If you are not born into a Native culture, everyone has to start somewhere. Even if you have a Native ancestor, regardless of how close they may be in your family genealogy, but the culture is not practiced in your immediate family, you will still find yourself adrift from those roots. And, as the familial links to that Native ancestor die off, your chances of cultivating any meaningful connection to those Native roots die with them.
Thus, the seeker invariably finds themselves searching for any person or resource that can reestablish those links. Most seekers are operating from the knowledge that there is an individual in their family genealogy who is alleged to be a Native. Laughably, that individual has often been inflated in the family history into a chief or a princess. Yet most often, the actual tribal identity is not firmly established; hence the vast proliferation of Cherokee grandmothers and Blackfeet progenitors. And so the journey begins.
There is a maxim that prevails in the hobbyist scene that asserts: “If you have one drop of Native blood in you, you are Native”. Hardly anyone knows that that maxim is borrowed from the legacy of racial segregation in the United States, perhaps made most famous by the work of Thomas Plecker in Virginia. It was coined to be an instrument of exclusion, not inclusion.
Nevertheless, the starting point for most hobbyists is one of demanding admission to the Native community. We have the ancestry, so we ought to be able to celebrate our heritage alongside those who were factually born into that ethnicity and culture. Skin color and actual cultural identity are irrelevant.
Most times, lacking the knowledge or means to access individuals who actually live in the culture we wish to assimilate into, we join ourselves to any local group of hobbyists we can locate, to find an entry point into our Native identity.
Most hobbyist groups are intertribal, whether they choose to acknowledge that or not. They are often a cult of personality, being founded and dominated by a singular individual or a very small group of like-minded individuals. And they are usually a quagmire of unreliable information for the sincere seeker.
Nevertheless, they defy anyone to deny their right to self-identify as Native and they teach the members to do the same. Native identity is conferred on any who seek it, regardless of how tenuous their link to the Native culture and ethnicity. Everything goes smoothly until you are challenged by an actual Native person.
It is generally incumbent on the individual to establish their actual genealogical claim to their Native identity. And you may stand on that as long as you can. But, invariably, you will encounter someone who will discount your claim because it isn’t close enough to give you any substantial blood quantum.
And here’s the reality. If your ancestor was more than 3 generations up the family tree, you don’t really qualify for anything except to celebrate that you have a Native heritage. And you probably will not be able to prove the ethnicity of that ancestor from census data; you are almost certainly relying on oral family history.
So you stake your claim. But sooner or later, you will be challenged, unless you are content to sit quietly in a corner and console yourself that you have a Native heritage. But, isn’t the point to proudly wear your Native identity for the world to see? To learn and proudly share your knowledge of your ancestral culture? And here is where you will run into trouble.
There will be a moment when you will encounter someone who knows something about the culture you are assimilating yourself into. And chances are, they will challenge your knowledge and your origins. Then you will have a choice; you can admit that you don’t know much and may have been misinformed, or you can become adamantly stubborn. And the more comfortable you have become with your Native identity, the more likely you are to become stubborn.
And loud. You will reiterate and assert your right to claim a place in the Native community to any who will listen. It will become a mantra for you. You will exert whatever logic you can muster to bolster your claim. You will be adamant and unyielding, hoping to wear the opposition down with your tenacity.
Then, when the opposition becomes fierce enough, for those of us who tend to lead with our jaw, you will eventually resort to trying to “out-Indian the Indians”. You hit the books and learn as much as you can about your adopted culture. You may even try to learn the language (you may even succeed). If you can be a better Indian than your Native detractors, they will have to accept you, right?
Nevertheless, if you can learn to be honest with yourself, you will reach a day when you have to admit that you have no real claim to a Native identity. Your Cherokee ancestor is a nice conversation piece, but they could not bequeath their culture to you. You were not born into the culture and you will likely never truly assimilate it. You are, as the saying goes, neither wolf nor dog.
So, in the end, you must retire your claim to belong and return to the culture of your birth. Or admit that you are a hobbyist, an enthusiast, and try to fit in where you can; where you are permitted. Curiously, that can become the point at which doors may be opened for you to begin a further journey.