The Myth of the Cherokee Princess
by Christina Berry
These days it seems like everyone has a "Cherokee princess" in his or her family. But, in fact, there is no such thing as a Cherokee princess or an Indian princess. It's hard to say where the use of the term began, but it is widely used today.
The Cherokee, like other Native American cultures, do not have royalty or royal titles. The word "princess" is a title imported from Europe. The Cherokee are a matrilineal society. Clan membership is passed through the mother's side. However, the "princess" title is not tied to this.
There are several possibilities as to how the phrase came into use. It's possible that some may have used "princess" to describe the daughter of a chief. However, anyone familiar with Cherokee culture would know that is not accurate. Another possibility is that families living in an intolerant white American culture wanted to emphasize the "civilized" side of their Indian heritage, using the term as a way to Anglicize their Indian heritage. Another possibility is that "princess" was used as a term of endearment for a beloved grandmother, but used out of context generations later. It would seem very possible that a great grandfather describing his wife to his children or grandchildren as "my Cherokee princess" could be misunderstood. It would be like saying "my Cherokee sweetheart," only sweetheart doesn't carry the same genealogical implications.
While I feel certain that families who proclaim to have a "Cherokee princess" in the family are simply unaware of the term's meaning, or lack thereof, many Indians consider "my grandmother was a Cherokee princess" to be the mantra of the wannabe. There is no faster way to lose credibility and respect from an Indian than to speak these words. If your family history includes a "Cherokee princess" you might consider abandoning the terminology. You may very well have Cherokee ancestors, but if you use the word "princess" you may encounter skepticism.
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