By Eddie Glenn, Press Staff Writer
Living in Tahlequah, we probably tend to take the word “Cherokee” for granted. It’s hard to look anywhere in this town and not see the word right in front of you.
This is, after all, Cherokee County. There’s a Cherokee Avenue; numerous businesses call themselves Cherokee, or Cherokee County something-or-other. And of course, Tahlequah’s home to two Cherokee tribes: The Cherokee Nation, Oklahoma, and the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians in Oklahoma.
Those two tribes, along with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in North Carolina, are the only ones officially recognized by the federal government.
But there are other groups that identify themselves as Cherokees – in fact, a couple of hundred of them – and quite a few have pretty interesting Web sites.
For example, there’s the Cherokee Nation of Mexico, whose chief, Charles “Jahtlohi” Rogers, claims to be carrying on the work of Sequoyah, inventor of the Cherokee syllabary.
“Like migratory birds, my family and I found the tomb of Sequoyah and learned of his prophecy - that ‘a child would come and find the tomb’ (as did my son Charles Ah-doh-lay-hoh-sgee Rogers),” Rogers states on his site, www.cherokeenationmexico.com. “When this occurred, the story told us, Sequoyah’s spirit would come back to his people to help unite all Cherokees. Shortly after this discovery, the Cherokee Nation of Mexico received re-affirmation of its historic recognition.”
Evidently, although the Cherokee Nation of Mexico isn’t recognized by the U.S. government, the group was recognized by the governor of Coahuila in 1839, and the president of Mexico in 1822. So in a sense, it does have federal – or “federale,” as the case may be – recognition.
“There are more than 200 groups that we’ve been able to recognize that call themselves a Cherokee nation, tribe, or band,” said Mike Miller, spokesman for the Cherokee Nation (the one based here in Tahlequah, at the W.W. Keeler Tribal Complex).
“Only three are federally recognized, but the other groups run the gamut of intent. Some are basically heritage groups – people who have family with Cherokee heritage who are interested in the language and culture, and we certainly encourage that,” said Miller. “But the problem is when you have groups that call themselves ‘nation,’ or ‘band,’ or ‘tribe,’ because that implies governance.”
Several groups that identify themselves as Cherokees, however, are currently trying to obtain federal recognition.
According to Cliff Bishop, headman of the Lost Cherokee Nation of Arkansas and Missouri, his tribe’s request for federal recognition is currently under review by the federal government. The Lost Cherokee Nation, headquartered in Dover, Ark., traces its history back to the Cherokees who moved to Arkansas before the Trail of Tears brought the majority of the tribe to Northeastern Oklahoma.
Bishop said his tribe had treaties with the U.S. government as early as 1817. The Lost Cherokees are organized as a 501-C3 non-profit organization, and currently raise money through auctions and charity events, but they hope to eventually receive federal funding.
“We’re not in for gambling; we’re in for education and helping our people out of poverty,” said Bishop. “We’re not trying to take anything from other Cherokees; we’re just trying to help our people.”
Lost Cherokee Headman Dub Maxwell added that before the Trail of Tears, some of the most prominent Cherokee leaders were members of what is now the Lost Cherokee Nation.
“The syllabary was first taught in Arkansas,” said Maxwell. “It makes sense that if Sequoyah had something that important, he would take it to the most important chiefs first.”
Another group based in Arkansas is the Western Cherokee Nation of Arkansas and Missouri, headquartered in Paragould, Ark.
According to Chief Lola Smith, her tribe is the “original” Arkansas Cherokee tribe; all the others, like the Lost Cherokee Nation, splintered off of the Western Cherokee Nation.
“We were a recognized tribe, and we’re trying to get that re-established,” said Smith. “The Western Cherokee Nation was around long before Tahlequah ever existed.”
Smith, who claims to be a distant cousin to Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chad Smith, said her Cherokee ancestors left South Carolina and went to Connecticut in the early 18th century. Finding Connecticut a bit too cold for their tastes, they eventually moved westward and southward, ending up in Arkansas in 1721.
“We were here 100 years before we had any dealings with the [U.S.] government,” she said.
Another of the groups that would like to gain federal recognition (and that, according to Lola Smith, splintered off from her tribe) is the Northern Cherokee Nation of Missouri and Arkansas.
Like the Western Cherokees and the Lost Cherokees, the Northern Cherokee Nation traces its roots to those Cherokees who left the southeastern U.S. before the Trail of Tears.
According to tribal Secretary Gail Buzzard, many of the Northern Cherokee Nation members trace their lineage to Dragging Canoe, an 18th century Cherokee war chief who opposed the selling of Cherokee lands to British settlers.
“We came to Missouri in the 1700s,” said Buzzard. “Our first documentation is [a treaty] from 1750 with Spain.”
According to Buzzard, the Northern Cherokees have a difficult time proving their heritage because it was illegal in Missouri to be Indian until the 1920s.
“We have a few records, but mostly it’s oral history,” she said. “We’ve been working on [federal recognition] for many years, but our biggest problem is oral history instead of written history. There are a lot of gaps in our history because we weren’t allowed to keep records.”
Oklahoma has a few non-recognized Cherokee groups, too, including the Southern Cherokees, based in Webber Falls. In 2002, that group attempted to establish riverboat gambling on the Arkansas River, a move that was opposed by the Cherokee Nation.
Another group, however – the Southern Cherokee Nation, based in Kentucky – disavows any connection to the Oklahoma group calling itself the Southern Cherokees, and says so plainly on its Web site at www.southerncherokeenation.net. According to a letter written to the Muskogee Phoenix last June by the Kentucky Cherokee chief, Michael Buley, the Webber Falls group (which also has a Web site, www.southern-cherokee.com) is giving his tribe “a bad name” by selling illegal car tags and tribal memberships.
“This reflects back on us because we are the real Southern Cherokee people,” wrote Buley. “We consider the Cherokee Nation our mother nation, and would do whatever we could for the nation.”
Why is it, one might ask, that so many people want to be recognized as Cherokees?
According to UKB Assistant Chief Charles Locust, it’s because of the Tahlequah-based Cherokee Nation’s lack of a blood quantum. His own tribe requires members to be at least one-quarter Cherokee.
“The Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma has perpetuated this idea and trend with people claiming to be Cherokee,” he said. “Their tribe allows a person with 1/4,000-and-something [Cherokee blood] to be a carded Cherokee.”
But according to Miller, the fact that so many people identify themselves as Cherokee is a good sign.
“According to the 2000 census, more than 750,000 people identify themselves as Cherokee, and that’s far more than the membership of the Cherokee Nation, the United Keetoowah Band, and the Eastern Band combined,” he said. “What that tells you is people like the idea of being Cherokee, for whatever reason. People usually don’t identify with something they don’t like, so we take it as a good thing: People like Cherokees.”