Why so many people claim to be Cherokee—who aren’t—and why that matters

“Rose is A Rose is A rose is A rose.” Gertrude Stein’s famous line illustrates our propensity for collapsing words and images into universal meanings, identities that need no interpretation. When we see the word “rose,” she suggests, we picture the rose in our mind’s eye.

But a Cherokee rose is not just any rose. It is a specific kind of rose with a specific history. Native to China, and millions of years old, the Cherokee rose is a non-indigenous invasive species brought to America by the late 1700s, when invasive settlement into Cherokee territory by European colonists forced thousands of Cherokee people off their homeland.

The Cherokee rose was adopted as the official state flower of Georgia in 1915. The majority of Cherokee people were living in Oklahoma by then, nearly a century after the Trail of Tears, a merciless march prompted by the Indian Removal Act signed by President Andrew Jackson in 1830. Cherokee and other native people were pushed off their historical, sovereign land and forced to walk thousands of miles to the West—an estimated 4,000 starved and died along the way.

"Opal Gospel," in gallery G261 at Mia, by Robert Rauschenberg, who claimed a Cherokee grandmother.

“Opal Gospel,” in gallery G261 at Mia, by Robert Rauschenberg, who claimed a Cherokee grandmother.

By 1915, a strange phenomenon had become entrenched in the American psyche—and very much remains there today. Euro-Americans, of German or Irish or English descent, began imagining that they too were Cherokee—that there was some Cherokee blood in their lineage. Not Navajo or Potawatomi or Yuchi, but Cherokee. Usually a Cherokee grandmother.

Then, as now, many people were aware that Cherokee people belong to three sovereign nations with specific enrollment guidelines. This hasn’t mattered. Though the number of registered Cherokee tribal members today is around 300,000, nearly a million Americans claimed at least one Cherokee ancestor in the 2010 census. And over the decades the growing group of people who believe they have Cherokee roots has encompassed everyone from Johnny Cash to Johnny Depp, Dolly Parton to Cher, including some leading artists of our time: the groundbreaking assemblage artist Robert Rauschenberg, the geometric painter Leon Polk Smith, and, most recently, influential sculptor Jimmie Durham.

To claim Cherokee ancestry is not just to empathize with the Cherokee people’s history, but to literally claim a connection to it—to the ongoing struggles of the Eastern Cherokee communities and to the story of the Cherokee rose, after the Cherokee were pushed off their land. Along the Trail of Tears, Cherokee women were said to look behind them and weep. And their tears, according to legend, turned into Cherokee roses. That so few people truly connect with this perspective is one reason it’s often overlooked—a problem exacerbated by false claims that minimize this history’s importance.

At Mia, we are grappling with these issues of historical erasure and appropriation. Next time you visit, head up to our Charleston period rooms on the third floor, where we have installed exquisite works of Cherokee art and collaborated with Cherokee artists and community members to tell a story of colonial America that includes their perspective. Then stop by the Americas Galleries to see our re-installation of Rauschenberg’s Opal Gospel with responses from Cherokee artists and scholars.

As a complex, living system of citizenship, tribal enrollment is not a hunch, a wish, or even a personal decision. The Cherokee people decide who is Cherokee and who isn’t, and this has ensured that a unique culture, against all odds, has remained so. A Cherokee rose, after all, is not A rose is A rose is A rose.

Top image: Cherokee Portrait (Mike), 2013, by Shan Goshorn, an Eastern Cherokee tribal member. Three of her photographs of young Cherokee warriors, along with a basket she wove, are on view in Mia’s Charleston Dining and Drawings Rooms, as reimagined through the Living Rooms initiative.