My young son often used to tell complete strangers "I'm more Cherokee than my dad". By blood quantum, he is correct. But nearly everything he knows of Cherokee culture, he has learned from me.
My ancestors left the Overhill country and moved to Spanish Territory (Florida) right after the 1819 treaty that gave away much of the Overhill land. Consequently, when the Cherokee Rolls were later compiled, my ancestors were not included.
Today, both the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma, and the Eastern Band at Qualla require you to be descended from someone on those rolls to be considered a tribal member.
It was not always necessary to show a bloodline to be Cherokee. Many outsiders were once welcomed into the tribe. They, and their mixed-blood descendants often rose to influential positions such as The Raven, The Oak, and Principal Chief John Ross. When the Cherokee's black slaves were freed, many of them chose to stay with the tribe. Generations of these Freedmen have lived as Cherokee tribal members.
Today, a great many legally enrolled Cherokee do not follow any of the old Cherokee customs. Their lifestyles are indistinguishable from their white neighbors.
So what makes someone a Cherokee? Legally of course, it's pretty cut and dried. You must be at least 1/16th Cherokee by birth, and must be able to verify your lineage from someone on the official Cherokee Rolls. If you're after tribal enrollment, BIA card, etc., then that's your answer. Glad we could help.
But the legal definition excludes a lot of people who have actually lived the Cherokee way of life. To these people, being Cherokee is about culture and connection, not legalities. The very purpose of the Overhill Nation of Cherokee Descendants is to unite Overhill Cherokee Descendants in order to pass on the customs, traditions, history, and the language of our Cherokee ancestors.
We are not attempting to usurp anything from other Cherokee groups. Their ancestors are also our ancestors. Their history is also our history. We are choosing to preserve and practice what has been passed down to us. The more people that learn and respectfully practice the customs and traditions, the better the chance those customs and traditions will survive.
We can learn these things in our meetings, our gatherings, from our elders, our Protocol books, and even these web pages. (If you haven't taken the time to read the Protocol for Life, I recommend you at least read that.)
Being Cherokee isn't so cut-and-dried after all. I do not have a BIA card. My ancestors do not appear on the rolls. They left the Overhill region in 1819 and moved to Florida. But I am Cherokee because I have chosen to honor my Cherokee ancestors, and to live like them as best as I can.