The traveling retrospective Jimmie Durham: At the Center of the World and its accompanying catalog has launched a new conversation about Durham’s claims of being Cherokee, American Indian, and a person of color. Now art writers, museum staff, and scholars are making these claims on his behalf. These false claims are harmful as they misrepresent Native people, undermine tribal sovereignty, and trivialize the important work by legitimate Native artists and cultural leaders.
Durham is neither enrolled nor eligible for citizenship in any of the three federally-recognized and historical Cherokee Tribes: the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians of Oklahoma, and the Cherokee Nation.
Self-determination of citizenship is a basic tenant of any sovereign nation including tribal governments. The three Cherokee tribes, whose history is thoroughly documented and accessible, stem from a history of self-governance that predates the establishment of the United States.
While indigenous identity can be extremely complex, this situation is simple. Durham was not disenrolled. Tribal registration has not closed. Blood quantum is not an issue in this case. Durham simply has no record of Cherokee ancestry and no ties to any Cherokee community. To paraphrase the Cherokee author and lawyer Steve Russell, it is not who you claim, it is who claims you.
Under the 1990 Indian Arts and Crafts Act (IACA), each of these tribes has an inherent right to designate any individual as a tribal artisan. No Cherokee tribe has chosen to designate Jimmie Durham as a tribal artisan. None of the Cherokee tribes have knowledge of Durham as a relative or community member.
Historically, there are individuals who are of Cherokee descent but who are not eligible to enroll as tribal citizens. These include Cherokees who fled Indian Territory during the violence of the Civil War and chose not to return to participate in the Dawes Rolls from 1898 to 1914. There are also members of other tribes who have Cherokee descent but whose relatives did not wish to sign onto multiple tribes’ rolls. Some non-enrolled Cherokee descendants are engaged with and contribute to Cherokee communities. These individuals can prove their Cherokee heritage and are known to their relatives and the tribal governments. This is because Cherokees are one of the most well-documented ethnic groups in the United States. More than 70 censuses and rolls of Cherokees have been taken since the early 19th century, including many conducted by the tribes themselves.
No matter what metric is used to determine Indigenous status, Durham does not fulfill any of them. Jimmie Durham is not a Cherokee in any legal or cultural sense. This not a small matter of paperwork but a fundamental matter of tribal self-determination and self-governance. Durham has no Cherokee relatives; he does not live in or spend time in Cherokee communities; he does not participate in dances and does not belong to a ceremonial ground.
Durham continues to misrepresent Cherokee language, history, and culture. Throughout his career, he has misrepresented other’s tribes’ practices (giveaways, vision quests, Trickster Coyote, feasts of the dead) and said they are Cherokee. His fabrications insult not only us but also the other tribes whose cultures Durham has misappropriated.
As result of the 1990 Indian Arts and Crafts Act, several of Durham’s exhibitions were canceled. He left the United States, moving to Mexico and then to Europe. Across the Atlantic, Durham faces fewer challenges for his continued claims to be Cherokee and American Indian. While he has toned down his positioning of himself as the representative of all things American Indian, art writers now do the job for him. When art historians, curators, and critics describe Durham as Cherokee or indigenous, Durham makes no attempt to correct them. The IACA does not apply to the current traveling exhibit, From Center of the World, because the artwork is for not sale, but the curators should not need to be legally coerced into seeking the truth; they should do so for scholarly integrity.
That scholars writing about Durham repeatedly fail to fact-check any of Durham’s claims is egregious, especially when a multitude of research and resources are available. The Cherokee Heritage Center, Museum of the Cherokee Indian, and John Hair Cultural Center and Museum all strive to provide accurate information to the public.
We are familiar with people making wild claims about Cherokee culture or being Cherokee. That Jimmie Durham is falsely claiming to be Cherokee and making demonstratively untrue statements about us is not unusual. Countless other European-Americans exploit non-Native fantasies about American Indians for their own benefit. That scholars perpetuate these lies without question or further research is what is so unusual.
We, as Cherokee artists, scholars, activists, and citizens, are dedicated to correcting the mountain of misinformation about our people and misappropriation of our identities. Self-representation is a fundamental human right, and we, as Cherokees and Indigenous Peoples, demand the right to speak for ourselves.
Cara Cowan Watts, Ph.D. (Cherokee Nation), Cherokee Nation Tribal Councilwoman 2003–2015
Former Deputy Speaker of the Cherokee Nation Tribal Council Luzene Hill, M.F.A. (Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians), Artist
America Meredith, M.F.A. (Cherokee Nation), Artist and Publishing Editor of First American Art Magazine
Kade Twist (Cherokee Nation), Artist
Lynne Harlan (Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians), Curator, Writer, and Public Relations Professional
Pauline Prater, M.B.A. (Cherokee Nation), Arts Advocate
Brian K. Hudson, Ph.D. (Cherokee Nation) English Instructor at Central New Mexico Community College
Candice Byrd, M.F.A. (Cherokee Nation/Quapaw Tribe of Oklahoma/Osage Nation), Artist and Scholar
Yvonne N. Tiger, M.A., M.A. (Cherokee Nation) Writer, Scholar, and Educator
Ashley Holland (Cherokee Nation), Independent Curator, Doctoral Candidate, and Writer