150 years ago, being of Cherokee blood was usually something to hide, especially if you were trying to assimilate into white society. Being associated with any American Indian group usually meant discrimination, persecution, and ultimate removal from your home and being forced to move to an unfamiliar region.
However today, being able to prove your Cherokee ancestry has become something to be proud of, sought after, and worn as a badge of honor. And this is good! For those whose heritage is enhanced by how long their families have been in America, how impressive to be descended from those people who were already in America when any European or African people arrived! Author/actor/humorist Will Rogers, who was of Cherokee ancestry, once said, “My ancestors didn’t come over on the Mayflower, but they met the boat.” (http://www.willrogers.com/says/will_says.html accessed 28 August 2013)
In many ways, tracing your Cherokee genealogy is much like any family research, but in other ways is more of a challenge. Traditional family features like surnames, written records, individual land ownership and others were unfamiliar to the Indian culture in this country until Europeans came to the shores of America. In early Cherokee society, family lines were traced through the mother’s family, and many times the lines between cousins and siblings was blurred. Many times, “relatives” were “adopted” into Cherokee families with no blood relation.
Before beginning to trace your Cherokee ancestry, first ask yourself, “Why?.” Is it to provide documentation for enrollment in a tribe or band? Do you just want to prove that “Great Grandpa Was a Cherokee Chief” or just a family legend or wishful thinking? Documenting your family history to the extent required for membership is preferable, whether you seek that membership or not. The official government documentation required can sometimes be the “mother lode” of genealogical information for that branch of your family tree.
There are three Cherokee groups or bands recognized by the Federal Government. Each one has different requirements for membership or citizenship, and these requirements do change on occasion. All three require that you have an ancestor on a particular Cherokee census or roll. These rolls are readily accessible in print and/or on the web. The following lists these three groups/bands with the roll required for membership and the website for each group’s membership requirements.
The Cherokee Nation (Oklahoma)
Ancestor must be listed on the Dawes Final Roll.
Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians
Ancestor must be listed on the 1924 Baker Roll of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.
United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians in Oklahoma
Ancestor must be listed on the 1949 Base Roll.
If you are lucky enough to find your ancestor on a Cherokee roll, don’t assume you will automatically be granted membership – there are usually other requirements to meet, one being you must document your descent from that ancestor. And, if you can’t find your ancestor on one of these rolls, don’t give up. That doesn’t necessarily mean you are not of Cherokee ancestry, just that your ancestors were never enrolled. They could have been simply missed or they could have wanted no involvement with the white man’s government. In any case, they were most likely not anxious to let their Indian ancestry be known, therefore making it even more difficult to discover it decades later. Finding an ancestor on a Cherokee roll is an excellent discovery, even if you have no interest in official membership in a tribe or band. Otherwise, traditional genealogy methods should be pursued in your family research until you “stumble across” some hint of a Native American ancestor.