The Indigenous Studies Speaker Series at UT Austin hosted a lecture by Dr. Circe Sturm from the University of Oklahoma. Her research centered on the growth of the American Indian population since the 1960s and the shifts in racial demographics. She focused on an interesting phenomenon called racial shifting, which entails a person of a certain race choosing to switch over to another racial category on the census data. Since the 60s, a growing number of Whites are claiming Native American heritage, a majority of which claim Cherokee kin.

If we have approximately 500 federally recognized Native American tribes in the continental United States, why would someone choose to claim Cherokee heritage? Sturm mentioned the following reasons: Cherokees have a reputation for civilization and cultural syncretism, high rates of exogamy, lenient tribal enrollment policies, and the fact that Cherokees are understood as potentially being White.

Sturm described the current scholarship in racial shifting as focused on reasons of economic gain, and she agreed that would account for some of the shift. However, her research led her to believe in other themes that could influence such decisions. As she interviewed some of the self-identified Cherokee tribes certain patterns began to appear. Many of them addressed their Whiteness as cultural emptiness and they found the social or communal aspect of Indian culture most appealing.

Sturm concluded by reminding us of how culture is a social construct that has been racialized. Her lecture and the discussion that followed was intellectually stimulating and reminded me of my experience at the National Museum of the American Indian. I recalled how most of the museum-goers were White and how many of the exhibits felt romanticized, even though they had been curated by tribal community members. Sturm’s work poses interesting questions for the politics of museum display.