THIS IS CERTAINLY the most-talked-about issue related to Native America today, though as many have pointed out, it absolutely shouldn’t be. Amateur genetic genealogists are breaking out their calculators and sifting through reference populations.
I am not going to retrace for you the trajectory of the story of Elizabeth Warren and her claimed Native American ancestry, but I can think of ways in which it has influenced my thoughts about my own work and the way I think about the research I do.
The first is that many, many people in the US claim Cherokee ancestry. The myth of the Cherokee princess ancestor runs deep in millions, I guess, of family histories and genealogies, to the extent that it has become a joke among Native Americans, with photographic evidence revealing the” high cheekbones and straight black hair.”
The second is that Americans, particularly people of mostly European descent, typically called “white people,” have a fetish for Native American ancestry, and this is to give them something to lay claim to, or boast about, while never actually having to experience what it means to be a Native American.
Another aspect, from a slightly different perspective, is the extent to which any claims by people who are not either enrolled in federally recognized tribes, or have significantly mixed ancestry, to the extent that they appear to be “white,” or “black,” are scrutinized and ridiculed. This is demonstrated perfectly by calling Elizabeth Warren, “Fauxcahontas.”
Into this comes the perspective of the tribes themselves, such as the Cherokee Nation, which reserves the right to determine who is a Cherokee and who is not, based on some internal criteria, such as having ancestors listed on certain US government-sanctioned rolls.
Then there is the great argument about DNA and identity. Now that she has had one of the world’s best population geneticists interrogate her chromosomes, does that mean that Elizabeth Warren is an “Indian?” Does having some tiny remnant of genetic ancestry from an indigenous ancestor allow a person to claim that identity as their primary one? (Which, by the way, Warren did not do).
As I have written previously, I never had a Cherokee princess story in my family. We had virtually no discussion of having Native ancestry, beyond remarking that my great grandfather definitely resembled a person with partial Native ancestry in old photos. The explanation for this was fairly simple: my grandmother’s family had lived in northeastern North Carolina and southeastern Virginia for at least four centuries, and in the colonial era, it was highly likely that the first European settlers into this area had admixed (read: had sex) with the local Algonquian and Iroquoian people in the region. My grandmother told me this, and with a bit of a shrug. For her, it was no big deal.
I think the scrutiny I mentioned though is what drove me to pursue my research. I wanted the when, and the how, and most of all the who. I had to prove — to someone — that this was not just kitchen talk, and was “real.” The idea of Pocahontas: a single, Native American ancestor, from whom many people descended, equally sharing her Pamunkey ancestry among them, also influenced my approach. This is easily debunked. No one had a single Native American ancestor ever. They had a set of parents and so on.
The racist laws of North Carolina and Virginia obscured this ancestry from anyone who tried to learn more though. Everyone was W, B, or, more rarely, M. Even if my great grandfather was born in 1896, it had been over a century since these tribes even registered mention in the local press, and when they appeared in a smattering deeds in the early 19th century, it was to sell off the remainder of their reservations.
There was no overt “Indian community” for my great grandfather to grow up in in Gates County, North Carolina. There was “the white church” and “the black church.” There was “the white school” and “the black school.” This doesn’t mean that the old links did not continue. Several of his aunts, for instance, married people from the Indiantown community in Camden County. This had been going on for at least a century. Why Indiantown? Was it a continuation of the old links between the Yeopim and Chowanoke?
Like many people in that region of mixed ancestry though, in his case, primarily European ancestry, he lived his life as a white person. This wasn’t uncommon in the Indiantown community either. Time and time again, we see the same phenomenon of photos of people from this area who “looked Indian,” but “were white.”
This is why DNA testing became invaluable. Because DNA could allow us to see, in some fashion, what the records would never tell us: the deep ancestry of the first settlers of the region. For centuries they had been forced into “white” and “black” boxes and kept there. With ancestry testing, we might get a sense of who their ancestors actually were.
When Doug McDonald sent back my grandmother’s kit years ago, he had 1.9 percent “Na-Dene” included in the analysis of her Geno 2.0 data. I had to look up what “Na-Dene” even meant. And so began my journey of learning about the background of the first people of this region, following them back up the coast into Canada, toward some origin. I was even unnerved a bit to see, when I looked up photos of Athabascan women, how some of them resembled my grandmother. It was disturbing, in a good sense, to see that. It felt as good as it did to visit Italy, and have people recognize me as an Italian on the street. The idea that this was not just some illusion, but there was a reason for all this. One might consider it overcoming one’s American amnesia, where the past is forgotten.
Of course, I continued my genealogical research, and hunted down those matching pieces of chromosomes that had come from these people, in order to establish from what community they had originated, only to frustratingly ping pong back and forth between the “Poteskeet” of the Currituck Banks and the “Nansemond” of Norfolk, or the “Chowanoke” of the Chowan River. While we most certainly matched other Indian families in the region — the Weavers, the Halls, the Sawyers — it began to dawn on me how silly this all was. If they had wandered south out of Canada, then down along the coast into these scattered communities, did it really matter if they were “Poteskeet,” or “Assateague,” or “Nanticoke?”
And how did, say, data collected by the US government a century ago — in the case of the Dawes Commission, as an example — become the chief determinant of a person’s identity or even deep ancestry? It became clear from looking at the actual Native people in our family, that we weren’t dealing with characters of various “blood quantum,” with proven genealogies and “paper trails,” with “state recognition” or “federal recognition.” All of that was rather superficial and externally imposed. These people had just been living there in the swamps for a long time, long before any of these concepts even existed.
I’m not sure where I am now in this process, nor even what I am searching for anymore. Perhaps it would be an even greater understanding of these people and their lives. For me, it is not the tragedy of what happened to their identity, or their assimilation into “white society,” but rather the rich insights one can gain from learning about a wholly different society, a wholly different sense of self, that still somehow lurks there, buried back behind generations of ancestors who either ignored or remained aloof to it all.
There is so much to be gained from learning about one’s past. I recommend the search.