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How does one define a “Native American”?

How does one define a “Native American”?

. . .  or should it be defined at all?

In response to extreme political pressure from the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma,  the Oklahoma Senate and House have passed HB 2261, which places restrictions far beyond those required by the federal government for labeling Native American art, artists and design professionals.   It is obviously the intent of all three Cherokee tribes to pressure the United State Congress next year to make the same changes. 

The Cherokees clearly have a problem with every Tom, Dick and Harry calling themselves Cherokee.   However, in ramming down their chosen solution to their problem on everyone else,  millions of United States citizens, carrying far more indigenous DNA than the typical Cherokee, will no longer be able to label themselves as such.

Keep in mind that perhaps 90% or more of immigrants to the United States from Mexico, Central America and Northwestern South America carry indigenous DNA.  Many of them come from ethnic groups, to whom the People of One Fire has traced the DNA, customs and words of the Creek, Seminole and Miccosukee Peoples. They are our relatives. 

In 1974,  Oklahoma adopted its American Indian Arts and Crafts Sales Act, whose almost exact wording became Congress’s Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990.  The original law was intended to be inclusive for all people of indigenous decent.  There were many thousands of legitimate “Indians” in Oklahoma, who were not members of a formally organized tribe, recognized by the federal government.

You see . . . in 1974,  the Muscogee-Creek Nation didn’t even exist,   but the Southeastern Creek Confederacy had formed in the Southeast and invited Oklahoma Creeks, Seminoles and Uchees to join in the alliance.  Unfortunately, they declined.  It was a lost opportunity to return the Muskogeans to their original positive influence on Native American affairs in the United States.  Even today, it is estimated that there are over 5,000 Creeks and Seminoles in Oklahoma, who are ineligible for federal recognition because their ancestors refused to sign the Dawes Rolls.

Both the original Oklahoma act and its federal copycat clearly favored members of federally-recognized tribes in the use of the title “American Indian”  in the arts and literature.    However, they leave an option of people, who were of at least partial indigenous ancestry, but for some reason or another, not eligible for membership in a federally recognized tribe, to still call themselves American Indian or Native American.

Non-federally recognized indigenous peoples could also use the label under certain conditions.  They could call themselves, American Indian or their own ethnic identity, if they were members of a state-recognized tribe,  one of the thousands of indigenous tribes in the Americas or a special ethnic group, such as the Uchee, that have a distinct tradition, different from the federally recognized tribe to which they were involuntarily assigned.

The situation in the Southeast is not nearly so straightforward as politicians and bureaucrats would have you believe.  Most of the Creeks and Uchees in eastern Georgia (including my ancestors) left the Creek Confederacy in the 1780s, when the half-breed Tory,  Alexander McGillivray, declared himself “Emperor of the Muskogees” and moved the Creek Capital from Koweta to Pensacola, Florida.  He then repeatedly dispatched armies of Upper Creeks, who had fought for the British, to attack Patriot Creeks in  Georgia.  Until I was in my twenties,  I thought that the Muskogees were originally the enemies of the real Creeks, who we eventually joined in a confederacy.

About 22,000 Creeks and Uchees in Georgia took state citizenship, when William McIntosh fraudulently gave away all Creek lands in Georgia.   However, during the Second and Third Seminole Wars, there were numerous pogroms in Georgia in which Creek families, who were citizens of that state, were illegally evicted from their farms.  All their livestock and possessions were seized by local judges and they were marched in chains to the nearest state line.

My immediate family lived on a Revolutionary veteran’s reserve and were protected by the Methodist Church.   However, several families to which I am closely related were unfortunately Baptists and Presbyterians.  After being evicted from Georgia, they eventually ended up in the Indian Territory, where federal agents assigned them to Choctaw Territory, even though they were of mixed Hitchiti-Uchee heritage.  Thus, today, theoretically, I could be a citizen of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, but not the Muskogee Creek Nation, because my great-grandparents refused to sign the Dawes Rolls.

There are hundreds of thousands of Southerners, perhaps millions, of legitimate Native American decent, whose stories are similar.  Their ancestors were scattered to the winds, yet they carry far more indigenous DNA today, than most federally recognized Cherokees in Oklahoma.  That leads us to a very important issue.


No,  this man on the upper left is not the author in his thirties, but a Kekchi Maya man from the Guatemalan Highlands.   On the lower left is a section of a photo of me at age 17 winning a track race.   I noticed many Kekchi Mayas in the highlands near the Guatemala-Belize border, who looked like my mother’s family.  Neither of us guys particularly  resemble Muskogees, Cherokees or Lakotas. Under the new proposed law, we could not call ourselves either Native American or American Indian. 

The hypocrisy of it all

So what defines a Native American or an American Indian?  It is a legal description as put forward in Oklahoma?   Is it blood quantum as pushed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs for 150 years?    Is a certain percentage of Asiatic DNA that defines an American Indian?  For that matter . . .  which American Indians?   Tribes with Algonquian. Siouan or Athabaskan features that one thinks of, when thinking “American Indian” or those like my ancestors, who built the stone-walled terraces in Georgia?

It is the ultimate in hypocrisy to allow people with Scotch-Irish/Sephardic Jewish features to label themselves Native Americans, because they are members of the Cherokee Nation, but putting MOWA Choctaws in jail for labeling their art, “Native American.”     That speaks for itself.

Some of the most famous families of the Muskogee Creek Nation are descended from 18th century French officers in Alabama or Scottish, Irish and Jewish Indian traders in Georgia, who married Creek women.   Does Congress need to create a separate legal category of “Semi-Creek?”

Blood quantum was a scam created by the US Bureau of Indian Affairs to make the indigenous peoples eventually disappear.  The concept was that by requiring tribal members to be 100%, 1/2 or 1/4 of that particular tribe,  intermarriage with other tribes and races would eventually mean that there was no tribe.

Blood quantum might be a legitimate measure of authenticity in the most remote regions of Canada and Alaska, but everywhere else,  the indigenous peoples began producing mixed-race offspring immediately after the newcomers arrived.  When the horrific European plagues wiped out 90-95% of the indigenous populations,  the mixed-race people had a much higher survival rate.  Remnants of tribes intermarried with each other.   Many tribes frequently raided enemies to obtain replacement children and wives.  Therefore, it is almost impossible to find a true “full-blooded” member of any tribe in the Continental United States.

DNA analysis is currently not what many of the commercial DNA labs make it out to be.  The science of genetics is changing rapidly.  What is true today might not be true tomorrow.

Last year, you would have been told that the Sammi (Lapps) of extreme northern Scandinavia had little or no Asiatic DNA.  Then geneticists discovered that all their DNA samples around the world had come from a Sammi tribe that had intermarried with Scandinavians and Finns for at least 2500 years.  When scientists took blood samples from Sammi tribes living in remote sections above the Arctic Circle and the mountains,  they turned out to have as much Asiatic DNA as most Native Americans.

Those Sammi are almost identical in appearance to the Uchee of the Southeastern United States.  That brings us to a final point.  There are “real Native Americans” whose ancestors probably did not come across the Bering Strait from Siberia . . . currently, the ultimate definition of what comprises an American Indian.

All of the Muskogean tribes agree with the Uchee (Euchee/Yuchi) that they were the oldest tribe in the Southeast.  There were indigenous peoples here much earlier, but they were gone when the Uchee arrived.  The Algonquians arrived earlier, but they were living to the north. The Uchee Migration Legend states that their ancestors came by boat from the Home of the Sun across the Atlantic and arrived in the vicinity of Savannah, Georgia.

Recent archaeological discoveries appear to confirm the Uchee’s version of history.   It has been discovered that there was a massive flood in Ireland, western France and western Spain around 2250 BC.   Most of the indigenous people of Ireland, aka the Black Irish*, either drowned or were forced to leave.

*The actual Archaic Gaelic word for “Black Irish” is Ciarraighe, which means “Brown-skinned People.”   The Ciarraighe had bronze skin, black hair and facial features not typical of Europeans today.

At the same time as this flood, the first pottery appeared in North America . . . Would you believe that it was made in the Savannah River Basin?   This time period also marks the appearance of shell rings and complex shell architecture on the South Atlantic Coast.  In the Georgia Mountains were created a network of petroglypic boulders that are identical to Bronze Age petroglyphic boulders on the Southwest Coast of Ireland and in Scandinavia.   The Germanic Scandinavians did not arrive in the region until the very late Bronze Age or perhaps the Early Iron Age.   They pushed the ancestors of the Sammi northward and out to sea.

Thus,  it appears that the oldest tribe in the Southeast was neither ethnically nor genetically “American Indian.”    Under the new Oklahoma law,  if a member of the Euchee Sub-tribe of the Muscogee-Creek Nation signs his or her art “Euchee” he or she could fined or sent to jail.    That is ridiculous.

A simple solution

Perhaps a better solution to the fake Native American art problem  is to require all items to be made by hand in the United States and provide artists an alternative of signing their creative works with their specific ethnic identity.  Thus, using Euchee,  MOWA Choctaw,  Koasati,  Maya, Aztec, Totonac, Taino,  Shipibo, etc. would be quite legal.   Bamboo flutes made in Thailand, but labeled “Authentic Cherokee,” would not be legal.

About the photo at the top

Mayamerchant2The hand-made ceramics above were some of those displayed during the last time I had a booth at the Southeastern American Indian Festival.  I decided to never have a booth there again after the bad experience.

Several car loads of North Carolina Cherokees showed up with amateurish drivel, labeled “Authentic Native American art made by the Cherokees” Two booths had large signs announcing that the Cherokees were the inventors of Swift Creek pottery.  Most of their art was fake Swift Creek pottery made by pouring black liquid Bakelite plastic into Georgia Swift Creek style molds that can be ordered off the internet.   The molds are then cooked in a home oven for about 20 minutes to make “authentic Native American art.” Some Cherokee booths also sold Bakelite copies of Proto-Creek shell gorgets from Alabama and Georgia. 

I guess that would be fine, except that the Cherokees began making trouble for everybody else. When visitors came to their booths, the Cherokees told them not to buy from the other artists because they were not real Indians.  When that didn’t work, the Cherokees went booth to booth, demanding to know if we were in a federally recognized tribe. I did not label my work Native American, since I was obviously a Native American. Nevertheless, the Cherokees targeted all of us members of Creek tribes in Alabama, Georgia and Florida, who were selling real art that made their stuff look like the junk that it was.

The rangers informed the Cherokees that all artists were invited and were members of legitimate tribes. They refused to close down our booths.  Under the new law, however, no one from Georgia, Florida or Alabama could have been allowed to sell our art there. No Poarch Creeks attended and the federally-recognized Seminoles were selling beautiful hand-made clothing. 

Politicians are being told about the very real problem of fake Cherokees, but are not being told about the pre-adolescent behavior of “real Cherokees”, when they among members of other tribes.  I could not imagine a worse situation than a federal law based on Oklahoma’s.  You will see North Carolina law firms being paid to harass and threaten all the state-recognized tribes in the Southeast.


Bubba Mountain Lion

A bonified member of the Jawja Mixed-Heritage Trash Tribe



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Richard Thornton is a professional architect, city planner, author and museum exhibit designer-builder. He is today considered one of the nation’s leading experts on the Southeastern Indians. However, that was not always the case. While at Georgia Tech Richard was the first winner of the Barrett Fellowship, which enabled him to study Mesoamerican architecture and culture in Mexico under the auspices of the Institutio Nacional de Antropoligia e Historia. Dr. Roman Piňa-Chan, the famous archaeologist and director of the Museo Nacional de Antropologia, was his fellowship coordinator. For decades afterward, he lectured at universities and professional societies around the Southeast on Mesoamerican architecture, while knowing very little about his own Creek heritage. Then he was hired to carry out projects for the Muscogee-Creek Nation in Oklahoma. The rest is history. Richard is the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the KVWETV (Coweta) Creek Tribe and a member of the Perdido Bay Creek Tribe. In 2009 he was the architect for Oklahoma’s Trail of Tears Memorial at Council Oak Park in Tulsa. He is the president of the Apalache Foundation, which is sponsoring research into the advanced indigenous societies of the Lower Southeast.



    your words are all correct, of course. I just experienced this (as a tourista ) yesterday at an event. A “Cherokee” had an art booth (painter) and of course with painted signs identifying himself as.
    He dressed somewhat as I see the eastern band people, but his work used symbols from all over the northern America continent, including the desert petroglyph images.

    I think the eastern Cherokees started this during the treaty of Hopewell. They drew up a new constitution with the influence of the white European leaders of this country. Among other things the new wording excluded citizenship of people who did not live on the new rez. (today… that is called “red lining” and of course illegal if they subjectively enforce the law).

    things are changing slowly… thanks to your satellite images, etc., .. thanks.


    The Cherokee are getting far to big for their britches!! Who are they to tell others who they are??? I have seen more white, blonde hair, and blue eyed Cherokee than in any other Tribe out there. And if they are tired of all the supposedly fake Cherokees how in the hell did they happen to find over 300,000 members??? When they have been restricted to the Reservation in Oklahoma and don’t include the membership of EBC, or UKB?? I say they are full of poop!!!


      I AGREE!


    Good work. Check paragraph 5 for puzzling use of word “illegible”.


    Hi Richard, I live in Blairsville and was hoping to talk to you about Track Rock and a place I found while hiking there that may be of interest to you. If you have time to email me I would be most appreciative. Have a great day!

    • Nathan,

      Yes, there are several stone architecture sites in Union County, GA. Most people don’t know that.


    Dear Bubba Mountain Lion,
    Please send me an application to join the Jawja Mixed Heritage Trash Tribe. I will be a proud member of that tribe seeing as how both side of my family have been in Jawja and the SE since the 1600’s.
    I’m sure an indian or two got in the wood pile some where during that time to enhance the european blood in my family, so I should be eligible for membership.
    Thank you,
    Schlomo Turtle Racer Lipshitz

    • Actually, we’ve gotten something cooking . . . a Creek Reservation in West Georgia!


      Somehow I think that you applying to the Jawja tribe would be like Lucy Liu applying to be of Chinese descent


    My husband’s mother was born on a reservation in Oklahoma 1934 and has no birth certificate. She can’t claim her heritage because of this. Therefore, neither can my children. You are right when you say there are many “Native Americans” who aren’t “allowed” to claim their heritage. And yet, when I speak to other tribes outside of Cherokee, they tell me that even one drop of Native blood makes a person part of their tribal family. They aren’t nearly as hung up about it. It frustrates me, only for my children’s sakes. I am one of the very few in the USA (my ancestors came in the 1700s) who has absolutely no Native American DNA (which shocked me — I was always told we had some; however, I wonder if they will discover some of my other haplo groups as Native American later because I have some strange mixes of Middle Eastern and European). My husband looks the absolute Native American/Scottish that he is. His people come from Newman’s Ridge. His folks were considered Melungeon (on his dad’s side) and his mom is the Cherokee. But these Cherokee have rejected her completely. Not right.

    • We are forming a major Creek tribe in West and North Georgia. Your family will be welcome.


        Richard, thanks for the invitation. We’d be honored!


      ” I have some strange mixes of Middle Eastern and European”

      Makes you Cherokee doesn’t it?


    Birth certificates were not something either side of my family thought were important. Nor was registering for much of anything. My great aunt thought my light honey colored hair was the most wonderful thing. She used to tell me I would never be called a dirty Injun and to never admit different.
    No one in my family has ever had a DNA test, and I doubt sincerely ever would.
    I meet plenty of Apple Indian Tribe brothers up in NC, around Asheville. They sneered at the mere suggestion of any Native heritage I might have. Apples = bright red on the outside, whiter than snow inside with rotten spots included….
    So yes, I get it too.
    But the joke doesn’t have to be on us…..
    Thanks for this.


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