Are Cherokee People, People of Color?

Claims of membership in a People of Color group are central to a lot of how we now live in America.  This is not simply a matter of being disadvantaged. Americans of Hindu, Carribean and Hispanic descent are among the countries most successful immigrant communities. The issue, however, becomes a legal matter when the government gives benefits based on status as a person of color.

This business of “People of Color” is infecting our politics Donald Trump went after Senator Warren because she claims (correctly) to have a Cherokee ancestor. Now Donald Jr. is going after Senator Harris as not being black because her mother was Hindu.  Our local Congresswoman, Pramila Jayapoal, identifies as a “person of color” even though she emigrated here from a highly privileged class in India and people like her are perhaps the most successful immigrants America has ever seen.

(based on an article in The Seattle Times) Two years ago, when the mayor’s office in St. Louis announced a $311,000 contract to tear down an old shoe factory, it made a point of identifying the demolition company as minority-owned.  The well-intended contract came in response to the 2014 fatal police shooting of Michael Brown, an African American 18-year-old.

The problem starts with the fact that the owner of the company is nit African American.  Mr. Bill Buell claims to be Cherokee.  Comparing Cherokee to African American seems a bit far fetched but aside from that the owner, a Mr. Bill Buell, does not have legal status as a Cherokee.  He is not enrolled as a member of the Cherokee tribe and his ancestors have been identified as white in government records.

Wait a minute and think.  Do we require African Americans to prove their ancestry? Matt Ghio, an attorney who represents Mr. Buell, argued that requiring Mr. Buell to prove his ancestry was unconstitutional. St. Louis has now decided to put the decertification of Bell’s company on hold pending the filing of a lawsuit.

Buell’s case is not an outlier. A new report shows that  $100s of millions in contracts awarded by the federal government under minority contracting programs have gone to companies whose owners made unsubstantiated claims of being Native American.

The most common tribal identity is Cherokee.  12 of the 14 business owners involved claimed membership in one of three self-described Cherokee groups that have no government recognition and are considered illegitimate by recognized tribes.

The criteria for being “Cherokee” are unclear.  Many Americans from the Carolinas to Oklahoma have stories of having as Cherokee ancestor.  The Cherokee themselves have been so well intertwined with the majority that during the Civil War they fought under the rebel flag and the last general to surrender to the Union was a Cherokee.

These genetic ties to the Cherokee may not appear in the census, birth, marriage or other government records and the people who claim this heritage are usually not enrolled in the official tribal peoples.

The hypocrisy is infecting the very real needs of Americans disadvantaged by bigotry.  I have no way of knowing whether Mr. Buell has ever identified as Cherokee before applying for this benefit.  Even if he can show descent by DNA, that does not prove his ancestry has harmed his ability to succeed in the US. On the other hand, perhaps like Elizabeth Warren’s heritage, this claim is just based on a family tradition.  Has Mr. Buell, like Mrs. Warren, ever shown pride in his ancestry?

The same issues deeply infect Trump’s border policies.  He has demonized immigrants for speaking Spanish.  Speaking Spanish is not a matter of race.  Senators Rubio and Cruz have never suffered discrimination. The Castro brothers are themselves prime examples of how well America can advantage immigrants.  Yet, the bigotry shown by Trump and his supporters is very real.


1 Comments Add Yours ↓

  1. Mark Adans #

    It is complicated because native Americans have a special and complicated relationship under the US Constitution. They are unique because tribes claim to be sovereign nations. As such they can determine who is a member. Those members can include folks who are white, black, ect purely based on biology, but not tribal traditions. There are also those who are not considered members of a particular tribe.
    In addition the Cherokee is among the more successful of the sovereign nations. They are not the richest, but they are the largest and have long been the civilized tribe.

    There is more to the story than just that in St Louis see the following article:

    And this is small potatoes when you start to consider the implications and unintended consequences of reparations for slavery.

    Fortunately there is a level of corruption here as there is something to steal.

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