Published on November 29, 2012 by Amy
David Cornsilk (born February 10, 1959) is the managing editor of the Cherokee Observer, an independent newspaper, and one of the founders of the Cherokee National Party. He is a Cherokee Nationalist, and a dual member of the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians.
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Cornsilk was born in Claremore, Oklahoma as the second son of John and Tinsey Cornsilk née Carter. His brother, Jack Wayne Cornsilk, 13 months older, died in an automobile accident in 1975.
David Cornsilk grew up on land owned by his Cherokee grandmother in the Eldon-Titanic communities of Oklahoma on the border of Cherokee and Adair counties. His early education was at Lane School, located on the Barren Fork Creek, Oklahoma. It was a small stone building consisting of two classrooms, two teachers and a cook. By the time he was in fourth grade, the family was traveling extensively between the Cherokee Nation in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, and the Eastern band in Cherokee, North Carolina. David attended eight different schools in that year.
During his sophomore year, Cornsilk was selected as school mascot for the Stilwell High School Indians sports teams. In the 10th and 11th grades, he served as student delegate to the Indian Education program funded by Johnson O’Malley federal funds. He graduated from Tahlequah High School in June 1977. After graduation, he attended Northeastern State University at Tahlequah; a university he chose not only for its first-rate science department, but because it had started as a school for Cherokee.
During college he was highly active in campus organizations, including the Native American Student Association and student government. He was a founding member and second president of Beta Beta Beta Biological Honor Society and twice received the W.W. Keeler Minority Scholarship. He graduated from Northeastern State University in May 1981 with a degree in biology-zoology emphasis and minors in chemistry and botany.
Cornsilk was hired by the Cherokee Nation as a research analyst to perform genealogical research on Cherokee families seeking registration in the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. From 1989 to 1994, he also was assistant director of admissions at Bacone College in Muskogee, Oklahoma.
Cornsilk has supported citizenship for the Cherokee Freedmen, whose status had been revoked in the 1980s. The Freedmen have challenged tribal laws and orders with litigation. Cornsilk wrote to Principal Chief Wilma Mankiller in 1988 asking her to take a larger issue of Cherokee nationalism.
In 1990 he worked with John Guthrie to expose the problem of Indian art fraud in eastern Oklahoma. As hundreds of artists were claiming to be Cherokee with no proof, he and Guthrie worked to bring the issue to the attention of the public. They handed out fliers and wrote letters to the editors of local papers. Some of the purported Cherokee artists protested and one attacked Cornsilk physically, resulting in the incident being called the “Indian Art War.” The US Congress passed the Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990.
David Cornsilk, Marvin Summerfield, and Thomas Fourkiller formed the non-profit “WhitePath Foundation” in 1991. It was the first organization to publish information on HIV/AIDS in the Cherokee language.
Seeking to remain independent, the three men created an independent news outlet in 1992 for events in the Cherokee Nation and United Keetoowah Band. They published the first issue of The Cherokee Observer in January 1993. Cornsilk was managing editor, Summerfield as language editor, and Fourkiller as religion editor. In addition, Marvin’s wife Linda Summerfield became health editor, Sandra Sac Parker was a reporter, Robin Mayes a political satirist, and Franklin McLain an opinion editor.
In 1995 Cornsilk filed a lawsuit on behalf of Bernice Riggs in the Cherokee district court, which was taken to the CNO Judicial Appeals Tribunal. Although Riggs lost that case, it was demonstrated in court that Riggs had documentation of Cherokee blood. This had been ignored by the Dawes Commission, when it classified her parents as “Freedmen” rather than “Cherokee by blood”.
Cornsilk left The Cherokee Observer staff in December 1999, and served as a delegate to the CNO Constitutional Convention. He had participated in all aspects of the development of the 1999 constitution as a delegate appointed by the judicial branch of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma.
In 2004 Cornsilk filed another case before the JAT: Allen v. Council, on behalf of Lucy Allen, a Cherokee Freedman. They won that case, which overturned the negative ruling in Riggs, and struck down CNO law that imposed requirements for membership above and beyond those set by the Constitution.
Cornsilk continues to work as a political activist and lay advocate for Cherokee Freedmen.
The anthropologist Circe Sturm characterizes Cornsilk’s involvement in the Freedmen issue as one that is driven by primarily political motives. She thinks his support of recognition of the freedmen as tribal citizens would extend the Cherokee Nation’s power base, and placate, possibly silence, some of its most persistent critics. According to Sturm, Cornsilk thinks that the Cherokee Nation should not use strictly racial means for identifying its citizenry. He believes these are based on a fear that Cherokee citizens of mixed European-Cherokee heritage are in danger of being reclassified as not Cherokee. Cornsilk believes that the Cherokee Nation must resolve the issue before the U.S. government imposes a conservative definition of “Indianness,” which might cause the Nation to lose over half of its citizens.
Cornsilk does not believe in the right of people to self-identify as Cherokee. He believes that the authority of the tribe stems from the group, and that self-identification “is an assault on the right of the group.”
Cornsilk has encountered considerable opposition among the Cherokee. In many people’s thinking, Cherokee nationalism is closely tied to ideas of race and culture. Sturm thinks these are “misperceptions.” She describes Cornsilk as an exception to the norm for the Cherokee, for his desire to put self-preservation of the Nation ahead of race or culture.
Cornsilk lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Cornsilk and his father, John Cornsilk, are active in Cherokee Nation and United Keetoowah Band politics. They helped win citizenship rights for the Cherokee Freedmen as well as equal rights for gay Cherokee citizens.
Cornsilk creates cartoons and political satire related to Cherokee Nation politics. He and his father run the Cornsilks.com website and political blog.