full-blood parent make you less Indian? In some ways, maybe yes. In other ways involving genetics, this might not be so clear.

In some people, maybe this forgotten or hidden DNA is it is “sleeping.” For others, they have always known there was something in them connected to the ancient times in the Americas.

They may even have slightly darker skin, a certain facial or body structure or other genetic traits. This background may manifest itself a little or a lot.

Importantly, many more families are finding out about their family trees. This is something to explore further, to understand what it means.

DNA MEMORIES?

Modern research into the nature of DNA has led to discoveries about this material within each cell of our bodies. DNA has important implications for who each one of us is, on many levels.

Once we have identified the various elements of our family tree and our genetic background, and possibly discovered or suspect Cherokee or other Indian connections, what should we make of it?

The DNA within all living things is the blueprint for what each organism becomes, subject to the environmental influences that can also have significant effects. It determines our physical characteristics and our vulnerabilities to certain diseases.

For humans, recent discoveries about DNA are rapidly changing our views about the importance of this material. DNA may affect us much more significantly than we imagined. And, it may hold keys to further discoveries.

Is it possible that the DNA helix holds some of the important memories of our ancestors? Back in the 1960s, some psychological researchers claimed that there may be keys that unlock our deep DNA, revealing experiences of past generations of relatives who lived long before our present time.

It has been demonstrated that experiences necessary for survival of a species, even very tiny and simple organisms, are learned and that this knowledge is passed on to subsequent generations.

For humans, with our relatively complex brain, feelings and memories, what other kinds of experiences might be saved in our DNA over the many thousands of years when our ancestors were born, lived and died? Do these influences manifest themselves within us? And how?

Scientists are gradually uncovering the secrets of our DNA. They have mapped much of the DNA helix of not only humans, but other animals and plants. Many human genes remain a mystery and their purpose is unknown.

The idea that deep and ancient memories of our ancestors lie within our own bodies, within our DNA, seems far-fetched. Yet, in the field of genetics research, there seems to be so much that is not known, that for an open-minded person, these kinds of theories about deep DNA memories cannot be ruled-out.

Maybe it is time to consider the depth of our family trees and all of their complex branches and roots throughout time and the development of the human race. Whether Cherokee or other interesting ethnic backgrounds are deep within us, this certainly seems worth exploring.

In this sense, the official and legal definitions of who is Cherokee or part of some other Native American tribe, and who is not, become less relevant.

But, this discussion about the freedmen and the Cherokee Nation´s election does bring these topics to our attention and are worthy of discussion and consideration.

If a child in your family were to ask, “Am I part-Indian?” what would your answer be? Do you know for certain?

To find these answers, we can conduct research through genealogy records, through asking older family members and other kinds of investigation. We can also listen to the voices of the DNA and our ancient ancestors within us.