“I am not Cherokee. I am not an American Indian.” —Jimmie Durham,
“Letters: Identities Clarified?,” Art in America 81, no. 7 (July 1993), 23.
Unfortunately, unsubstantiated claims of Jimmie Durham being Cherokee, Native American, and a Person of Color have not abated over the years, and his retrospective At the Center of the World and its accompanying catalogue have brought these to the fore. Here are some basic facts and resources to further discussion on the matter.
There are three Cherokee tribes. Each tribe determines its own membership criteria, not the federal government.
- Cherokee Nation, headquartered in Tahlequah, OK | website | constitution | enrollment criteria: direct lineal descent from a Cherokee by Blood or Cherokee Freedman listed on the Dawes Roll
- Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, headquartered in Cherokee, NC | website | constitution | enrollment criteria: direct lineal descent from the 1924 Baker Roll and a minimum blood quantum of 1/16.
- United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians in Oklahoma, headquartered in Tahlequah, OK | website | constitution | enrollment criteria: minimum 1/4 degree of blood quantum from the 1949 UKB Base Roll.
No Cherokee tribe has a one-drop rule. Cherokees are possibly the best documented ethnic group in the United States.
While Jimmie Durham has listed his birthplace as Nevada County, Arkansas (Benally 196, Swann and Krupat n.p.) and Washington, Hempstead County, Arkansas (McAdams, Hobson, and Walkiewicz 303; Johansen 110; Power 218), in fact, Jimmie Bob Durham was born July 10, 1940 in Harris, Texas (a suburb of Houston) to Jerry Loren Durham (April 21, 1906–March 10, 1985) and Ethel Pauline Simmons (August 10, 1915–January 23, 1990).
[Several individuals had occasionally looked into Durham’s potential genealogy over the years, but Kathy Griffin White, an enrolled member of the Cherokee Nation and advocate for Cherokee history, confirmed that he was born in Harris, Texas, and his parents were the ones born in Arkansas. That opened the doors to his genealogy, which is now very easy to trace.]
The Cherokee Nation determines membership based on descent from individuals listed as Cherokee By Blood and Cherokee Freedmen on the Dawes Rolls, which were taken in Indian Territory from 1898 through 1907 (with an addition in 1914). The process was complex and the tribe sued the federal government several times during the negotiations. Several other censuses were taken during this time. The original Dawes Rolls also includes Intermarried Whites (whose descendants are ineligible to enroll in any tribes), Shawnees (whose descendants now are federally recognized as the Shawnee Tribe), and Delawares (whose descendants are now federally recognized as the Delaware Tribe of Indians). Thousands of non-Native people tried to sign up on the Dawes Rolls to receive free land, but their claims were found to be fraudulent.
Kent Carter’s The Dawes Commission and the Allotment of the Five Civilized Tribes, 1893–1914 is a good source on this process. The Dawes Commission actively sought out full-blood Cherokees in rural communities (Carter 117). Several traditionalists, such as Redbird Smith, who opposed allotment (the US government breaking tribal landholdings into individual allotted parcels of land), resisted signing onto the Dawes Rolls, but ultimately he is listed. Relatives and neighbors often provided information about fellow Cherokees for the rolls.
“Of Cherokee descent”
There are people with documented Cherokee descent, including the descendants of John Rollin Ridge, who left the Cherokee Nation for California. Many Cherokee people fled Indian Territory during the violence of the Civil War and did not return to be enrolled. Some members of other tribes who have Cherokee descent opted to not be listed on multiple tribal rolls. Their descendants are “of Cherokee descent” but they are not “Cherokee.” More info: “The Dawes Roll Is Not the Only Proof,” Polly’s Granddaughter. As lawyer and columnist Steven Russell wrote, “…the important issue is not who you claim but rather who claims you…” (He’s also written: “Jimmie Durham has made a career of being Cherokee with no known ties to any Cherokee community, although he’s claimed to be Wolf Clan and to have been raised with Cherokee as a first language” (Russell 2015). Self-identification is insufficient in determining Native identity.
“Durham’s nothing but a jack white man with some kind of victim complex. The only way he can fulfill it is by saying he’s the most downtrodden, disenfranchised person you can find.” —David Bradley (White Earth Ojibwe), 1993 (Tilove).
The number of non-Indians claiming to be “Cherokee” greatly outnumbers the number of actual Cherokees, likely several times over, and is increasing every year. This practice dates back to mid-19th century in the Deep South, particularly in Georgia. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, people falsely claimed to be Cherokee in hopes of obtaining money or land. Recent articles exploring this phenomenon persists today include:
- “Why Do So Many Americans Think They Have Cherokee Blood?“, Slate
- “High Cheekbones and Straight Black Hair,” The Root, by Henry Louis Gates Jr.
- “Why Do So Many People claim They have Cherokee in Their Blood?,” Nerve
- “The Cherokee Syndrome,” The Daily Yonder
- “No, you are not part Cherokee. And neither is Elizabeth Warren: Why tribal lore is common among white people from Oklahoma to Georgia,” Timeline.
People with no proof of Cherokee ancestry are “self-identified Cherokee.” The Eastern Band Cherokee and the Cherokee Nation list over 200 groups fraudulently claiming to be Cherokee, many of which are listed here.
- Travis Snell, “Non-recognized ‘Cherokee tribes’ flourish,” Cherokee Phoenix (January 1, 2007).
- Steven Russell, “When Does Ethnic Fraud Matter?,” Indian Country Media Network (April 4, 2008).
Indian Arts and Crafts Act
The Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990 (IACA) is a federal law that punishes the sale artwork that is falsely represented as being made by an American Indian or Native American (Aleut, Yupiit, and Inuit are not American Indian). The law defines American Indian as being “a member of any federally or officially State recognized Indian Tribe, or an individual certified as an Indian artisan by an Indian Tribe” (Department of the Interior). Tribes determine their own membership—not the federal government—and can designate anyone they want as a tribal artisan.
When the law passed, several museums and galleries canceled exhibits with Jimmie Durham, since he is not legally eligible to market his artwork as being made by an American Indian.
In theory, the law does not apply to Jimmie Durham: At the Center of the World because the works are not listed as being on sale to the public; however, work from the show has been purchased by institutional collectors: Recent acquisitions of Durham’s work by the Hammer Museum.
The Hammer Museum and Walker Art Center have said they are not positioning Durham as a Cherokee or Native American artist; however, the Hammer Museum writes on Durham’s bio: “Jimmie Durham was born in Washington, Arkansas, in 1940. He is a Native American of Cherokee descent” (Hammer), despite the fact that he never proved that he is of Cherokee descent and one needs to belong to a tribe to claim to be Native American. Both Hammer and Walker invited Native American artists for programming related to the exhibit. Remai Modern is a Canadian institution and not subject to American laws; they describe Durham as “a Cherokee artist” (Remai Modern).
Culture and Language
Art writers have repeated false representations of Cherokee culture and Cherokee language made by Durham without any attempt to verify information with Cherokee people. Durham’s use of the Cherokee language ranges from pidgin to gibberish. Each Cherokee tribe has fluent Cherokee speakers, and members of all three are part of the Cherokee Language Consortium.
Institutions such as the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, Cherokee Heritage Center, and John Hair Cultural Center & Museum (UKB Facebook) were founded expressly to share accurate information about Cherokee history and culture.
AIM and the International Intertribal Treaty Council
Durham’s activism has been used as a proof of his Native heritage; however, his erstwhile close friend and colleague, Ward Churchill also made a career based on false claims of being Indian. In 2005, Kevin Flynn of the Rocky Mountain News thoroughly researched Churchill’s family tree and found no Native ancestors. Churchill had claimed to be Cherokee and Muscogee Creek. Another IITC colleague Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz (Ortiz comes from her ex-husband Simon Ortiz) initially claimed to be Cheyenne (James 323), then identified as being white (Ortiz 47), and now, very unfortunately, has begun claiming to be Cherokee (Flanders).