Issues Affecting American Indians in Tennessee
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American Indians in Tennessee government volunteer service
TN Archaeological Advisory Council
mandated 3 Native American representatives
  • Michael Lynch, West Tennessee (2008-12)
         member, Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma
  • Pat Cummins, Middle Tennessee (2004-08)
         descendant, Cherokee
  • Mark Cantrell, Middle Tennessee (2010-14)
         unknown tribal affiliation
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    of Native American ancestry

  • Brent A. Cox (2008-2012)
    444 Cades Atwood Road
    Milan, Tennessee 38358

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    Greene (CNO) v. TCIA   filed 30 June 2010
    Commission terminated     30 June 2010

    Issues Affecting American Indians in Tennessee

    Issues Affecting American Indians in Tennessee
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    The difference between “Indians” and “citizens”

    By Cedric Sunray

    “There are two basic methods by which man can feed his ego and make himself seem important. One is by genuine accomplishment. The other is by making a second party appear inferior…This is the root cause of bigotry and can occur in the most learned of men, when circumstances are such that ethics can be conveniently shunted aside. Politics…can create these circumstances.” (When the Great Spirit Died: The Destruction of the California Indians 1850-1860; William B. Secrest)

    The 800 pound gorilla in the room these days is what few will venture to speak about due to political ramifications, fear of offending their neighbor or friend, or in protection of their descendant tribe’s sovereignty. You see, citizens and Indians are not the same. An Indian is someone who comes from an identifiable Indian community or one whose parent or parents come from one. For the most part, they tend to have the physicality of an Indian person and thus a history of receiving discrimination within their lives or the lives of their families. They have knowledge of their culture that wasn’t presented to them in book form. You can’t become an Indian by deed or participation in Indian ceremonials or churches later on in life. You can’t become one by gaining advanced degrees in American Indian Studies or by teaching such courses at the university level. You can’t become one by serving on national Indian boards or being appointed or elected to positions within tribal nations or national organizations. And you definitely cannot become one or attempt to be perceived as one by omitting key facts.

    This leads us to citizens. The Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma’s tribal citizenship is primarily made up of white people with some minor descent from an Indian individual many generations prior whose name can be found on the Dawes Roll. They are not Cherokee Indians. They are Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma citizens. The majority of these have lived their lives as white people and have been involved fully in mainstream American life far removed from the traditional Cherokee Indian communities of Northeastern Oklahoma. From within these communities come Cherokee Indians, though much smaller in number in comparison to white Cherokee citizens, who are also citizens of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. Their history and experiences are much different then the white people with whom they share citizenship.

    When citizens with minimal Indian blood form organizations whose intent it is to discredit others, it is laughable at best. The majority of those involved in the so-called Cherokee Task Force are of minimal Indian ancestry, are not married to Cherokees and do not speak Cherokee. It is the irony of all ironies. They are citizens, not Indians. Of course there is one or two identifiable Cherokee Indians within their midst in order to attempt to bring legitimacy to their group. One of the Task Force members used to be enrolled in the Cherokees of Northeast Alabama. This very tribe, she now views as “wannabes” after gaining CNO citizenship rights. Others on the Task Force dip into blood quantum figures hovering as low as 1/256. Would you consider a black or Hispanic person of 1/256 black or Hispanic ancestry black or Hispanic? If you were of this ancestry would you walk into either of these communities and attempt to have them recognize you as such or take up a leadership role in their midst? The answer for most, is no. They would show you the door as quickly as you arrived. Would you define an Indian member of your community as someone who through a genealogical record discovered they had a minute trace of ancestry in common with you 200 years prior? The answer for most Indians again is no. One of the Task Force members claims on her own personal website that her paternal grandparents are “undocumented Cherokee and Choctaw”. That is funny because her view of undocumented people is that they are not Indian or citizens, so why would she include this on her site? It defies reason, as does this witch hunt.

    What this phenomenon of creating an “Indian image” off of a minority of Indians within a tribe of 300,000 tribal members should be called is “Living off the Core”. Due to the fact that the majority of mainstream Americans are not fully knowledgeable about Indian issues and histories, it is easy to present an image of legitimacy, when in reality, taxpayers, including myself, are paying for the health services, college tuition assistance, small business loans, low interest home loans and other financial incentives accessible to citizens of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, who until more recently, were mostly our white neighbors. As crazy as this may sound, it is legal reality. However, their participation in life as Indians is legal fiction. Social reality always trumps legal fictions in Indian Country.

    For instance, I am not an Indian. While I am an enrolled band member of a federally recognized Ojibwa First Nation in Ontario, Canada (Wabaseemoong Independent Nations) and an enrolled citizen of the state recognized MOWA Band of Choctaw Indians in Alabama, I am neither an Ojibwa Indian or Choctaw Indian. My minor Cherokee ancestry also does not make me a Cherokee Indian in any way, shape or form. Though the vast majority of the enrollment in these two tribal communities of whom I am enrolled are physically and culturally identifiable as Indian, I am not. Descent does not equate to being an Indian. Citizenship does not equate to being an Indian. The Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma using the term sovereignty to justify highly liberal and questionable enrollment procedures is called omitting the facts. Sit down with the majority of Indians across Oklahoma and ask them their views on the majority of the CNO’s membership and see what they say. Let’s just say….it is a little harsh.

    I was raised in a predominantly black and Hispanic community in South Florida far from my mother’s home in Ontario and my father’s home in Alabama. I am physically identifiable as white and was raised without any strong attachment to my Indian traditions. Only since the age of eighteen have I been fully involved in Indian Country. At the age of 35, I have spent more years outside of Indian Country than within Indian Country. This is typical of many members of the Task Force and others who attack others tribal identities. States like Pennyslvania and other “hotbeds” of Cherokee activity are where they were raised, yet they are now the self-appointed decision makers as to who is and who is not Indian? Some will claim to be from Oklahoma, but ask them if they are from an identifiable Cherokee community in Oklahoma and that façade falls quickly.

    What members of the Task Force want is for Indian Country to mold itself into something that fits their standards and worldviews. The Task Force has no say as to who is Indian, who is or who is not Cherokee, or who or who is to be viewed as a tribal citizen by any other tribal nation other than the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. They have no say as to the legitimacy of state recognition or federal recognition. While my dad’s Choctaw people from Alabama were being sent to all Indian boarding schools such as Bacone and Haskell, 80% of the current citizenship of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma had never heard of an Indian boarding school, unless they were the white administrator or teacher working at one. White citizens of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma acting as Indian professors in academia, acting as experts on Indian issues, voting to remove Cherokee Freedmen who have been historically discriminated against, joining an Indian identity “Task Force”, etc. are the true definition of cultural appropriation. If they want to be accurate in their portrayal of themselves than they will admit to not being Indians, but rather being the citizens that they are. Sovereignty is being used as a smoke screen to turn social fictions into legal realities. The “Task Force” and its friends are attempting to turn a predominantly non-Indian tribe into the voice of Indian Country when it comes to identity issues. Even the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma has shown what they truly believe to be a Cherokee Indian by mandating for years a ¼ blood degree requirement on those participating in the Miss Cherokee pageant. If they truly thought that citizens were Indians, there would be no need for this requirement. You see all of this makes “sense”, as the Director of the Office of Federal Acknowledgment within the Bureau of Indian Affairs, whose “responsibility” it is to decide who is a “legitimate” or “illegitimate” Indian tribe is a non-identifiable Cherokee citizen raised in Maryland. Now I am not trying to downplay the effects of non-Indians misrepresenting themselves as Indians. Of course, this is reprehensible behavior and should be discussed and responded to. Even so, Indian identity is not as black and white (oops, no pun intended to those who oppose the Freedmen) as members of the Task Force attempt to present it . There is a large area of gray. But why hunt all over the country for those they view as fake Indians, when all they have to do is go down to their tribal enrollment office and select from over 200,000 files already accessible? The goal of a tribal citizen should be to assist their tribal community where needed in a sincere, meaningful and progressive way and to be grateful to those Indian people who appreciate their contribution to their tribal nation. In essence, to become a sincere citizen and not try to insult Indian people by playing Indian. Careful, the 800 pound gorilla in the room is starting to wake up.

    Cedric Sunray is a full-time language instructor who has worked as a teacher at the pre-school, elementary, middle school, high school and university level for 12 years. He formerly resided in Tahlequah, Oklahoma with his family and taught Cherokee language at Tahlequah High School and Rogers State University. His oldest child attended the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma Language Immersion School. It was during this time that he learned of the social reality within the CNO.

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