According to the 2010 Census, more than five million people in the U.S. claimed some form of indigenous identity, either alone or in combination with other races. However, who counts as Native American has been a complex and highly contested question that comes with serious implications.

The Cherokee Syndrome

In particular, racial self-identification has become the breeding ground for the “Cherokee Syndrome” – white Americans identifying as Native American, especially Cherokee, without valid proof. The appropriation of Cherokee identity propagates problematic racial ideologies, which eventually marginalizes indigenous culture and promotes universal whiteness.

One of the most recent controversies concerning the claim of Cherokee identity was the instance of Elizabeth Warren – the Senator had long identified family origins in the Cherokee and Delaware tribes and took a DNA test to fend off disputes about her ancestry, a move she later apologized for.

The attempt to register for a race or ethnicity through blood not only “reinforces the white supremacist notion of race”, but it is also deeply ignorant to the multilayered question of what defines Cherokee identity. The question of how much native blood qualifies one as native, and if the basis of blood should be a measure at all has been the subject of heated debate.

The “one-drop rule” is most widely used in a discriminatory context, that “one drop of black blood was enough to make a person black.” In the context of Cherokee Nation, having even a little Native blood is valuable commodity that ensures “political identity, voting rights as a Cherokee citizen, and access to a variety of economic resources.”

Although federal requirement of blood degree varies from time to time, “seventy percent of tribal constitutions now contain a blood quantum rule.” For someone like Elizabeth Warren, who is somewhere between 1/64th and 1/1024th Cherokee, to be named the first minority woman to receive tenure at Harvard is an exploitation of the Cherokee community, to say the least.

On the other hand, in his book A Race or a Nation? Cherokee National Identity and the Status of Freedmen’s Descendants, S. Alan Ray points out that employing blood as basis for Native American race works against cultural identification. “For almost 150 years, the Cherokee Nation has included not only citizens that are Cherokee by blood, but also citizens who have origins in other Indian nations and/or African and/or European ancestry.

Many of these citizens are mixed race, and a small minority of these citizens possesses no Cherokee blood at all.” Although cultural identification is deemed too subjective to establish a legal standing, Kim Tallbear, a faculty of Native Studies at the University of Alberta, sees it as “a form of racism” to claim Native American heritage solely based on a DNA test or having an ancestor among those founding populations.

Similarly, Chuck Hoskin Jr., the secretary of state of the Cherokee Nation stated that “for most Native Americans, culture and kinship is what creates tribal membership – not blood.”

European Ancestry and Racial Self-Identification

More broadly speaking, identifying as mostly white and Cherokee, a statement that has become increasingly common with the popularity of DNA tests for ancestry, ultimately emphasizes whiteness. For instance, in 2017, the “Your Skin, Your Story” L’Oréal ad campaign aimed to promote diversity; Blake Lively opened with a monologue: “My name is Blake Lively. I’m from Southern California. I’m English, Irish, German, and Cherokee. So my family is sort of from all over.”

The characterization of mostly European ancestry and a casual mentioning of Cherokee heritage solidified her image as a white American with almost “pure” European roots whilst also capitalizing on Cherokee identification. 

Scholars caution that new strategies to assign racial recognition may form new ways to assert white superiority. In the article Rhetoric, Race, and Resentment: Whiteness and the New Days of Rage, Professor Meta Carstarphen at the University of Oklahoma and others point out that “By identifying multiethnic, yet [white] European roots, [white] heritage becomes ‘an anchoring point for an American identity’,” which facilitates the notion of Americanness as white property.

The act of taking on Indian American identity without valid proof signifies whiteness in our contemporary society. By now, “Cherokee Syndrome” has become the hallmark for ignorant white Americans.

The instances of Elizabeth Warren and Blake Lively are not singular occurrences of individuals elevating whiteness in the act of passing as indigenous or a minority in general. Imposters such as Grey Owl and Tim Barrus, white men with fake tribal identities, conform to stereotypical images of Native Americans.

Grey Owl promoted preserving the nature and the wild, and Barrus took on an Indian-sounding name “Nasdijj”.

In his book Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News, award-winning poet Kevin Young comments that such hoaxes mirror what “white audiences came to expect in representations of indigenous people” – uncivilized, sometimes aggressive, and completely immersed in indigenous culture.

Ironically, in analyzing the Cherokee syndrome, University of Texas anthropologist Circe Sturm finds the claim of Cherokee identity partly as an escape from white guilt. She explains that “Whiteness is responsible for indigenous dispossession and the lack of societal connection that characterizes modernity.”

David Cornsilk, historian and genealogist, and citizen of the Cherokee Nation and the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee, also explores how whiteness factors into the Cherokee Syndrome. Cornsilk describes a pursuit for a sense of belonging: “They hunger for it. But rather than going back and finding their own tribe — Ireland, England, France or Germany — they want a connection to this continent.”

Whether it is out of ignorance or white guilt, how the Cherokee syndrome encroaches upon indigenous representation and promotes whiteness should not go undetected. As Kevin Young reminds us, “there’s a long-standing American tradition of whites donning black face, or redskins, or any other colored mask they pretend is a face.”

Just like the infamous case of Rachel Dolezal, where a “blackfaced person always occupies a bigger public stage than a Black one,” when it comes to the Cherokee syndrome, self-proclaimed ethnic whites enjoy unparalleled visibility, while representations of people who truly understand and have a connection to Cherokee culture and history are sidelined.