word cloud from tweets containing the word “Cherokee” immediately following the February 7th, 2020 Democratic debate

Editors’ Choice: what does it mean to be Cherokee online?

Over 100 years since the Dawes Act land grabs, theft of Indigenous resources continues through misappropriated identity. Non-Natives frequently dismiss these “family myths” as harmless, claiming they do not affect Natives in any material way.

I wanted to see the data.

Content Note: This post contains references to anti-Indigenous slurs & other racism.


On June 8th 1887 US President Grover Cleveland signed the Dawes Allotment Act into law. Championed by Senator Henry Dawes as a way to “rid the nation of tribalism through the virtues of private property, allotting land parcels to Indian heads of family”, the Dawes Act was one of the most destructive policies towards tribes ever to come from the federal government.

With the stated intent of “civilizing” tribes by forcing them into a system of private property ownership, the Dawes Act broke up tribal lands into individual allotments that would make traditional collectivist systems nearly impossible to maintain. In addition, the act triggered a massive land-grab by settlers resulting in the dispossession of millions of acres of Native land.

While the land theft would have been devastating enough, tribal lifeways were severely damaged by the Removal and then devastated by Dawes, who believed–and legislated–that traditional Indigenous systems must be destroyed at all costs to “save” Natives from themselves. The destruction was not a by-product of well-meaning legislation but rather both the end & the means for a government whose top priority has historically been dispossession of Native land & dissolution of Native sovereignty.

Cherokees, like all the tribes, lost massive swaths of land through US legislation of Cherokee identity: Cherokees who had survived the Removal were now forced to choose a tribe to identify with, and according to Dawes, they could only choose one–although many claimed descent from multiple tribes. A person with both Cherokee and Creek ancestry, for example, could only register under one tribal identity–and would thus lose a part of their inheritance. These “unclaimed” lands were then sold off to white settlers.

Believing he knew better than Natives how they should govern, organize, and identify themselves, Dawes & the contemporary system of governance he represented stripped Indigenous communities of their self-determination in the name of increasing individual independence, never grasping–or perhaps never caring to notice–the irony.


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This content was selected for Digital Humanities Now by Editor-in-Chief Kris Stinson based on nominations by Editors-at-Large: