Becoming a Tribal Citizen
Dec 11, 2019
By The Rev. Justin Johnson, pastor at Our Saviour Evangelical Lutheran Church, Croton-On-Hudson
In September 2019, I became a citizen of the Cherokee Nation. It had been a long journey to that point, but it was a joyous day when it happened. It had been a 2 year journey of research and paperwork, but in reality it had been a lifetime.
I have always known I was a Cherokee Native through my father, but in order to fully understand why this may not have mattered to the Nation, there are a few items one should know up front.
The first is many people will claim to have some kind of Native heritage in their family tree, usually a great grandmother. Sadly, 85-90% of those people are incorrect and will have no heritage whatsoever. It is a myth which has lead some of the tribes to be more protective than normal of who can apply for membership.
The second item of note is the Cherokee Nation does not accept DNA testing as evidence of tribal heritage. The controversy with Senator Elizabeth Warren and the Cherokee Nation was over this point. She had used a DNA test site to show her heritage and the Nation rejected those findings.
The final item was more personal. No matter how many times I said I was Native to people, there was always doubt. The usual response was “you don’t look Native” to which I would usually reply “what does a Native look like?” It wouldn’t matter though, I simply wasn’t believed even though I would bring up Native Christianity, talk about tribal issues, and lift up Native culture. I was white, so I couldn’t be Native in most people’s eyes.
Knowing these two items helps explain why, even though I knew I was a Cherokee, it involved a lot of work to get to the point of applying for Nation citizenship. I have white skin, was claiming heritage, and only had a DNA test to back up my claims. From the Nation perspective, I was a prime candidate to be rejected on the phone.
This is where the fun began. To be considered to be Cherokee, one must find relatives on the Dawes Rolls. These are the rolls kept of Natives who were forced from their homes to settle in Oklahoma during what is called The Trail of Tears. The Rolls were started after the settlement in 1893 and were finalized in 1914 after their initial closing in 1907. Blood quantum levels, marriages, births, and freedmen (former slaves) were all categories used to consider individuals part of the Nation. The rolls are the sole way of being considered for enrollment.
I found my great grandfather and great grandmother, who were both infants at the time, on the rolls and their parents. While searching for them, I began to learn my family’s story through this research. I found when the “Johnson” name was introduced, I learned how many “Littlejohns,” “Dirt Eaters,” and other Cherokee language names there were. My history began to open up.
My mother and father had divorced when I was 2, so I never got this firsthand history from him, but learned a lot through my mother. It was eye opening to see this history begin to come to life. I learned how much of my family died because they were Natives and for no other reason. All those cowboy and Indian movies began to change for me as the hero would randomly shoot the Indian because they were the bad guys for wanting to keep their land. My grandfather was killed, for example, after returning from service in the war and his killers were never found and there was no investigation. He was drowned on a farm and looked as if “several men had attacked him.” Parts of my life and heritage were becoming real.
Once I found my great grandfather, I had to start obtaining official copies of death and birth certificates. I had to get a long form of my birth certificate to show the lineage, which if you were born in Brooklyn as I was, is a chore in and of itself. Then the application process began.
First, I connected with some Cherokee citizenship groups on Facebook to ask about the process and ask questions. This wasn’t an easy task. As I would learn by staying with those groups, there are hundreds if not thousands of people who begin asking about citizenship through these groups because of the myth stated earlier. When they are found to have no heritage, these individuals will often fight with the administrators because they are sure they have heritage because they were told so their entire life. To restate 85-90% of these claims are false.
Hesitantly, the administrators of the group started looking into my history. A few days went by before I got a message sent to me from an admin- “You don’t know how rare it is to find someone with real Native heritage. Welcome to the Nation, cousin.” This of course was not an official declaration, but it meant my application would be looked at and actually processed. Most Natives are related to one another, hence the “cousin.”
To shorten the 2.5 year application process, it took another 6 months to get everything processed and then out of the blue a card came from the US government’s Department of Indian Affairs. It was my blood quotient card, which even though it is an outdated source, it is STILL what is used by the US government to determine Native heritage.
A week letter, the letter I had been waiting for arrived. A citizenship card with a welcome letter from the Nation’s chief was enclosed. My lifetime journey was complete. I felt validated and my life was now complete.