March 06, 2021
Today there are three Cherokee tribes who are federally recognized. These are the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians (UKB) in Oklahoma, the Cherokee Nation (CN) in Oklahoma, and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI) in North Carolina. The Cherokee Nation has more than 300,000 tribal members, making it the largest of the federally recognized tribes in the United States. In addition, numerous groups claim Cherokee lineage, and some of these are state recognized. More than 819,000 people are estimated to have identified as having Cherokee ancestry on the U.S. census, but most are not enrolled members of any tribe.
I came across an AP article in my paper last week that described how the pandemic has left unrecognized Indigenous tribes in the US at risk. The problems they face are not much different than the recognized tribes and others, but there are additional roadblocks to financial help. Since they are not recognized they have no means of applying for federal or state assistance. The path to federal recognition is long, complicated, and expensive. In addition to the anthropological and genetic research it requires extensive documentation showing they are distinct from other tribes and have been continuously operated since the 1900’s.
When I looked online, it confirmed the Indigenous peoples in the US are split into recognized and unrecognized groups by the federal government. Unrecognized tribes in the United States are “organizations of people who claim to be historically, culturally, and/or genetically related to historic Native American Indian tribes but who are not officially recognized as Indigenous nations by the United States federal government, by individual states, or by recognized Indigenous nations.” That includes hundreds of tribes nationally and 27 Bands or Tribes in Arkansas, with most of the Arkansas Tribes being some variant of Cherokee. Unrecognized tribes are not eligible for federal or state assistance. The 574 federally recognized Tribes are eligible for a share of the $8 billion relief package for the virus response approved last March. While this amount is small given the numbers of tribes and individuals, it helps.
Thoughts: Of the three federally recognized Cherokee tribes, the Cherokee Nation and the UKB have headquarters in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, and most of their members live in the state. The UKB are mostly descendants of “Old Settlers” (Western Cherokee) who migrated from the Southeast to Arkansas and Oklahoma about 1817. They are related to the Cherokee who were forcibly relocated there in the 1830’s under the Indian Removal Act. The Eastern Band of Cherokee is located on land known as the Qualla Boundary in western North Carolina. They are mostly descendants of ancestors who resisted or avoided relocation and remained in the area. Since they gave up tribal membership by escaping relocation, they became state and US citizens. In the late 20th century, they were reorganized as a federally recognized tribe. Recognition is a desire held by everyone, not just Indigenous peoples. We need to recognize the religious and cultural differences that make us unique. When we recognize others, we also affirm that they matter to the country and to you. Do the work. Change is coming and it starts with you.