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.


  1. Interesting post.

    Many people who are African Americans or Latinos are 70-80% European. Does that make them white in the US? Some whites have black and/or Native ancestry. If they look white and live as white, does that make them POC? Heather Locklear (random, I know) is part Native and part black, but I don't think anyone would disagree that she is white. Since race isn't biological, but social, it is a sociological question. It is not only about blood quantum, but also about socialization and culture, because a white person who in this country is socially white, "read" as white, was raised as white with no connection to Native culture except a rumored Cherokee Princess Great Great Granny, and lives as white, still has full white privilege and is white, even if they have 20% Native ancestry. They may have Native Ancestry, but at some point, some person in the family history passed into whiteness (at that time, for that individual ancestor, a problematic choice due to the pressures of overt racism, a form of annihilation of Nativeness) and attached themselves and the family to white privilege. The progeny of this person is white. That's why the Cherokee Grandmother is not a valid Get Out of White Privilege card. Not to mention that being aware of or being an activist on contemporary Native issues makes a white person an ally, not a Native, even if they have a small amount of Native ancestry.

    At the same time, there are some Native people who read as white by looks, and have a high percentage of Euro-white ancestry, but grew up in a Native culture and with strong familial connections to a Native community, and these people are "white passing," and have privilege for being white passing but are Native and not white. Some of them have official Native status or citizenship in a tribal nation and the members of these tribes feel like focusing on member's Euro-white ancestry is a way that white people continue to annihilate the tribe. But they still do not accept people who are completely socially white, but claim that distant Cherokee ancestor, as Native. It's complicated. It has to do with what legacy the family has historically attached to, Native, or white with white privilege.

    Have you considered doing an admixture test at 23andMe or I think both tests are 99$. It would be interesting to add that info to your research.

    1. Precisely my points. Race isn't just about whose blood you have in your veins. If my family is 10 generations in this country and we speak no Gaelic or French, and haven't for generations, surely I cannot claim that I am either Irish or French. I couldn't go to Ireland today and fit in with the culture in any way, shape, or form without intensive preparation beforehand. I'm simply American, white American (because that is indeed a social construct that speaks for more than just the color of my skin, but for the activities I enjoyed growing up, the music I listened to, the places we visited, my style of clothing, and how I was perceived by the public at large.)

      My twin sister has done a 23andme genetic test which traces your maternal line only - mother's mother's mother and so forth. It's traced pretty definitively back to northern Europe with very little variation, which I figured out fairly quickly doing geneaology work. It would be interesting for a male relative to do a Y-Chromosome test to get a more accurate picture.

    2. In addition to your mtDNA, your sister should be able to see a racial admixture piechart and on that same page an option to view which part of her chromosomes closely match the various regional and ethnic populations they have in their database. While you share the same mtDNA haplogroup, if you were to do the test, your racial admixture pie chart might look very slightly different since unless you are identical twins, you didn't inherit the exact same components of each chromosome from both mom and dad, but have different ones patched together. Still, it would be close enough to give you an idea for your family history research. And if you have Native DNA within the last 500 years, it should show in the results of that test. If you haven't looked at it, see if your sister will share her password with you, or take screen shots of the ancestry results and share with you. Their test distinguishes Native and East Asian, but very often people with Native ancestry show East Asian results since their test isn't that refined.

      It's kind of a weird white privilege laden test at 23andMe because they give a very specific estimated break down of Eurowhite regional connections based on the large number of samples in their database, so they can tell you 15.7 % Iberian, 6% Finnish, 18.3 % British Isles, or what have you. But their Native population sampling is so small (something like only 20 samples versus 2,000 for some Euro groups) that all the can say is Native/East Asian, not always being able to clarify between the two, and not being able to distinguish Inuit from Apache from Quechua. They can also distinguish North African from sub-Saharan African, but not Western African from Eastern or getting into regions or tribes. So it's not useful for AA people who want to know where in Africa their ancestors come from, though they can use 23andMe to download the raw data from the test and submit to to another company that specializes in AA ancestry to get results. Same thing with South Asian. The test doesn't even distinguish between Ancestral North Indian and Ancestral South Indian (most South Asians are a mixture of both, plus some outside ancestry), but South Asians who take the test can send their raw data elsewhere. (Just in case your husband was curious).

      I don't know how the's test looks and if they are better than the Eurowhite-centric 23andMe. I am trying to research that because I'd like my husband and I to do the test. My brother and his wife have both done 23andMe and I know what their results look like, that's how I know all of this.

      Anyway, just wondering if you know if your sister's results substantiate your Native ancestry or not. If you had a single very very distant Native Ancestor, it is possible that over the years, nobody inherited the patches of genes from that person and they didn't show up in her results. But it's more likely that if Native ancestry didn't show, then it was just a family rumor and nothing more. But if she has some odd percentage of "East Asian," that's probably actually Native American. (My brother has that.)

    3. Hi Fatima, we are actually identical twins, so the chromosome information is the same. I would need to have my brother do the test to get information on paternal side, since I am not able to trace the Y chromosome, but this is the result that I have received. 99.6% northern European

      Map view:
      Chromosome view:

    4. That's fascinating, Meredith, thanks for sharing.

      So, no Native/East Asian means no Native ancestry in the past 500 years, IOW, the Native ancestry is just a family story. But it seems that you guys have a very small amount of African small perhaps because it must be very distant?

      I wonder what "non-specific (Northern) European" means. Also, see what I mean Andrea, they give this pretty decent breakdown of Euro-white ancestry, but for your sub-Saharan African DNA they can't tell Ghana from Madagascar, which are such different populations.

      Anyway, very cool.

  2. Our family was lucky enough to be around an aged, but alive GGrandmother, full Cherokee. She was sold for cattle to keep her from going with her family on the TT when it passed through her home in Hopkinsville ky. She married the young man who saved her...on the census, taken...she was listed as a sister of the man she married. Bless her heart though she was obviously not Mary Catherine's child. I had a relative on the other side of my family contact me after locating me and say..."Sequth is so dark...and we have her married to her brother...but i don't think she is Odougherty!" I had to tell her the story of Sequth. Our family has been passing for white since my mother. Who had enough Irish to dilute her genes to blue eyes and blonde hair. I suppose i grew up with this heritage, it was alive within our family. I never realized how lucky we were to share her story. It's a sad one where she lost everything, a large home her father worked very hard to build on a beautiful farm, a wealthy man who lost everything except what he could carry on his back West to Ok. I never found him, he had changed his name from Green to Christmas and converted to xtianity to appease his neighbors in a last attempt to stay when they came to remove the Cherokee. His neighbors took everything as he was led away. So my GG Grandmother had nothing...not even the knowledge of what happened to her family. We have tried, and never did find a Christmas/Green on the rolls.

    I look in the mirror and wonder, how many others just like me are out there? Our family geaneology decimated by the U.S. gov. Yet, here we are born in the beautiful country and all of us...Native.


    Thought you might like this. I am going to copy-paste the text just in case that post disappears, as tumblr posts sometimes do.

    "Text reads: i am a person of white and Native American descent, who has been raised in a culturally white household. i knew about our heritage, it is reflected in my name, but there were no direct connections with [tribe], mostly because my mom had stuff about her part-Native dad. my skin is very pale, and i have only a little “Native” appearance in me. i want to connect with my heritage but i am afraid that i’m not Native “enough” to claim it because i wasn’t raised with the culture.

    Answer: First thing to remember is there is no “Enough.” You are or you aren’t. The problem can and often does arrive when a person looks into their heritage and finds things about their culture, one that they don’t have a direct link to and they make the very big and ugly mistake of “Playing a role.” This is often “Played” out through very ignorant stereotypes. People who portray hurtful and harmful images and then say, “It’s okay, I’m 1/16th such-and-such.” No, this is not okay. The main thing to remember is that it’s your heritage. As in, you want to be respectful of yourself, your family and the people within the culture you’re learning about.

    With this, remember, when you start to learn, if you are able to speak to a Native person, you may very well come across someone who doesn’t really want to deal with you. If that happens, try not to take it personally. It’s not that they don’t think your Native “enough” it’s that, people like to “Play” at being Native. We’re talking about people. Not just any people but people who are extremely under represented, overlooked, belittled, made into caricatures and left to die, literally. I am 1/8th Cherokee and I don’t talk about that because I have zero connection to that portion of my heritage. Other than having my Grandmother’s fabulous cheek bones that is! (Oh yeah, I said it!) For me, it was my bone structure that allowed me access. I was told I looked the part, that they could tell by the way I looked that I was part Native. None the less, what I learned from the people who were kind enough to sit with me was more of a “Native history” not so much MY heritage. It’s important to note the difference.

    Finding out more about your own heritage is a beautiful thing that everyone should be encouraged to do. Just, don’t let it turn you into an asshole. "

    1. I liked this video along the same lines - :)

      I think the best thing about having this in my family, whether legend or not, is not to be able to claim anything for myself but instead to be attuned to the issues of the Native American community today; just to gain more awareness of how not to be a jerk in everyday life.


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