This discussion was prompted when the identity of a key person in this area of research and teaching was featured in an article in The Daily Beast on June 30, 2015. The person is Andrea Smith. The identity she claims is Cherokee.
Several years ago, Smith asked David Cornsilk of the Cherokee Nation to help her verify her belief that she was Cherokee. In an Open Letter at Indian Country Today Media Network, David goes into great detail on his findings (bottom line: she's not Cherokee). Many people knew about this and hoped that Smith would 1) stop saying she is Cherokee, and, 2) that she would take steps so that people would stop calling her Cherokee when they introduce her at lectures she is invited to deliver.
She didn't do either one. It was only a matter of time before her misrepresentation of her identity would become more widely known.
The article at The Daily Beast pulled heavily from a Tumblr page that documented a long history of Smith's efforts to get her claims verified. This led to many blog posts and discussions on social media and at Native news sites.
I wrote a post (on July 3, 2015), too, because lack of knowing what it means to be Cherokee results in a lot of problems in children's literature. They range from:
1) claims that are, in fact, empty (when will every copy of "Forrest Carter's" The Education of Little Tree be moved from autobiography to fiction, if not removed entirely from the shelves?).
2) ignorance in portraying Cherokee culture, as seen--for example--in David Arnold's Mosquitoland, or Francesa Lia Block's Weetzie Bat series, or P.C. and Kristin Cast's House of Night series, or Gail Haley's Two Bad Boys, or Martina Boone's Compulsion.
3) mis-identifying people as Cherokee when they say otherwise, as was done in Alko's The Case for Loving.As I packed for a family trip to North Carolina on Thursday, July 9, 2015, my head was filled with what I'd been reading about Andrea Smith.
Our first stop was in Atlanta. Along the walls in the passageway from Terminal B to Terminal A is an exhibit of Atlanta's history. It includes panels on the Cherokee Nation. I stood there looking at the exhibit and thought about Cherokee people I know, and what their ancestors have been through. Sometimes, my Cherokee friends and colleagues are furious over another instance in which they are misrepresented or when someone on a national level (like Elizabeth Warren) says they're Cherokee. Other times, they are weary.
Like their ancestors, they persevere.
On Saturday morning, David Cornsilk was out and about in Tahlequah, the capitol of the Cherokee Nation. Being out with family and friends in the Cherokee Nation isn't unusual for David. Later that day, he wrote about it on his Facebook page. With his permission, I share some of what he said, here:
Today seemed different though. Every Cherokee I came into contact with gave me a heightened sense of what it means to a part of the Cherokee community. At breakfast I saw cousins and old friends, all Cherokees. When I went to the estate sales I saw and visited with Cherokees. And again, at the theater, the room was filled with the people I and my family associate with, Cherokees. As I looked around the room I saw the faces of Cherokees laughing, joking and socializing. These are spaces that fill my memory from childhood to the present.
As these contacts built in my minds eye on what is just another Saturday, I was suddenly struck by a profound truth in the context of the Andrea Smith controversy. Even if she could prove some smidgen of Cherokee ancestry, of course she can't, but if she could, what I experienced today, in just four short hours, was more Cherokee community and culture than someone like Andrea will experience in a lifetime.
After the movie and the see-Ya-later hugs from my grandchildren, their innocent little Cherokee selves facing a world that wants nothing more than to take everything away from them, I became more resolved to fight harder for their future as citizens of the Cherokee Nation, to defend their tribe's sovereignty from all comers. Because like the saying we hear so often, the land is not ours, it's only borrowed from our children, so too is our sovereignty.
When someone says they are Cherokee without any concern for the rights of the tribe, they erode the sovereignty and self-determination that rightfully belongs to our children and grandchildren. As the current defenders of that sovereignty, our generation must do all we can to defend what is not really ours, but our grandchildren's.
David knows what it is to be Cherokee, what life is like for someone who is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation.
What he shared brings me back to you, Writer Who Thinks You Are Cherokee. Are you an Andrea Smith? Did someone in your family tell you that you're Cherokee? Did you use that story to identify yourself as Cherokee? Does that identity inspire you to create stories to "honor" Cherokees? Or some other Native Nation?
If the answer to those questions is yes, hit the pause button. If you're not living life as a Cherokee, you're likely to add to the pile of misrepresentations Cherokee people contend with, day in, and day out. Do you really want to do that?
But returning to Andrea Smith, and speaking now, to my friends and colleagues in activist circles: please reconsider inviting Andrea Smith to deliver a keynote lecture at your conference or workshop. My request may sound mean-spirited or unfair to her, but consider the Cherokee Nation itself. Consider the Cherokee children David speaks of. Do you want to, as Smith is doing, thumb your nose at their sovereignty? Their rights to say who their citizens are? Do you really want to do that?