Hundreds of thousands of Americans believe they have Cherokee roots, and some really do, but few have fought as hard as Leslie Ross to become a card-carrying citizen of America's largest tribe.
His ancestors walked the Trail of Tears, the forced 1830s relocation of American Indians and their black slaves from the South to present-day Oklahoma, but it took 14 years for Ross to get his family enrolled as tribal citizens of the Cherokee Nation.
He did it, he said, for "Cherokee pride," keeping alive the heritage of stories told to him as a child growing up in Oakland.
"It's just validation of all the effort I've put in, all the turmoil my family went through on the Trail of Tears when they were kicked out of Georgia," said the 64-year-old retired electrician.
More than 92,000 Californians -- 16,000 Bay Area residents among them -- declared themselves at least partly Cherokee in the 2010 U.S. census, but the Cherokee Nation counts only 3,700 card-carrying members in the region.
"Sometimes it seems like every other person says they're part Cherokee," said Ben Goss of the Cherokee Society of the Greater Bay Area. "I guess it's sort of got some cachet to it."
He pointed out, however, that "the (Cherokee) Nation requires quite a bit of proof. You have to be descended from somebody on what was called the Dawes Rolls," a 1906 federal survey to identify American Indians and divide their lands.
More than a century later, that
The new cards taken to Oakland's Intertribal Friendship House underscored decades of innocent confusion and legal exclusion dividing proven American Indians from those who claim indigenous heritage.
"They may have some kind of family lore, or myth, or story, and it's almost always Cherokee," said Jackie Archambeau, an Oakland resident who leads the Bay Area's Cherokee Society.
For those living far from the reservation, the cards offer few tangible benefits, but rejection can hurt.
Among the excluded are thousands of descendants of Cherokee-owned black slaves who won tribal citizenship in a post-Civil War emancipation treaty but lost it in the late 20th century when the tribe closed its doors on those who could not prove Indian bloodlines.
Ross, an Oakland-born descendant of those Cherokee Freedmen, won his tribal citizenship in 2006 after years of genealogical research and legal wrangling in tribal courts. Thousands of other black Cherokee slave descendants are still fighting to restore their citizenship.
"We're not Johnny-come-latelies," said Ross, whose great-grandfather was a tribal official in the late 19th century. "We've always been in the Cherokee Nation. Blacks have always been there."
In a 2007 tribal referendum, registered Cherokees blocked voting and tribal rights of Freedmen descendants unless they could prove they were also "Cherokee by blood."
Most Cherokees have an opinion on who are citizens of the Cherokee Nation, the largest of three federally recognized bands.
"My feeling was we already have 1,500 to 1,700 black people enrolled in the Cherokee. The Freedmen weren't Cherokee," said Goss, 73, an Oklahoma-born fixture at local Cherokee functions.
Archambeau disagrees, saying she wants a more inclusive tribe reflecting the Cherokees' mixed heritage.
"I support the Freedmen. They were part of us," she said.
Fighting on behalf of the black Cherokees for the past two decades is Jon Velie, a Bay Area-born lawyer who moved to Oklahoma after graduating from UC Berkeley's Native American studies program.
"It's a new Trail of Tears," Velie said, with tribal leaders "kicking out their own people" because of their race.