Indian tribes watch out for Princess Wanna-bes

NATIONAL CLOSEUP

November 22, 1992|By Ben Winton | Ben Winton,Phoenix Gazette

PHOENIX -- The U.S. Census Bureau announced last wee that Cherokees are the largest Indian tribe in the United States.

But the results, which tribes expected based on preliminary estimates, only reinforce what many already knew: There are plenty of Indian "wanna-bes" out there.

In fact, the Census Bureau counted a group of Cherokees that neither tribal leaders nor the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs has ever heard of -- Echota Cherokees.

"I don't know what this Echota thing is," said Lynn Howard, communications director of the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma.

Tribal members often have to stifle laughter when a tourist claims to have a grandmother who was a Cherokee princess, she said.

Cherokees never had princesses, she said.

"We get thousands of letters a week from people who are convinced they are Cherokee," Ms. Howard said.

Government figures indicate that 308,132 people claimed in the 1990 census to be Cherokee.

In Window Rock, Ariz., headquarters of the Navajo Nation, that is no laughing matter.

Navajo and Cherokee leaders agree that the Navajo tribe officially is the largest in the United States, with enrollment of about 219,000.

Cherokee leaders say they have an enrollment of about 145,000. But the Census Bureau says the Navajos are the second-largest tribe, with 219,198 people claiming membership.

"The feds always get things wrong," said Duane Beyal, spokesman for the Navajo Nation, which covers four states and is roughly the size of West Virginia.

The Census Bureau is sticking by its figures, which for the first time in 1990 counted the actual number of people claiming to be Indian and broke it down by tribe, said Edna Paisano, a senior statistician. In previous decades, the bureau estimated tribal populations based on a random sample, she said.

Overall, the bureau counted 1,878,285 people who identified themselves as American Indians. That is 511,609 more than 1980's count of 1,366,676 -- nearly a 38 percent increase.

In Alabama, the number of people claiming to be Indian skyrocketed by 118 percent. In Arizona, the number rose by 33 percent in a decade.

Natural growth cannot account for the huge leaps, Ms. Paisano said.

It may be more fashionable, and profitable, to claim Indian heritage, she and Ms. Howard said.

"There is a legitimate increase, and we attribute that to general awareness and pride," said Ms. Howard, whose tribe has tripled its official enrollment in 10 years. "But also the general economy has forced a lot of people to apply for membership strictly for services."

Indians also have become popular again because of such movies as the award-winning "Dances with Wolves," which critics applauded for its sensitivity to the Sioux culture, Ms. Howard said. Census officials ranked the Sioux Indians as the fourth most populous tribe, with 103,255 claiming such heritage.

The Lumbee of North Carolina have no federal recognition or land base, but are the ninth most populous Indian group with 48,444 individuals, according to the census.

Ms. Paisano said it is important to note that census figures represent only what people claim as their heritage.

Tribal governments, on the other hand, are like an exclusive club. They, not the U.S. government, have sole authority to determine who becomes a member.

As a result, their membership numbers may be different.

"Each tribe sets its own criteria for membership," said Tom Garrett, a spokesman for the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington. "Some have fairly stringent blood-quantum requirements, [such as] half-blood or greater. Several have quarter-blood requirements."

Cherokees have no blood-quantum requirements. Leaders grant enrollment to anyone who can claim direct descent from the membership rolls of the Dawes Commission, which the U.S. government created at the turn of the century to decide membership.

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