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Cherokees, Cherokees and Cherokees

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In the 2000 United States Census, more than 875,000 people identified themselves as partially or wholly Cherokee Indian. This is a remarkably high number given that the three recognized Cherokee nations comprise just 316,049 people. In an article for the Tahlequah Daily Press, Eddie Glenn explored the issue of unofficial Cherokees and learned from Cherokee spokesman Mike Miller that over 200 groups refer to themselves as Cherokee. Some are petitioning for federal recognition; others are simply “Cherokee Heritage Groups” that claim a connection and may hold meetings or events but do not seek federal recognition. Miller said that he encourages “people who have family with Cherokee heritage who are interested in the language and culture,” but added that “the problem is when you have groups that call themselves ‘nation,’ or ‘band,’ or ‘tribe,’ because that implies governance.”

The three federally recognized bands of Cherokee are as follows:

1) The Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, headquartered in Tahlequah, Oklahoma.

Enrollment in this, the most populous Cherokee band, requires a direct ancestral link to a citizen of the nation as listed on the Dawes Rolls. This approach has been known to exclude people who are clearly Cherokee (for instance, the descendant of a sibling of someone who was listed on the Dawes Rolls) but it also includes some people who were given Cherokee status on the Dawes Rolls but were not ethnically Cherokee. This latter category includes some of the Natchez tribe, which was absorbed by the Cherokee in the 19th century, and some Cherokee Freedmen. (The original Freedmen were slaves owned by the Cherokee, and there were quite a few of them—some estimates have a Cherokee population of 21,000 in 1860 owning 4,000 enslaved blacks. The issue of the Freedmen has long been problematic and deserves an article of its own.)

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2) The United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians in Oklahoma, also headquartered in Tallequah, Oklahoma.

The UKB limits its membership to those with one-quarter Cherokee blood. To generalize, the Keetoowah are an older strain of Cherokee in Oklahoma, tracing their heritage to the “old settlers” who arrived from the Southeast before the Trail of Tears. The Keetoowah look to the Emigration Roll of 1817 and the Old Settler Roll of 1851 as the key documents for establishing Keetoowah heritage.

3) The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, headquartered in Cherokee, North Carolina.

While most Cherokees in the Southeast signed away their land to white settlers or were forced out and ended up in Indian territory (later known as the state of Oklahoma), some holdouts instead retreated to the hills. From this small, rebellious group is descended the Eastern Band of Cherokee. Enrollment in the Eastern Band of Cherokee requires one-sixteenth Cherokee blood.