DAHLONEGA — The fight over Cherokee lineage between two competing Dahlonega groups may be coming to a mutual, if grudging, resolution thanks to a state bill that would formally recognize both tribes.
The federal government only recognizes three bands of Cherokee Indians — two in Oklahoma, where the Trail of Tears led, and one in North Carolina.
But the Peach State has been mediating a feud over the rights to the name “Georgia Tribe of Eastern Cherokee” for nearly a quarter century.
About 50,500 Georgians report having some American Indian heritage, according to 2014 census figures.
And more Americans claim Cherokee blood than any other native ancestry.
When the state first recognized the Eastern Cherokee band in Georgia in 1993, the honor was bestowed on a tribe located in Dahlonega.
But the long history of the Cherokee living in north Georgia — and the known breeding between native Indians, white settlers and black slaves — resulted in different groups jockeying for recognition.
Stories of Cherokee ancestry are the stuff of romantic lore in many Southern families.
“Over the years that our group has been working on federal recognition, several others have claimed to be Georgia Tribe of Eastern Cherokee,” said Glenn Jones, a tribal council member with the Dahlonega-based group. “Through lawsuits and other methods, we have been successful in protecting our tribe's name.”
The confusion has remained, however. Internet searches reveal several groups with websites and social media pages claiming the name.
One such group is based in Cumming, but is not recognized by the state. (The Cherokee of Georgia Tribal Council, which does have state designation, is located in Saint George.)
Johnny Chattin Jr., meanwhile, laid claim to his own Eastern Cherokee lineage years ago and, like Jones’ tribe, located in Dahlonega.
But his adoption of the Eastern Cherokee name was never formally acknowledged.
“[Chattin’s tribe] was one of those who used our name over the years,” Jones said.
Formal recognition can be a big deal.
State recognition, for example, allows for the sale of purportedly authentic Native American Indian crafts, and also opens the door to grant funding for educational-related endeavors.
And that has the potential to lead to federal recognition, which could pave the way for casinos.
Jones said his tribe is under review by the Bureau of Indian Affairs for formal federal recognition, with former Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes as counsel.
Sen. Steve Gooch, a Dahlonega Republican whose district includes a corner of northern Forsyth County, is sponsoring the bill that would finally recognize Chattin’s tribe under a new name.
Gooch said he would only continue supporting the bill so long as both groups stayed true to the compromise and no lingering conflict remained.
The Georgia Council on American Indian Concerns, in a January memo, OK’d the recognition in hopes of resolving the “long-standing conflict.”
“Upon review of historical documents, genealogies, legal documents and other pieces of evidence, it has become apparent to the Council that one of the lineages that comprise the Georgia Tribe of Eastern Cherokee, a lineage that now identifies itself as the Tsigamogi tribe, should rightfully be separated as its own community,” the memo reads.
The council also acknowledged that other competing parties had exploited the conflict for profit with no claim to the name.
Jones said the Georgia Tribe of Eastern Cherokee agrees with the council’s recommendation.
“After negotiations between [Chattin’s tribe] and our tribe, they agreed to no longer refer to themselves as the Georgia Tribe of Eastern Cherokee but would use the name Tsigamogi,” he added.
Chattin, who already operates a history museum and gift shop, expressed cautious optimism that the war might soon be over.
“We are pleased that the Georgia Tribe of Eastern Cherokee and the Tsigamogi Tribe, both of Dahlonega, have resolved to coexist,” he said.
Chattin said his ancestry is Chickamauga, a group of Lower Cherokee who supported Great Britain during the Revolutionary War, and that the name “Tsigamogi” means “river of death” or “bloody river.”
“We recognize that we are related and we strive to work together to better serve our tribal communities, and to work cooperatively for our people,” Chattin said.