The Oxford English Dictionary defines birthright as “a right or privilege that a person has as a result of being born into a particular family, social class, or place.”
A birthright may have greater or lesser value depending on the individual to whom it belongs, and what rights, wealth or privileges it conveys. Scripture tells us that Esau; the eldest son of Isaac the Patriarch sold his birthright for a bowl of soup (Genesis 25:29-34). He later regretted this of course.
There is also such a thing as a cultural birthright. The right to embrace and to celebrate one’s cultural and traditional ancestry. We see this manifested in events celebrating St. Patrick in communities with large Irish populations. The phenomenon is not limited to the Irish of course, we see this sort of celebration in any number of communities having a traditional cultural identity.
Among Native Americans unfortunately, this embrace of one’s ancestry and culture is more problematic. In fact, for Native Americans of mixed blood who are not enrolled in a federally recognized tribe, the embrace of ancestry and culture often turns into a game of identity politics. This is partly due to the convolutions of federal Indian law, and partly due to disagreements among Native Americans about Native American identity.
An interesting aspect of federal Indian law is that one can have Indian blood and still not be eligible for enrollment in a federal tribe. For most mixed-bloods this non-enrolled status is not a source of major inconvenience most of the time. It can however lead to some intense disagreements over the nature of Native American identity. In addition to the federal tribes, there are countless tribal groups, clubs and associations, some having at least some legitimacy. Others, none at all.
As a general rule, the federal tribes are more concerned with commercial and financial interests then they are with cultural ones. There are invariably some members of federal tribes (most of whom have little or no knowledge of, or belief in, the spiritual or cultural traditions of their tribes) who will appoint themselves as guardians against “wannabes,” by which they mean anyone they disagree with. The intensity of the frothy mouthed and rabid vitriol with which these self-appointed guardians attack anyone who embraces their cultural birthright is a sight to behold.
Fortunately, these misguided fools have neither the justification of tradition nor the backing of law. The right to embrace one’s ancestors and one’s cultural birthright is the most basic of human rights. It is a right recognized in the traditions of various Native American tribes, enshrined in the first amendment of the U.S. Constitution, and guaranteed in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, not to mention the rules of common decency.
There is no circumstance under which it is justifiable to attack someone for the embrace of their ancestors or the cultural birthright thereof. Regardless of whether one is eligible for enrollment in a federal tribe or not, or whether one chooses to exercise that eligibility or not, the right to one’s cultural birthright remains sacrosanct.
A Cherokee Chief once said “A mother knows who her children are.” One tenet of the Cherokee creation story is that Selu, the Corn Mother, is the mother of all Cherokee people. Legend and tradition tell us that the Cherokee culture dates back thousands of years. Many stories and traditions have developed over that time. Stories and traditions that often have relevance in our daily lives today. They are part of our cultural birthright.
Any person of Cherokee ancestry, any person with Cherokee blood, has the right to embrace Cherokee culture and tradition, regardless of enrollment status or blood quantum, because at the end of the day, we trust that Mother Selu “knows who her children are.”