Elias Boudinot (Gallegina Uwati) was editor of the Cherokee Phoenix, the first American Indian newspaper

Elias Boudinot (Gallegina Uwati) was editor of the Cherokee Phoenix, the first American Indian newspaper. He believed settler hegemony was inevitable

One of my students has been researching authenticity and reported in class that the group that wears the authenticity veil defines what constitutes authenticity.

In other words, it’s up to the group.

That makes sense for skaters and hipsters but not American Indians.

True: today tribes identify what constitutes membership.

But history tells us that membership and authenticity for indigenous North Americans were determined by those outside the tribe.

Politicians. Generals. Missionaries. Doctors.

And scientists.

Scientists reasoned that the amount of Indian blood—blood quantum—should signal who belongs and who doesn’t.

At one juncture one-quarter Indian blood constituted authenticity, according to scientists.

But the quantification of blood in your veins denies the agency of tribes. The Dine defines membership differently than the Sioux, which the scientists roundly ignored.

Authenticity was also decided serendipitously when Indian people were identified and counted for the government rolls.

Rolls would determine identity of tribal members who became eligible for land allotments.

Those who got counted got membership. Kiowa. Osage. Seminole.

But those who avoided the count never appeared on the rolls.

That’s why many Cherokee remained in Georgia, hidden, while their relatives were rounded up for the long march to Oklahoma in 1838.

Those who survived the Trail of Tears and relocated to Oklahoma are considered Cherokee by the federal government.

But those who remained at home spent years “proving” their authenticity before being accorded federal recognition by the US government.

The Cherokee were divided into Western and Eastern bands.

Against their will.

And their authenticity? It was determined by officials outside the tribe.

Blog #10 for Native American Heritage Month


About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. Dr. Coleman is an enrolled citizen of the Osage Nation.
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