Sunday, July 28, 2013

Why it doesn't matter that I might have a Native American ancestor (and why it does)

Many white families have a family legend of sorts that a far-off female ancestor was a "Cherokee princess." Mine does too, although to our credit, the word "princess" has never been mentioned. The Cherokee did not have princesses.

This relative is, by varying accounts, either my great-great-grandmother Hannah, born 1851, or my great-great-great-grandmother Susan, born 1829. Great-Great-Grandma Hannah has been described by living relatives as "full blood Indian," but other written histories of the family have noted that her mother, Susan, was Cherokee Indian. Beyond her, there are no records.

Because of the early dates, my relatives are not in the Dawes Rolls or any other archival records of Native Americans that I have found. There are other records though -- records showing that regardless of whatever my family members say, Great-Great-Grandma Hannah was listed as white in the census. So even if my family was Native American, they've been passing for white since the early 20th century and receiving all the privileges thereof. And in case you need to brush up on your history, that was not a very good time to be a "colored person" or an "Indian."

A lot of people, myself included, have gone on genealogical searches to find that long-lost Indian relative. We think it will explain our high cheekbones (got those) or our olive skin (not that though). And there is also the goal of Triumphant Documentation - the proof that will turn our family legends real. The name in the Dawes Rolls that shows, among all the families who say they have Native ancestry, that we make a legitimate claim. Perhaps there is also the idea that it will lend us a certain "minority cred" or an absolution of self-imposed white guilt - "I'm part {insert non-European ethnicity here} so I can't be racist, I can't have white privilege," et cetera.

But if we are even 1/8 Cherokee, or Peruvian, or Mongolian, aren't we still 7/8 European in descent? Does this one ancestor in our past (who may or may not have been matched willingly; love marriage is a relatively new phenomenon) negate our whiteness? That's the one-drop thinking of the racists of the past and I don't subscribe to it. I have grown up in White American culture. I guess you could even call me a WASP even though polo shirts don't look good on me and I've never summered at Nantucket, or however you're supposed to say that.

But this search has not been in vain. I have learned incredibly interesting things about my family history, including:

  • My family goes back at least ten generations in the US on both sides
  • Both my maternal and paternal lines (mom's mom's mom, etc. and dad's dad's dad, etc.) come from Ireland Way Back In The Day
  • My family history is almost all English and Irish, with some French via Quebec in more recent days, which may or may not explain my love affair with Canada
  • I had ancestors who were mercenaries in the Civil War; they decided to fight for the Confederacy because it paid more
  • I had another ancestor who led a rebellion against the Confederacy and got hanged for it
  • It is true that cousins married each other in the 1800s
  • Tales of mystery and intrigue that will remain in the family and not on this blog
I have gotten in touch with family members I never even knew I had. (When your grandfather is one of nineteen children, this is really not very surprising.)

And just as importantly, if not moreso, I have learned about issues facing the the Native Americans of today, and keep myself informed. I visited Tahlequah, Oklahoma twice - in 1998 and 2000 - and saw what life was like in the Cherokee Nation. I learned more about the Cherokee and about the issues they faced, from people who didn't have to do genealogy work to know their heritage. In more recent years, I have learned about the Idle No More movement in Canada and the US and have read about current events and issues that affect the Native American community closer to where I currently live.

I have been hesitant to involve myself too much, as I don't think I know very much at this point and want to educate myself more on the issues before becoming involved, as the goal is not "look at me, I'm one of you" (because really, I'm not) but rather "how can I be of support, quietly, in the background?"

I, like most people, began this search in search of what I could get. I wasn't looking for college scholarships or tribal lands, but maybe a sense of connection, of belonging, of being able to say that my claim to Native heritage was correct. But if indeed I ever did have a Native American ancestor, I suppose the best tribute to her memory is what I can learn, and bolstered by that knowledge, what I can teach.