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Cherokee members spread across nation

Instructions for applying for enrollment in the Cherokee Nation

TAHLEQUAH, Okla. - It is inevitable if you are American Indian - if it hasn't happened yet, it will.

Somewhere, when you least expect it, a non-Indian person will step up and say, "My grandmother was a Cherokee Princess, I am trying to find out how to become a member of the tribe."

For some unknown reason the speaker always assumes that all American Indians know each other and are experts on tribal enrollment.

The question can come from the guy who is working on your car or it can be from a professor at a large university. It might come from your next-door neighbor's hairdresser.

Descendants of the famed Cherokee Princess are everywhere. She is elusive. Few who tell you about her can actually remember her name. But she was "quite an old gal." with high cheekbones and brown skin. "You could see the Indian in her."

It's often difficult, but be polite, try not to laugh or smirk and direct the person to the BIA for more information. Then, if you must, turn away and start laughing.

The mythological Cherokee Princess is a legend in Indian country.

Pow wow emcees have used her for years to get crowds smiling. A Cherokee Princess joke is almost guaranteed to get an audience laughing, often leaving non-Indians scratching their heads as they try to figure out what is so darned funny. Those who reside in Indian country have long been known for their subtle humor, often dry, sometimes just plain silly. They have used the long-standing stereotype of the Cherokee Princess as a part of stories and jokes. There are even bumper stickers which proclaim, "My Grandfather was a Cherokee Princess. It's an Indian thing."

Perhaps no tribe has been so maligned or misunderstood as the Cherokee Nation when it comes to tribal enrollment. Many in Indian country look at the Cherokee and make comments about the sheer number of enrolled tribal members and the blood quantum of tribal members.

With more than 200,000 enrolled members, the nation has often been accused of "enrolling anybody who applies." Misconceptions about the enrollment process is wide-ranging and misunderstood by Indian and non-Indian, and by some Cherokees.

One of the first myths to debunk is, of course, the Cherokee Princess. Did she exist? Or was she like the mythological Christmas Fruitcake or the Tooth Fairy, there was just one, but she got around?

Good news - she really did exist ... well, sort of. In years past, Cherokee men had an endearing term for their wives. Roughly translated the term means princess. Many Cherokee people say they believe this is how princess and Cherokee were joined. Thus there may be some truth to the myth. The Cherokee princess did exist, not as royalty in the European tradition, but as beloved and cherished wives.

So the next time someone tells you they are the descendant of a Cherokee Princess, you may be able to reply, with pride, that you are the descendant of a Darling, or a Sweetie Pie or even better a Snookie Okums.

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In spite of the princess fable, the Cherokee are not a monarchy. They consider themselves a political organization and an American Indian community, one in which relationships appear as important as blood ties. The Cherokee also have a strong sense of identity as a community and respect and honor their heritage and history.

As early as the 1600s and 1700s, the Cherokee recognized anyone who lived on Cherokee land and lived by Cherokee laws as Cherokee, regardless of their ethnic or racial background. Prisoners and slaves eventually were considered members of the tribe, if they lived as the Cherokee did.

Historical documentation points out that the Cherokee understood the finer points of integration and were able to diminish barriers of race and ethnic origin, long before the U.S. Constitution did. But that very ability to accept outsiders into the Cherokee Nation may have added to the later confusion over enrollment.

After removal from their homelands, the Cherokee ended up in what is now Oklahoma. In their new home in Indian Territory, they continued their practice of accepting others into their tribe. This arrangement worked out well for all of those concerned until the federal government stepped in and decided that the Cherokee Nation needed to be organized.

Between 1899 and 1906, the Final Rolls of the Dawes Commission were compiled and completed, listing those Cherokee considered tribal members by the federal government. This is where the confusion began. Many assume only the federal government made up the rolls which is not true.

The federal government did not have the final say on who appeared on the Final Rolls. That was the Cherokee government which worked with its people to include even some who were against the rolls. The general consensus at the time was that most Cherokee may not have cared for the idea of the rolls, but saw the danger of being left off. The rolls gave Cherokees an identity which would have to be recognized by the federal government.

Although many fought against allotment, most Cherokees put their names on the Final Rolls. For those who chose not to cooperate, the decision difficult best and one that their descendants live with. But nearly all of those living on or near the Cherokee land base were included.

Up to this point, the Cherokee knew who was Cherokee and who wasn't, they just hadn't made a list. Once the Dawes Commission was through, many Cherokees lost their birthright and the right to call themselves members of the Cherokee Nation. The Cherokee government understood the far-ranging implications and doubled its efforts to include all Cherokee citizens on the final rolls.

For many who did not appear on the rolls, it was simply being in the wrong place. Many Cherokees settled into homes away from the Indian Territory or, if they were in Oklahoma, they were not residing on or near the Cherokee land base. This means that even though someone may be a full-blood Cherokee, they are not be eligible for tribal enrollment unless their ancestors appear on the Final Rolls of the Dawes Commission.

Anyone trying to enroll as a member of the Cherokee Nation since the Dawes Final Roll must have ancestors who appear on the Final Roll. This isn't as simple s it appears. Some Cherokee ancestors on the Final Rolls may not have been of Cherokee descent, but the descendants of slaves or other non-Indian people who lived among the Cherokee for generations. Their descendants are eligible to enroll as members of the Cherokee Nation.

Genealogy is key for enrollment with the Cherokee Nation. Unlike many other nations, simply proving blood quantum won't assure enrollment. Researching the Dawes Commission Final Rolls can take time, so those interested in tracing Cherokee roots must have patience and access to a family tree and the ability to research and collect legal documents concerning ancestors.

Complete instructions are available on the nation's Registration Department Web site, http://www.cherokee.org. Newsletters and other information about the Cherokee Nation is available as well.

The instructions are simple, but can be time consuming. Dual enrollment is allowed in the Cherokee Nation. Checks and balances make sure those who are dually enrolled cannot "double dip" on services from their respective tribes.

For those needing more help, the Cherokee Nation Web site has a list of researchers to help find ancestors on the Dawes Commission Final Rolls.