Becoming Indian: The Struggle over Cherokee Identity in the Twenty-First Century by Circe Sturm (review)

Becoming Indian: The Struggle over Cherokee Identity in the Twenty-First Century by Circe Sturm (review)

The American Indian Quarterly
Volume 37, Numbers 1-2, Winter/Spring 2013
pages 269-272
DOI: 10.1353/aiq.2013.0006

Miguel A. Maymí

Circe Sturm’s book Becoming Indian: The Struggle over Cherokee Identity in the Twenty-First Century is an insightful view into the motivations of those who began identifying as Cherokee on the US census in recent years. There has been an explosion in the number of Americans now self-identifying as Native American (an increase of 647 percent from 1960 to 2000), an overwhelming majority of whom identify specifically as Cherokee. Circe Sturm, herself a Mississippi Choctaw descendant, set out to discover who these “racial shifters” were and why they had suddenly decided to become Indian. She also set out to discover what the politics and sentiments citizen Cherokees held for those “racial shifters.”

Sturm’s analysis is very ambitious. She sets out to answer a great deal of questions that vary from social, economic, and political implications of racial shifting for both those making the shift and citizen Cherokees, as well as theoretical and analytical practices and understandings in the field sites. However, the overriding question she asks is, Why are so many people shifting from simply claiming family ties to identifying as a more explicitly Native American ethnicity (8)? She strives to uncover the underlying motivations surrounding these decisions and considers whether they are mostly part of an attempt to reap the perceived financial and institutional benefits or whether there is an emotional reason behind the shift.

From the outset of the book, Sturm makes a clear dichotomy, which she puts in constant conversation throughout the work: the essentially “authentic” citizen Cherokee and the racial shifters. Citizen Cherokees are those who have legal, federal recognition as being Cherokee, whereas racial shifters are “individuals who have changed their self-identification on the U.S. census from non-Indian to Indian in recent years” (5). Sturm also delves into the discussion of white privilege as an essential differentiator between race shifters and those who were born Cherokee, the establishment of Cherokee neotribal sects and the perceived threats to the federally recognized tribes they impose, and the greater implications of a country whose citizens are increasingly abandoning their white identity in preference for a less privileged and more discriminated Indian race.

Sturm’s book is derived from primarily three sources. First, she conducted both formal and informal research with the three nationally recognized tribes: the Cherokee Nation, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, and United Keetoowah band of Cherokee Indians. Second, Sturm’s data are based on a survey she mailed out to leaders of prominent self-identified and state-recognized Cherokee groups; she received only a limited number in return from primarily retired and older members. Finally, much of Sturm’s information comes from interviews with racial shifters conducted by her research assistant, Jessica Walker Blanchard, who was sent to Alabama, Arkansas, Texas, and Oklahoma to conduct interviews with racial shifters. That Dr. Sturm is three times removed (and her reader four times) from the interviews with racial shifters attained by her assistant is inherently fraught and problematic (I will discuss this issue below).

Becoming Indian is divided into two parts, split down Strum’s dichotomous line of the race shifter and the citizen Cherokee. Part 1 is an analysis of the motivations and undercurrents of the migration of racial shifter identity. The first chapter of part 1 (chapter 2) explores the stories that commonly mark the impetus for change for many racial shifters. She states that from the interviews we can see that “race shifting is always a narrative act,” that in the stories racial shifters tell we can see the changing of self. Sturm identifies a common thread in the narratives, that of hiding, passing, and persecution. She ends the chapter by discussing the apparent need for racial essentialism, which plays out in these stories through the trope of Indian blood. Chapter 3 analyzes the inescapable whiteness that is inherent in racial shifters. That white privilege enables them to choose their ethnicity and thus is part of their identity. She nevertheless discusses how many racial shifters consciously attempt to completely…

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