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Native American cultural identity still a fight, says Cherokee Judge Russell

<ursuit for Native American equality is still a constant struggle, according to last week’s Convocation speaker, Cherokee Native American judge Steve Russell.

“[I]t is more difficult for our enemies to challenge and deny our sovereignty,” Russell said.

In his presentation titled “Race and Citizenship Inside and Outside the Cherokee Nation” Russell illustrated the challenge over the status of the Cherokee freedmen.

In an environment where race is a sensitive topic “often scare-quoted by anthropologists because they see it as a purely social construct,” Russell spoke to the struggle of the Cherokee nation.

For his people, of whom less than a third actually live in a Cherokee population, citizenship should be based on “cultural competence” – in the same manner that people wishing to become nationalized Americans must pass a test on American culture and values.

Russell’s path began when he aspired to be a high school teacher, but he reevaluated his goal when he saw that no school system would hire someone like him. Due to his passionate conviction that public schools were squandering the talent of minority students, he was viewed as unhirable.

Instead, he got his law degree and became a civil rights lawyer, although he knew that there were no Native American civil rights lawyers or law school courses in Native American law.

He nonetheless emphasized the adherence to cultural competence amongst his people, mentioning that “to be a Cherokee judge you don’t have to be a lawyer, but you must speak the Navajo language.”

Russell highlighted the need to distinguish between culture and race, and the importance of eliminating what he calls the race-citizenship distinction.

“Race,” he argued, “is an objectively empty vessel, which we then fill from time to time with what we want.”

For Cherokees, race should therefore not be the basis for citizenship. As an example, he draws attention to himself, a white man “who is only one-eighth Indian.” Yet because he strongly understands the culture, and believes and lives by their values, he firmly considers himself as part of the Cherokee people. 

Ultimately, he emphasized that the “Indian wars” were not over, and drew a parallel between the Civil Rights movement and the struggle for a Cherokee identity.

 He noted that African Americans demanded the right to assimilate as Americans, while Native Americans demand the right to retain their culture and values. To this, Russell highlighted the increasing level of Native American assimilation.

“Actually, we are definitely assimilating – you can’t go to a place where only Cherokee is spoken amongst the Indian population. The struggle for Cherokee identity therefore demands the right to assimilate at its own pace and on its own terms.”

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