“I cannot say when I first heard of my Indian blood, but as a boy I heard it spoken of in a general way,” Charles Phelps, a resident of Winston-Salem in North Carolina, told a federal census taker near the beginning of the 20th century. Like many Americans at the time, Phelps had a vague understanding of his Native American ancestry. On one point, however, his memory seemed curiously specific: His Indian identity was a product of his “Cherokee blood.”
The tradition of claiming a Cherokee ancestor continues into the present. Today, more Americans claim descent from at least one Cherokee ancestor than any other Native American group. Across the United States, Americans tell and retell stories of long-lost Cherokee ancestors. These tales of family genealogies become murkier with each passing generation, but like Phelps, contemporary Americans profess their belief despite not being able to point directly to a Cherokee in their family tree.
Recent demographic data reveals the extent to which Americans believe they’re part Cherokee. In 2000, the federal census reported that 729,533 Americans self-identified as Cherokee. By 2010, that number increased, with the Census Bureau reporting that 819,105 Americans claimed at least one Cherokee ancestor. Census data also indicates that the vast majority of people self-identifying as Cherokee—almost 70 percent of respondents—claim they are mixed-race Cherokees.
Why do so many Americans claim to possess “Cherokee blood”? The answer requires us to peel back the layers of Cherokee history and tradition.
Most scholars agree that the Cherokees, an Iroquoian-speaking people, have lived in what is today the Southeastern United States—Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, North and South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama—since at least A.D. 1000. When Europeans first encountered the Cherokees in the mid–16th century, Cherokee people had well-established social and cultural traditions. Cherokee people lived in small towns and belonged to one of seven matrilineal clans. Cherokee women enjoyed great political and social power in the Cherokee society. Not only did a child inherit the clan identity of his or her mother,women oversaw the adoption of captives and other outsiders into the responsibilities of clan membership.