Category Archives: Native American

Cherokee Trail of Tears 180th Anniversary

If there’s one piece of Native American HIstory every resident of the Southeast should know and understand, it’s the Indian Removal Act of 1830. This year marks the 180th anniversary of that tragic event when 16,000 Cherokee were forced from there homes, held in concentration camps for five months, and then driven 800 miles west to Indian Territory (Oklahoma). Well, now is your chance. The Georgia Trail of Tears Association will be meeting at the Roswell Library, 115 Norcross St., at 10:30 A.M., March 10th. I will be the guest speaker, and my topic will be “Exploring the Myths to Discover The Realities of The Removal.” There is no cost, and it is open to the public. If you can manage it, I’d love to see you there.

Celebrate the 10th Anniversary of UNDRIP!

UNDRIP? What is UNDRIP, and why should we be celebrating it? It’s the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The UN debated over twenty years before coming up with this comprehensive statement regarding the rights of indigenous people. The declaration was finally passed in April of 2007, with only four member nations voting against it. Those Countries were Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United States of America. The Bush administration saw little benefit in supporting the rights of indigenous and oppressed people.

In forty-six articles, the declaration emphasized indigenous peoples rights to live with dignity and maintain their own institutions, cultures, and traditions. The articles address both individual and collective rights for cultural identity, education, health, employment, languages, and more.

Article one says indigenous people have the right to the full enjoyment of all human rights and freedoms as recognized in the Charter of the United Nations, the Universal declaration of Human Rights, and international law. Many articles deal with protecting and promoting indigenous culture and allowing the people to participate in all the decisions that will affect their lives. Importantly, it confirms their right to self-determination and their rights of land, territories, and resources.

At the end of this post, I will provide a link to the actual declaration so you can read it for yourself. As you do, you will see why the greatest colonizers in the world chose to vote against it. For instance, article eight prohibits individuals from being subjected to forced assimilation or destruction of their culture. At the same time, it prevents any form of forced population transfer or forced assimilation or integration. Since 1830, the United States has implemented at least three removal acts against Native People, and in 1950, attempted forced assimilation through Termination.

Prohibitions spelled out in the forty-six articles are a restatement of the step-by-step actions of the United States government in the elimination of all these right to our Native tribes. The United Nations simply had to categorize, and codify our treatment of our indigenous residents, and the declaration almost wrote itself.

Finally, on December 15, 2010, President Barack Obama reversed the Bush administration’s 2007 no vote and formally endorsed the declaration. The United States was the last of the original four opposing countries to endorse. In his statement, President Obama said, “The aspirations it affirms, including the respect for the institutions and rich cultures of Native people, are ones we must always seek to fulfill. That’s the standard I expect my administration to be held to.”

Technically, the declaration is not legally binding, but it does represent the development of international legal norms. It is still a significant means of eliminating the rights violations against more than 370 million indigenous people worldwide. What do you think?

Click the link below to read the declaration in its entirety.



Ah, Spring is in the air. Flowers are blooming, and the pollen count is outrageous. Schools are winding down, and across the country, summer camps are warming up. As camps gear up, so do the plans to “Indianize” camp participants. Dress like Indians, dance like Indians, do ceremonies like Indians and even give Indian names. All under the guise of “better understanding and respecting Native culture.” Sadly, it doesn’t work.

Respect for their culture cannot occur by creating plastic or paper headdresses or mimicking  Indian sounds or songs while hopping, Indian-like, around a bonfire. And it is never appropriate to hand out Native names. In short, it is okay to study a culture, but not okay to usurp it. White men have been pretending to be Indian at least since the Boston Tea Party, and it has never worked out well.

Native customs and beliefs are not trivial or frivolous. They are the deep-seated connection between the people who practice them and their spiritual understanding. The practitioners of these ceremonies are not ancients, long dead and forgotten, they are real and alive today, and their lives are relevant.

Rather than make fake headdresses, talk about the fact that many tribes did not wear feathers at all. That in most tribes that did wear them, they were only worn by men. You might even teach how feathers were earned. What birds were most sacred and desired, and what was the significance of cuts, colors, or add-ons.

For other ceremonies, you might want to discuss the meaning and importance of the drum. Did it sound like the Atlanta Braves war drum, or was the beat more subtle and spiritual?  Instead of making up pretend dances, learn the significance of real dances like the Jingle Dance, or the Shawl Dance, or the men’s and women’s Fancy Dances. All tribes danced at ceremonies and events, and there were reasons for every ceremony. How many ceremonies did a tribe celebrate each year? What was the significance of each one? The “Green Corn Ceremony” was celebrated by all the southeastern tribes. What was its significance and what did it accomplish?

Lastly, forget naming ceremonies. It’s okay to learn about the naming process, but it’s highly disrespectful to assign Indian names. You and your campers probably are not Indian. If any are, they already have their Indian name and don’t need you to make fun of how it came to be.

You can, and I encourage you to, learn and teach as much Native culture as you are able, but it is not possible to become an Indian, so don’t try. Don’t even pretend. It is just plain disrespectful. Remember, respect is the ability to recognize someone’s excellence or worth and to show consideration for that person or culture. What do you think?

Freedmen vs. The Cherokee Nation (Sovereignty or Racial Discrimination?)

In March of 2007, the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma held a special election that amended its Constitution regarding citizenship in the Nation. That action disenrolled black citizens, called Freedmen, who had been members since 1866. Was this the decision of a sovereign nation rightfully declaring who can be a citizen or an act of racial discrimination? The answer will be decided in federal court in the next few weeks, but let’s look at some of the critical issues leading up to the disenrollment.

Who are “Freedmen,” and what is, or was their connection to the tribe? The answer to that question lurks in the early 19th century when southern tribes struggled between continuing their historical culture or assimilating white Christian life. The five largest southern tribes, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, Cherokee, and Seminole, commonly known as “The Five Civilized Tribes,” began adopting an Anglo lifestyle. Along with farming and animal husbandry, they also adopted the European version of slavery. In fact, even though few held as many slaves as their white neighbors, the percentage of Cherokees owning slaves was greater (about 7.5% vs. 5%).

By 1830, the Cherokee, through intermarriage, education, Christian conversion, farming, ranching, and slaveholding, could barely be told apart from their American counterparts. That, of course, wasn’t good enough. They were still “heathen Indians,” and were removed west to Indian Country, Oklahoma. The event will forever be known as the “Trail of Tears.” It was a brutal hardship resulting in heavy loss of life, but they didn’t suffer the tragedy alone. With them on that desperate journey were their slaves.

During the Civil War, the Cherokee, like the other “Civilized Tribes,” eventually fought for the Confederacy. The loss resulted in the Treaty of 1866 which required the abolition of slavery and incorporation of slaves as citizens into the tribe. A copy of the wording is shown here:

The Cherokee Nation having, voluntarily, in February, eighteen hundred and sixty-three, by an act of the national council, forever abolished slavery, hereby covenant and agree that never hereafter shall either slavery or involuntary servitude exist in their nation otherwise than in the punishment of crime, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, in accordance with laws applicable to all the members of said tribe alike. They further agree that all freedmen who have been liberated by voluntary act of their former owners or by law, as well as all free colored persons who were in the country at the commencement of the rebellion, and are now residents therein, or who may return within six months, and their descendants, shall have all the rights of native Cherokees: Provided, That owners of slaves so emancipated in the Cherokee Nation shall never receive any compensation or pay for the slaves so emancipated. – Article 9 of The Treaty Of 1866.

Immediately following the signing of the treaty, the Cherokee National Committee amended its Constitution and declared citizenship for all former slaves and their dependents residing in the Nation. The wording of the amendment is shown here:

All native-born Cherokees, all Indians, and whites legally members of the Nation by adoption, and all freedmen who have been liberated by voluntary act of their former owners or by law, as well as free colored persons who were in the country at the commencement of the rebellion, and are now residents therein, or who may return within six months from the 19th day of July, 1866, and their descendants, who reside within the limits of the Cherokee Nation, shall be taken and deemed to be, citizens of the Cherokee Nation. – 1866 Amendments to Article 3, Section 5 of the 1836 Cherokee Nation Constitution.

At this point, it seems clear; Freedmen are officially adopted into the tribe. Fast forward now to 1898, when white America again showed it knew best what was good for Indians and passed the Dawes Act, also known as The General Allotment Act. The purpose was to speed assimilation of Indians into white society by taking communal land and dividing among tribal members (of course, surplus land was to be sold to non-Indians). To complete the process, a list of citizens had to be attained. From 1898 to 1914, Cherokees were required to account themselves, and registrars would categorize them as one of three classes. Those “of blood,” those who had “intermarried,” and “Freedmen.”

In the thirty-two years span from the end of the war, many former slaves did in fact, intermarry with Cherokee by blood, and their offspring would, therefore, have qualified in the “of blood” group. Unfortunately, large numbers were either erroneously or purposely listed as “Freedman” by the white registrars. Hence, when the National Council voted to amend its Constitution to define citizenship as only those who could show direct lineage to “By Blood” citizens of the Dawes Roll, everything changed.

The court must decide whether the tribe has a right, as a sovereign nation, to determine who it allows as its members, or if the Treaty of 1866, regardless of the classifications of the Dawes Act, prevails. Cherokee Nation Attorney General, Todd Humbree, who is arguing the case, said “After eleven long years of litigation, the Cherokee Nation is looking forward to having a judge decide the longstanding issue of what rights, if any, the freedmen descendants are granted under the Treaty of 1866. The Cherokee Nation believes strongly in treaty rights and believes the correct interpretation of the treaty would allow the Cherokee people to determine who is a Cherokee citizen.” What do you think?

Of Mascots and Honor

Before getting into today’s topic, I would like to add one more note from the last blog. Additional information and teaching aids are available from the Georgia Trail of Tears Association. They can be reached through the link page on this blog.

Mascots or Men

Last Tuesday, Dan Snyder, owner of the Washington NFL franchise, was interviewed by ESPN regarding the team name. Again, he insisted that the name referred only to football players and was in no way a racist slur on anyone. In fact, he said, the name is intended to honor Native Americans for their strength and bravery, and if protesters understood the history of the name, “as most people do,” they would have no problems.

Mr. Snyder’s reference to history was the team’s history, not American history. The “as most people do,” remark was in regard to a recent poll showing that 71% of Americans see nothing wrong with the name. Both remarks require closer scrutiny.

According to franchise lore, the name stems from original ownership naming the team in honor of its first coach, William “Lone Star” Dietz. Mr. Dietz claimed to be Oglala Sioux and the nephew of James One Star, a performer in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. In 2002, historian Linda Waggoner investigated the claim and discovered that William Henry Dietz was born to German-American parents in Rice Lake, Wisconsin. It seems Mr. Dietz adopted his Native American persona to avoid serving in World War I. In 1919, in Seattle, he was convicted of falsifying his heritage and served jail time. The franchises’ “Indian” was no Indian at all.

Snyder was correct when he said most people have no issue with the name. Results of a recent poll, shows that 71% of Americans see nothing wrong with the name. What the poll also showed was that the acceptance rate dropped from 89% and that now, 29% of Americans do see the name as a slur, which is a huge increase from just two years earlier. The other fact about the poll is that it reflects the opinion of Americans, not Native-Americans. Yet the team insists that it has the support of many American Indians who see the name as a reflection of strength and bravery of indigenous people.

What do American Indians really think? In point of fact, a wide variety of Native American groups and tribes have come out against the name, including the National Congress of American Indians, the United South and Eastern Tribes, the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians, the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, the Comanche Nation of Oklahoma, the Fort Peck Tribal Executive Board, the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, the Great Lakes Inter-Tribal Council, and many more.

A group of Native-Americans led by Suzan Harjo, Cheyenne and Muskogee, and Amanda Blackhorse, Navajo, won a federal court case against the team that resulted in the U.S. Patent Office rescinding the teams trademark protection. Even though the team is appealing the decision, it has served as a wake-up call to other franchises, like the Cleveland Indians, to take a close look at what they proclaim to be an honorarium to Native people. In my three decades of American Indian study, I have never found one situation where the Washington team’s nick-name was used to respect Indian people or their culture. Quite the opposite is true. It is a vitriolic, racist term filled with hate and anger meant to demean and dehumanize. Shouldn’t it stop?

Teaching The Truth

What we teach our children matters

What we teach our children matters

I guess most everywhere now children are back in school and, as teachers, it’s time to reflect on what we are teaching. It’s particularly important when the topic is history. Recently, the online magazine, Indian Country Today Media Network, published an article by Christina Rose titled, “10 Things Teachers Should Never Do When Teaching Native Kids.” Since most teachers don’t know whether or not they are teaching Native children, I would suggest the ten things pertain to ALL CHILDREN.

To rehash her points here is counterproductive, if you can’t find the article, email me and I will send it to you. Having said that, it is important to talk about a few of the mistakes which frequently occur during first semesters. You know, that’s the time of year we celebrate Columbus Day, Thanksgiving, and Native American Heritage Month. Of course, these errors don’t just happen in school. They happen everywhere untrained educators try to explain American Indian history and culture.

If you are lucky enough to have Native children in your class, and know it, Ms. Rose’s first point is appropriate. Never ask your Native child to speak for their Race. Being singled out in class could be embarrassing for the student, but it is also important to remember that there are 562 federally recognized tribes in the United States and all have different beliefs and cultures. It is unlikely one child could speak for all of them.

If you know the students tribal affiliation, and you have received permission from the parents, and the child is willing, it would be okay for him or her to speak about that tribes culture. The Virginia Department of Education did an excellent job of using a ten year old boy to speak about his tribal customs and the existence of other tribes in the state.

Another of Ms. Rose’s issues was, Don’t have students choose Indian names for themselves. This might seem like a harmless activity and an excellent way to explain the naming process, but it is an extremely personal ceremony performed by a person chosen by the child’s parents. A Menominee parent from Wisconsin, Ritchie Plass, after hearing from his daughter that she had been asked to choose a Native name, wrote a poignant letter to the teacher and school board about the ceremony. The letter is part of the article and should be read.

In short, if you don’t understand American Indian history and culture, don’t opt for stereotypes. Contact someone who can help. In states with tribes, call the tribal information office and ask if they could provide a speaker. In Georgia, contact the Georgia Council on American Indian Concerns. Google them or email me and I will give you an email address.

A few years ago, James Loewen wrote a book, Lies My Teacher Told Me. It is not on my recommended list because it involves much more than American Indian history, but I highly suggest every parent and teacher read it. Remember, Thanksgiving didn’t happen the way it is taught in our schools, and Christopher Columbus didn’t discover America. Don’t compound the problem. Do the right thing, Teach the Truth.

Who Is Indian And Who Decides?

Wilma Mankiller

So far in this series, we’ve discussed Native American origin theories and the proper way to address them. Today we’ll look at who is an Indian, and who has the right to make that determination. The question almost seems silly, but that’s far from the truth. As you can see by the quote on the picture above, the late Wilma Mankiller, former Principal Chief of the Cherokee, thinks an Indian is an Indian. An individual should know, right? Not in America.

In an attempt to unravel “Indianness,” we need to go back before the European invasion, when most tribes traced their heritage through women. This practice is called matrilineal lineage. It didn’t matter who the father was, your membership into the tribe came through your mother. Whether she bore a child naturally or adopted one, that child was a tribal member. For example, John Ross, Principal Chief of the Cherokee during the failed battle for their land in Georgia, was only 1/8th Cherokee by today’s blood count. His mother, who married a European, was one quarter Cherokee because her father was a Scotsman, and her mother was one half Cherokee because her father was European as well. To the tribe, though, he was Cherokee because of the mother’s kinship lines.

Another example is Quanah Parker, last Chief of the Comanche. His mother, Cynthia Ann Parker, was a white girl captured by the Comanche from her father’s ranch in Texas. She was adopted into the tribe and married Peta Nocona. Because she was adopted by a Comanche woman, she was considered Comanche, as was her son. No Native ever spoke in terms of blood quantum until the Europeans (Americans) got involved.

How did it become so confusing that today there are multiple law suits challenging tribal affiliation? That’s a very long story and can be covered another time, but it stems from our intent to “Americanize” Indians. The two main characters in this story are Alice Fletcher, an anthropologist, and Henry L. Dawes, a Senator. Both were ardent supporters of American Indians and were committed to improving their lot in the mid-19th century.

Fletcher worked with the Omaha Tribe and misinterpreted a conversation with one of the Chiefs who indicated he wanted to go back home. He meant return to the way things were, and she believed he was asking for a “home.” She became convinced the answer to the Indian problem was to turn them into farmers so that they could share in the American society.

Her idea caught on in Washington, and Senator Dawes became the father of the Allotment Act which passed in 1887. The Act provided that every member of various tribes would be allotted a certain amount of land in his name and the implements necessary to farm. We’ll talk much more on the impact of the Act later, but suffice it to say, it required tribes to list their membership. The resulting “Dawes Rolls,” became the definitive answer as to whether or not someone is Indian. It didn’t matter that many tribal members didn’t list themselves, or that many errors were made in recording the list, it became the rule.

Since then, of course, most tribes have created their own governments and constitutions and all have set up the standards by which one can be considered a member. Today, one must apply to the tribe and be vetted by the membership committee for acceptance. It is also possible for a tribe to dis-enroll someone if it believes that person does not meet all the criteria. If you do become a member, you are awarded a membership card, a blood quantum card, which states your percentage.

So, I’m sorry, Miss Mankiller, today, you can’t be an Indian unless you can prove it by having a card. In fact, those with Native American heritage who do not have cards refer to themselves as “undocumented.”

Native American or American Indian?

Head dress

So what’s correct? Either? Neither? Or something altogether different? To learn the answer, we need to travel back to the ’60’s when, as a people, we were trying to distinguish ourselves and also identify others. Culture groups like African-American, Asian-American, Latin-American, and others surfaced, so it seemed natural to call America’s first citizens, Native-Americans.

The plan worked for several decades until the category became overcrowded with the inclusion of Alaskan-Americans, Hawaiian-Americans, and even Samoan-Americans. How could we ever make a distinction? It became even more confusing when someone realized that you didn’t have to be Native-American to be native-american. In fact, a person born in Cleveland this morning is a native-american. He or she was born in America, therefore native. Eventually, a new designation, American Indian, was adopted.

Why not? After all, when Columbus, who believed he had reached India, saw the first indigenous person, he declared, “Los Indios!” Not being Indians from India, and sharing the Native-American moniker, the term American Indian appeared to fit perfectly. Under most circumstances, either term is acceptable and are frequently used interchangeably.

Still, there are issues. When speaking of a “people,” either term may be used. But, when speaking about a person, The preferred method would be to use his or her tribal affiliation. “Andrew is a Cherokee,” or “Sara is Seminole.” If you don’t know their tribe, call them Andrew or Sara. If they are of a mind, they will tell you if they think you need to know.

Wait, there’s still more. Because every tribal name we use came from someplace other than tribal members themselves, we need to be sensitive to an individual’s feelings. For example, Cherokee is the name used by Creek Indians to describe people who spoke another language. By the way, Creeks didn’t call themselves Creek, either.

Cherokee called themselves “Aniyunwiya,” The first people. Very few members still use that name, but many prefer the Cherokee pronunciation of their name, “Tsalagi.” Remember, it’s their choice to determine how they should be addressed.

Finally, we  need to clarify one more thing. Is Native-American or American Indian an ethnic group? On many government forms, it looks like the answer might be yes, but it’s not. Either is a term we attach to indigenous people for simplicity. They in no way, mean there is an internal cultural or pan-national unity, American Indians are composed of more than 500 hundred different nations and cultures with different identities. Homogenization does not exist.



  When I first began my research into American Indian history and culture over two decades ago, the question of origin was a non-issue. Everyone knew they crossed the Bering Land Bridge 12,000 years ago and spread across two eagerly awaiting continents.  Little did I know that, while the rest of us were taking this for granted, a war was raging among academics. Not a new war, but a long and lingering one that goes back several centuries.

The rudiments of the Bering Straight theory began as early as the sixteenth century, but was refuted by America’s first archaeologist, Thomas Jefferson. Writing in 1785 and using the language differentiation of our indigenous residents, Jefferson reasoned that “…for two dialects to recede from one another til they have lost all vestiges of their common origin must require an immense course of time; perhaps not less than many people give to the age of the earth.”

In 1892, geologist George Frederick Wright again challenged the theory in his study Man and the Glacial Period. He was soundly redressed by ethnologist William John McGee who called Wright’s work “absurdly fallacious, unscientific, and an offense to the nostrils.”

My introduction to the battle came with my reading of Vine Deloria, Jr.’s Red Earth, White Lies: Native Americans and the Myth of Scientific Fact. Deloria, one of the most prolific Native American writers and philosophers of our time, charges that the theory is not science, but dogma perpetrated by those more interested in protecting the theorists than advancing science. Obviously, he was roundly challenged and shuffled off as a fringe group member. The question then becomes, is the theory based on science, or is it dogma?

As I mentioned earlier, the theory has been around for centuries, but what locked it in was the pronouncement in 1927 by Alex Hrdlicka that it “…was the only logical explanation.” Hrdlicka was the curator of the Smithsonian Physical Anthropology Department and the foremost authority on Neanderthals. His status and fame made his declaration effectively law. How powerful was his edict? Dr. Thomas Lee of the National Museum of Canada from 1951-1955, discovered artifacts dated to 30,000 years ago. Instead of cheering, the scientific community blacklisted him for more than ten years.

When, in 1975, Dr. Thomas Dillehay from the University of Kentucky was invited to Monte Verde, Chile to verify a find more than 12,500 years old, he declined. Fortunately, he later reconsidered and did verify that the artifacts, far down into southern Chile, were authentic. Since then, discoveries have been found near Delaware which are more than 25,000 years old, and a sight along the Savannah River in South Carolina which claims to be 50,000 years old.

So what is the argument that keeps the Land Bridge Theory alive? One word, Contamination. Some way, some how, noted archaeologists from all over the world have screwed up their digs and botched the findings. Archaeologists fighting, name calling, and rebuking one another is one thing, but what about Jefferson’s language theory? Linguists have long argued against the land bridge idea. Below are a couple of note:  

 Edward Sapir, 1916 “Ten Thousand Years seems a hopelessly inadequate span for such linguistic differentiation.”  

Franz Boas, 1940 “American Indian languages are so different that it seems doubtful that 10,000 years is sufficient time for their differentiation.”

Finally, Johanna Nichols, Professor of Linguistics at California, Berkeley, wrote in 1990, using six different mathematical formulas, that it would have taken at least 35,000 years for Native Languages to have evolved to the extent in which they have, and probably as much as 50,000.

Max E. White, Georgia’s Indian Heritage, says that “The date of the appearance of man in the New World is unknown  and probably will never be known.” To this, American Indians say “We are here and have always been here ,placed by the Creator.” Who really can argue?