a statement about identity

I am a Native woman. I am a Cherokee. I am Mattamuskeet as well, though I do not follow or know much of those ways. My Cherokee family surnames are Bird, McNeil and Savage. My Mattamuskeet surnames are Keys, Mackey and James. I am not a full-blood Indian, but a mixed-blood who is also of West African and British descent. As a mixed-blood, I had a choice regarding my identity. I chose to be an Indian. Most of my family chooses to be African American and/or had it chose for them. Some of my family identifies as bi or tri-racial. Some of my family does not want to discuss or acknowledge Indian anything, to others it has no relevance in their life and some do not speak to me because I identify as Native. My family is from the Carolinas. Something that a lot of northerners and westerners do not understand is the extent to which slavery and segregation have wrecked havoc with rights, laws & identity for Natives, and non-Natives, throughout the south.

I am originally from North Carolina. Though I am a NC Cherokee, I do not call myself Eastern Band because I am not enrolled. My family (as far as I know) was not among the nucleus of families who started the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. My connections with the greater Native community are spread between NC and OK and include Cherokees, other southeastern tribal people and people of other nations met via urban Indian centers, mutual connections and/or work. Now that I reside in the Midwest, I am a part of the Kansas City & Lawrence urban Indian communities and the Kansas City & Lawrence communities of relocated Cherokee Nation people. I travel to Oklahoma to participate in our traditional Cherokee stomp dances and am connected to my people that way as well. I speak some Cherokee and am actively learning. All of my Cherokee people, who know and love me, know I am not enrolled.

I am very aware of how some Cherokees feel about non-enrolled people who say they are Cherokee. There are a lot of yahoos out there. For some reason Cherokee is the favorite "my great grandmother was an Indian princess" tribe. Some folks lump me into the "wannabe" or “fake Indian” category as soon as I fail to produce a tribal ID. However there are just as many Cherokees who also know that lots of Cherokee people are not eligible for enrollment for a myriad of reasons. Included are: not being at the right place at the right time to be counted on the rolls, being mixed with African blood & being automatically regulated to the Negro racial category and/or refusing to enroll due to distrust of the government.

What proof do I have of being Cherokee, or Mattamuskeet for that matter? As far as the latter, my ancestors are listed in state records and anthropological documents. At one time in the past, there was a Mattamuskeet reservation in North Carolina. However, currently the Mattamuskeet have no legal status whatsoever and are unlikely to have in the future due to the lack of community organization and interest. As far as being Cherokee, I have the words of my paternal grandmother, and elder relatives on my mother’s side; I have stories of some who went on the Trail of Tears and those who hid out; I have teachings of how they used to stomp dance, about when to fast and when to plant and what plant medicines do what. They are Cherokee things. Throughout my life I have cross-verified my family cultural information with non-related Cherokee elders (enrolled and known) and even the old historical accounts. 

I do not know how my family got disconnected from the main legal body of Cherokee people, but suspect that moving and “marrying outside” may have had something to do with it. I have no card and may never have. None the less, that does not stop me from being a part of my community, speaking Cherokee, eating Cherokee, going to stomp or doing Cherokee things. I never pretend to be enrolled and readily tell people when asked. Lost families and individuals, disenfranchisement and dictated identity are as much a part of the southeastern Indigenous story as being enrolled.

I do sometimes think about my somewhat vulnerable position as a non-enrolled Native in the public eye. I am aware that some would say “you are trying to gain such & such by pretending to be Native” or “you are stealing an identity” or “you are using being Indian to make money”. I am also aware that in my case it doesn't really make any sense. As a dark brown woman in the US, I already have "ethnic status", whether I like it or not. I already qualify as a minority, or “other”, or “underrepresented”, etc whatever. My family owns land in traditional Mattamuskeet territory, some of which I am set to inherit. I cannot ever "pass" visually as an Indian and I am not eligible for services or programs available to enrolled Natives. The venues, organizations and connections open to me if I chose to identify as an African American dancer/choreographer or even an African descent dancer/choreographer with mixed roots, are huge and vast when compared to my opportunities as a non-enrolled, non "Indian looking" Native. Though my living family is estranged from the Cherokee community, I personally have made an effort to reunite myself, and willing family members, with our people.

I think a lot of Native people recognize these aspects of my particular situation and do not have a problem with my lack of a card. Not surprisingly, some Cherokee people are less friendly.  However, that is sometimes overcome through getting to know one another and uncovering shared connections. If my “Cherokeeness” or “Indianess” were publicly challenged, I have enrolled Cherokee people, and people enrolled in other tribes, who would vouch for me. However, the idea of putting them in that situation is very distasteful to me.

I have been aware of and dealt with the legal and social issues around non-enrollment for most of my life. I do not take it personally. It has never stopped me from being a good Indian woman.