TAHLEQUAH, Okla. — The status of certain Native Americans throughout the country remains a concern among citizens of federally-recognized tribes, who say the "fake" indigenous groups can do grave damage to legitimate ones.
"Fake tribes" can range from loose affiliations of people who believe they have Indian ancestry, to well-organized groups that obtain 501(c)3 nonprofit status, to others that go on to become recognized by individual states.
David Cornsilk, a Cherokee Nation citizen, genealogist and historian, said "fake tribes" are "dangerous in various ways."
"One of them is they dilute the definition of what it means to be a tribe," he said. "Tribal recognition in the United States is a relationship between the sovereignty of the United States and the sovereignty of a tribal entity, and these organizations have no sovereignty. They only have whatever rights the state may grant to them."
Oklahoma does not have state-recognized tribes, but many other states do. Some governors issue proclamations declaring certain groups within the state's border are tribes; some groups are given state recognition through resolutions or acts from the state legislature; and other states empower Indian Affairs Commissions to grant recognition.
"Usually the way those form, there's already existing groups within the state and the state then grandfathers those groups in, requiring no proof whatsoever that they're even of Indian descent - let alone a tribe - and then allows them to grant recognition to other groups," said Cornsilk. "Alabama is probably the most notorious for doing that."
Aside from diluting the meaning and sovereignty of a Native American tribe, "fake tribes," or those not recognized by the federal government, can erode the legitimate tribes' economies and culture. Cornsilk cited a recent court decision regarding the Oklahoma Indian Arts and Crafts Act, which was passed in the 1970s.
The state's original act defined an "American Indian tribe" as a "tribe, organized band or pueblo … domiciled in the United States." In 2016, Oklahoma legislators amended the act, applying the definition to only tribes that are "federally recognized." The law essentially required artists who want to label their work "Native American" to be members of federally recognized tribes.
In April, a U.S. District Court judge rejected Oklahoma's law. Shortly after that ruling, the Cherokee Nation released a statement expressing its disappointment with the decision.
"Our state is home to 38 federally recognized tribes and thousands of tribal citizens immersed in our rich culture and tradition," said Chuck Hoskin Jr., who was then Cherokee Nation secretary of state and is now principal chief. "The Oklahoma American Indian Arts and Crafts Act was not only a means to protect their livelihood and interests, but also to give validity to market and sell Native art within our state and provide buyers protection that [they're] getting authentic Native American art."
The state law was more restrictive than the federal Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990, which the judge in the case said created a conflict. The federal law was passed by Congress with an intent of protecting "Indian artists from unfair and fraudulent competition from counterfeit arts and crafts products."
"The federal Indian Arts and Crafts Act says you must be a member of a federally recognized tribe, or a state-recognized tribe, or acknowledged or certified by a tribe, so there are a couple of loose ends there that allow for fakery," said Cornsilk.
The growth of social media is thought to have contributed to the creation and organization of "fake tribes." Cornsilk said some groups have upward of 10,000 people claiming to be Cherokee without proof of ancestry, and many of these have "identity issues."
"They're very unhappy with just being what they are and they're fascinated by Native American culture," he said. "They all claim to be Cherokee; their great-great-grandmother was a Cherokee princess, and they outdo each other with their stories of having fabulous cultural knowledge handed down from generation to generation."
One tribe recognized in the state of Georgia contains "bonafide descendants of Cherokees," said Cornsilk, and they were certified by the IRS as a 501(c)3 organization and given state recognition.
However, they did not meet the criteria for federal recognition.
"Yes, they are of Indian descent, but being of Indian descent does not make you a tribe," he said. "What makes you a tribe is having a government that has control over its members in a specific territory. So they failed - their federal recognition petition was denied."
Cornsilk said people use Native Americans' own history to defend the position of their "fake tribe," and they can dupe others with no knowledge of Native American culture and history into thinking they're credible. The result could diminish the demographic's image.
"American Indian people appear in the national consciousness as cliché," said Cornsilk. "We have disappeared as a people, but we remain in the national consciousness as a cliché, and that kind of ignorance of Indian people allows for groups like the Northern Cherokees, the Western Cherokees of Arkansas, and the Chota Cherokees of Georgia, the Chickamauga Cherokees of Alabama, and the Texas Cherokees, and the Cherokees of this and Cherokees of that, to flourish, because America doesn't know the difference."
Crawford writes for Tahlequah Daily Press, a CNHI News Service publication.