Authenticating American-ness
October 1, 2015 10:06 AM   Subscribe

 
I swear, every "Why... Americans...?" question can be answered with "Racism."
posted by Etrigan at 10:11 AM on October 1, 2015 [40 favorites]


Previous discussion from about a year ago on this.
posted by phunniemee at 10:12 AM on October 1, 2015 [3 favorites]


Because we all believe in life after love.
posted by srboisvert at 10:12 AM on October 1, 2015 [8 favorites]


I blame Paul Revere.
posted by entropicamericana at 10:16 AM on October 1, 2015 [2 favorites]


Why? Basically because it's cool, that's why. One can either be plain boring white-bread, or something a bit more interesting: some little bit of the exciting-but-not-too-exotic.
posted by easily confused at 10:16 AM on October 1, 2015 [7 favorites]


Why do so many Americans think they have Cherokee ancestry?

It's hereditary.
 
posted by Herodios at 10:17 AM on October 1, 2015 [29 favorites]


it was so weird to me to see this meme all over the country because i grew up a stone's throw from the cherokee nation and a huge portion of people around me were/are card carrying cherokee. it didn't occur to me to be suspicious about the claim until i noticed how widespread it was outside of my area.
posted by nadawi at 10:17 AM on October 1, 2015 [7 favorites]


I teach a class on DNA and genealogy, and one of the first things I always tell classes is that they are probably much less Native American than they believe themselves to be. However, I say, you probably are a lot more African than you expect.

It's pretty rare that people respond to this with happiness. Even to this day, white people seem to want to be a little but Indian, but not black at all.
posted by maxsparber at 10:20 AM on October 1, 2015 [84 favorites]


just in case people don't make it to page 2, this is a fantastic part of the article :
By claiming a royal Cherokee ancestor, white Southerners were legitimating the antiquity of their native-born status as sons or daughters of the South, as well as establishing their determination to defend their rights against an aggressive federal government, as they imagined the Cherokees had done. These may have been self-serving historical delusions, but they have proven to be enduring.
posted by nadawi at 10:22 AM on October 1, 2015 [40 favorites]


This was particularly interesting to me:

The Cherokees resisted state and federal efforts to remove them from their Southeastern homelands during the 1820s and 1830s. During that time, most whites saw them as an inconvenient nuisance, an obstacle to colonial expansion. But after their removal, the tribe came to be viewed more romantically, especially in the antebellum South, where their determination to maintain their rights of self-government against the federal government took on new meaning. Throughout the South in the 1840s and 1850s, large numbers of whites began claiming they were descended from a Cherokee great-grandmother. That great-grandmother was often a “princess,” a not-inconsequential detail in a region obsessed with social status and suspicious of outsiders. By claiming a royal Cherokee ancestor, white Southerners were legitimating the antiquity of their native-born status as sons or daughters of the South, as well as establishing their determination to defend their rights against an aggressive federal government, as they imagined the Cherokees had done. These may have been self-serving historical delusions, but they have proven to be enduring.
posted by Greg Nog at 10:23 AM on October 1, 2015 [14 favorites]


well well well looks like me and nadawi must now duel to the death in the time-honored southern tradition
posted by Greg Nog at 10:23 AM on October 1, 2015 [64 favorites]


I used to say I had cherokee blood on my mom's side, and she got curious and looked it up and it was BS. The BS had been around for four generations. She left home pretty young and didn't look back, hence the overall lack of interest in heritage. Makes me cringe to think back on though.
posted by Stonestock Relentless at 10:24 AM on October 1, 2015 [2 favorites]


well well well looks like me and nadawi must now duel to the death in the time-honored southern tradition

Drinking mint juleps until one of you passes out?
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 10:25 AM on October 1, 2015 [35 favorites]


mint juleps are after the muddin' - my daddy's skeeterpee is before.
posted by nadawi at 10:28 AM on October 1, 2015 [8 favorites]


Because some of us are?

My maternal grandparents were/are Cherokee. Papa was from North Carolina and Granny is from Oklahoma.

I don't look very Native American, because I look like my Daddy who is 100% Polish. Papa's last name is one seen often in the name roles, so I'm confident about the heritage, plus the whole family members who still live in Oklahoma that have direct connections to the tribe.
posted by SuzySmith at 10:29 AM on October 1, 2015 [9 favorites]


Drinking mint juleps until one of you passes out?

You forget about the tradition of Southern teetotaling, where you we just shoot each other but do not touch alcohol because the Bible says not to, probably.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 10:31 AM on October 1, 2015 [6 favorites]


My mom's side of the family swears they're Cherokee and apparently you can find family members on the Dawes Rolls and so on, but I've long stopped claiming any Native ancestry because I look about as white as white can get. We've also found records of slave holdings by that side of the family so I'm just going to say the past is complicated and move on.
posted by downtohisturtles at 10:33 AM on October 1, 2015 [4 favorites]


My grandmother claims to have Cherokee ancestry, despite the fact that none of her ancestors are even American. She has a fairly unconvincing story about some sailor or other picking up his Indian princess in North Carolina and taking her back to British West Indies. This, along with the less dubious but still extremely minor trace of Portuguese Sephardic ancestry, is used as an explanation for the families dark complexion that conveniently doesn't include any black people, as maxsparber mentions above.
posted by bracems at 10:33 AM on October 1, 2015 [9 favorites]


This reminds me of a recent Ancestry.com advertisement. Some generic looking white man in his mid 30s is talking about how he always believed he was from Germany and then he went to the website, did some blood test or filled out their form or whatever the hell Ancestry.com does to tell you about your heritage/culture and it ends with him saying: "Turns out I'm not actually German, I'm Scottish. I traded my lederhosen for a kilt." Flash to man wearing kilt and drinking a beer or something. As if its just that easy to claim another culture and to put on some form of costume or dress and boom, that's what you are. Which I guess, is what many people do, despite how complicated that might be with regards to issues of identity, culture, appropriation, etc.
posted by Fizz at 10:33 AM on October 1, 2015 [7 favorites]


Why do so many Americans think they have Cherokee ancestry?
It's hereditary.
used to say I had cherokee blood on my mom's side, and she got curious and looked it up and it was BS. The BS had been around for four generations.

That is exactly what I meant.
 
posted by Herodios at 10:35 AM on October 1, 2015 [19 favorites]


i don't think this article is discussing people with verified blood and ties to the nation, but rather the people who are all "my great-great-great grandmother was a cherokee princess but i weirdly don't have anything that proves that besides my own sense of inner self, still mark it down on the census!"
posted by nadawi at 10:36 AM on October 1, 2015 [20 favorites]


This all kind of reminds me of people who will look up their solar/lunar horoscope profiles in order to find excuses for their behavior quirks.
posted by JohnFromGR at 10:42 AM on October 1, 2015 [3 favorites]


You're right, nadawi. I just get annoyed that every time an article comes out like this, people look at me funny when we discuss heritage.

I am part Cherokee, but I will admit my family did hide it at times as it was easier for them to survive by hiding it. It's a shame, but I have learned a lot from the parts of the family who haven't hidden it, but embraced it.
posted by SuzySmith at 10:42 AM on October 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


I think family lore has a lot to do with it. Especially with something that is incredibly hard to prove or disprove conclusively, and can bring some benefits (preferred hiring/affirmative action, scholarships, etc.) without having to actually have to be a minority or deal with the downsides of being minority. Look at Elizabeth Warren or Ward Churchill, both probably earnestly believed they had native ancestry, but without serious digging there was no way to prove it. And if you have been told something about your ancestry your whole life, why disbelieve it?
posted by holybagel at 10:43 AM on October 1, 2015 [6 favorites]


One reason these family myths could be so widespread is that a lot of many-generations-Americans' ancestors (and, it pains me to admit, ancestors of many Canadians like me) first arrived in the South and hung around there for a few generations before spreading out in several waves. And, well, if you're supposedly Scots-Irish or whatever, how do you explain so-and-so's complexion, at a time when admitting to one drop of African blood means effectively surrendering all your human rights, but one drop of Indian blood means you're special? Kind of a no-brainer.
posted by Sys Rq at 10:44 AM on October 1, 2015 [18 favorites]


The article seems to suggest that a lot of people think they have Cherokee ancestry because ... a lot of people (if not as many , presumably) actually do have Cherokee ancestry, thanks to a tendency to exogamy facilitating higher rates of intermarriage with European arrivals and later on a close association (including slaveholding, alas) with African Americans.
posted by MattD at 10:47 AM on October 1, 2015 [9 favorites]


Flash to man wearing kilt and drinking a beer or something. As if its just that easy to claim another culture and to put on some form of costume or dress and boom, that's what you are.

Isn't that what many waves of early immigrants came to the US buying as The American Dream though, Fizz? A lot of persecuted cultural minorities definitely came to the US in the early days specifically hoping to shed their old cultural identities and invent or adopt new ones... That's part of why reliable family names for a lot of older immigrants can be so hard to come by. Many wanted a new shot at life starting with a blank slate and so deliberately obscured their family names.

More seriously, I definitely think with the Cherokee ancestry thing, it's partly about feeling more authentically American, a way to claim a natural right to an American cultural identity or something like that. I can also buy the article's idea that it has to do with the Confederacy appropriating Cherokee heritage as a sort of symbol of their state's rights framing of the conflict, but I don't personally have any experience with Confederate sympathizers claiming Cherokee ancestry, as my dad (who was a new-Confederate type) wasn't biologically related to my grandfather, and my grandfather was no Confederate sympathizer despite identifying strongly as culturally Southern.
posted by saulgoodman at 10:48 AM on October 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


mint juleps are after the muddin' - my daddy's skeeterpee is before.

will there be any noodling or gigging of wildlife?
posted by poffin boffin at 10:50 AM on October 1, 2015 [4 favorites]


A lot of persecuted cultural minorities definitely came to the US in the early days specifically hoping to shed their old cultural identities and invent or adopt new ones... That's part of why reliable family names for a lot of older immigrants can be so hard to come by. Many wanted a new shot at life starting with a blank slate and so deliberately obscured their family names.

I'd say it's significantly less "I want to obscure my background" than "I think* America wants me to obscure my background."

* -- Justifiably so, in most cases.
posted by Etrigan at 10:51 AM on October 1, 2015 [2 favorites]


I had a professor (Native American studies) who was skeptical, but noted it's nearly always a woman who's cited, likely because most of the men had died from disease and conflicts.
posted by lazycomputerkids at 10:53 AM on October 1, 2015 [2 favorites]


I'd say it's significantly less "I want to obscure my background" than "I think* America wants me to obscure my background."

Melting pot.
posted by Fizz at 10:55 AM on October 1, 2015


I think it is also a form of self-inoculation (or so white people think) against claims of racism. This guy my dad knows was saying gross racist things about immigrants, and my dad said “unless you are a native american, you are ALSO an immigrant,” and the dude was all I AM 1/16TH CHEROKEE GOTCHAAAAAAAAA.

No. No gotcha. You are gross. And the claim you just made is almost definitely 16/16ths untrue.
posted by a fiendish thingy at 10:56 AM on October 1, 2015 [20 favorites]


I've had multiple people approach me and ask me if I was part Cherokee (or if I'm 'Black Irish'). In some cases, it's clearly just a weird pickup line, but not in all cases. I really do not know why identifying Cherokees and Black Irish in the wild is an obsession with some people.

My mom's family is largely Native American, but I don't know what tribe or nation. I suspect it's easier in a lot of cases for people to just say 'Cherokee' because everyone has heard of them and you don't have to get into any deep explanations.
posted by tofu_crouton at 10:56 AM on October 1, 2015 [2 favorites]


I was unaware of this phenomenon until my early 20s in the early 90s, when I attended a powwow for the first time. It was a very large powwow, one of the biggest on the East Coast, and had a bunch of giant concerts and talks in it. I went to one performance, a Native American comedy showcase, with the audience of thousands who were largely Native. At one point the comedian was riffing on stupid things white people think, and started the line: "So you've all heard white people say 'My grandmother was...."

...and the audience finished it for him, shouting in unison, "A CHEROKEE PRINCESS!"

So yes, some white people really do have Cherokee ancestry, and it's not hard to verify that. But a lot more people say or think or wish they had that ancestry. This article did a good job of breaking down both truths.
posted by Miko at 10:58 AM on October 1, 2015 [23 favorites]


The article seems to suggest that a lot of people think they have Cherokee ancestry because ... a lot of people (if not as many , presumably) actually do have Cherokee ancestry, thanks to a tendency to exogamy facilitating higher rates of intermarriage with European arrivals and later on a close association (including slaveholding, alas) with African Americans.

The article suggests that lots of people think they have Cherokee ancestry because back in the day when someone decided to lie and say "I totally have Cherokee ancestry", it was easy to believe and hard to verify.
posted by 23skidoo at 10:59 AM on October 1, 2015 [3 favorites]


In a previous Mefi thread I thought I'd debunked the myth of my Cherokee great-grandmother, but new information came to light and it turns out she actually was Indian.

The fact that my grandma just told me that my great-grandfather (her father-in-law) hotly denied any suggestion that he was Indian is what made me look back into it (that, and the fact that nice white girls from Kansas in 1890 didn't usually marry Osage abolitionists).

I grew up with it considered fact and general knowledge from other still-living sons and daughters of the Cherokee great-grandma in question, but when I could only find her first husband and son on the Dawes rolls I kind of assumed my great-great grandfather was an opportunistic cracker who took advantage of his stepson's homesteading rights on the Osage reservation. Which he still did, but at least it was also his wife's homesteading rights he was taking advantage of.

Anyway, I grew up in a family where the living elders who could confirm that they'd grown up on a reservation raised by their Cherokee mother were extremely reluctant to do so, while the rest of us understood it to be fact and didn't really question them (until I did, last year). Considering nearly all of her children moved to California seperately and settled around Los Angeles, I am guessing they faced a lot of discrimination in the Midwest.
posted by annathea at 11:00 AM on October 1, 2015 [9 favorites]


Re: my last I guess I also could have assumed it was true because nobody ever claimed she was a princess. :/
posted by annathea at 11:01 AM on October 1, 2015 [5 favorites]


MattD is right, this article is very strange. It's missing some pieces.

It spends the entire first part explaining why many people do have Cherokee ancestry. Then it jumps to theories about why people would claim Cherokee ancestry, and actions Native activists have taken regarding false claims.

But it doesn't explain why relatively widespread belief in Cherokee ancestry is wrong, when it spent time showing that such belief may be largely justified given historical Cherokee intermarriage practices and later forced government dispersion across the country.


i don't think this article is discussing people with verified blood and ties to the nation, but rather the people who are all "my great-great-great grandmother was a cherokee princess but i weirdly don't have anything that proves that besides my own sense of inner self, still mark it down on the census!"
nadawi

What kind of proof would you have? A vial of your ancestor's blood preserved for DNA testing? Detailed genealogical records? If some member of your family did intermarry with a Cherokee in colonial times, which apparently was fairly prevalent, it's more likely than not there wouldn't be any record of that around today beyond family lore.

The article suggests that lots of people think they have Cherokee ancestry because back in the day when someone decided to lie and say "I totally have Cherokee ancestry", it was easy to believe and hard to verify.
23skidoo

The article suggests that after carefully showing how there was in fact a large amount of intermarriage between Cherokee and non-Cherokee, at times a conscious strategy pursued by the strategy. It's missing the step proving deception, it just suggests that it may have happened in the South.
posted by Sangermaine at 11:02 AM on October 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


There was a fascinating TAL about a racist Southern radio personality who was bitter about being cut loose by his political cronies. He became a recluse, lived under another name and eventually wrote a classic children's book about a young native boy. At the time of publication, the book was widely interpreted as a plea for racial tolerance and later when the real author was brought to light, as an about-face of his political views. The TAL story had a more open ended interpretation, one that this article fits nicely into.

Our family always assumed my Quebecois grandfather was part native (because of his general "look" and very sparse facial hair), so I did the National Geographic DNA test it it turns out I'm solidly Scots-Irish/Irish/French. I have to admit to feeling a bit let down by the sexual wussiness of my ancestors.
posted by bonobothegreat at 11:02 AM on October 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


I sat in a Jeep Cherokee once. That counts, right?
posted by blue_beetle at 11:03 AM on October 1, 2015 [10 favorites]


My racist grandmother claimed Cherokee princess whatever. Oddly enough, all her brothers and sisters were fair-skinned, blond-haired, blue-eyed, and dumb as rocks, while she was darker, brunette, had the only brown eyes on BOTH SIDES of the family (big families too), and was valedictorian.

Something happened there, but it's been swept under the table and lost to the rodents of death and dementia. My grandfather's grandfather died two years before his mother was born, so the carefully-researched-but-politically-correct family trees on that side are incorrect as well.

People tell me I must be Irish because I'm a white guy with a big-ass head. That's really the only descent I feel comfortable claiming.
posted by infinitewindow at 11:04 AM on October 1, 2015 [2 favorites]


There was a fascinating TAL about a racist Southern radio personality who was bitter about being cut loose by his political cronies. He became a recluse, lived under another name and eventually wrote a classic children's book about a young native boy. At the time of publication, the book was widely interpreted as a plea for racial tolerance and later when the real author was brought to light, as an about-face of his political views. The TAL story had a more open ended interpretation, one that this article fits nicely into.

I assume you're talking about Asa Carter and The Education of Little Tree.
posted by overeducated_alligator at 11:05 AM on October 1, 2015 [6 favorites]


I blame Paul Revere.

That was exactly my first thought as well. You must be old like me.
posted by JanetLand at 11:05 AM on October 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


What kind of proof would you have? A vial of your ancestor's blood preserved for DNA testing? Detailed genealogical records?

well actually every human being alive today has something called DNA which can be analyzed for ancestry markers.
posted by poffin boffin at 11:06 AM on October 1, 2015 [16 favorites]


I blame Paul Revere.

"Go LEFT, Connor, LEFT!"

could he not get his own fucking horse, wtf
posted by poffin boffin at 11:06 AM on October 1, 2015 [6 favorites]


Thank you O_A.
posted by bonobothegreat at 11:07 AM on October 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


well actually every human being alive today has something called DNA which can be analyzed for ancestry markers.
poffin boffin

Sure, but nadawi was mocking people for claiming Cherokee ancestry without "proof". They claim it because they've been told by their families that they have it. I doubt you submit to DNA analysis before making any claims about your family history either.
posted by Sangermaine at 11:08 AM on October 1, 2015 [3 favorites]


This goes back much further than what's mentioned in the article. Some of the earliest works of "new world" literature are captivity narratives, stories like that of Mary Rowlandson where Christians are abducted by native tribes and forced to live as a native. These stories were and are hugely popular -- there's a straight line between Mary Rowlandson, Qannah Parker, and Dances With Wolves -- and it's likely they helped legitimize the idea of whites having connection to native culture.

It's like people who read Harry Potter and now think they have an ancestor who was killed in the Salem Witch trials. You repeat that story for a few generations and it becomes a defacto part of your identity.

blue_beetle: I sat in a Jeep Cherokee once. That counts, right?

Yes, especially if it was your fathers.
posted by nathan_teske at 11:08 AM on October 1, 2015 [5 favorites]


Greg Nog: “This was particularly interesting to me:”

from article: “The Cherokees resisted state and federal efforts to remove them from their Southeastern homelands during the 1820s and 1830s. During that time, most whites saw them as an inconvenient nuisance, an obstacle to colonial expansion. But after their removal, the tribe came to be viewed more romantically, especially in the antebellum South, where their determination to maintain their rights of self-government against the federal government took on new meaning. Throughout the South in the 1840s and 1850s, large numbers of whites began claiming they were descended from a Cherokee great-grandmother. That great-grandmother was often a “princess,” a not-inconsequential detail in a region obsessed with social status and suspicious of outsiders. By claiming a royal Cherokee ancestor, white Southerners were legitimating the antiquity of their native-born status as sons or daughters of the South, as well as establishing their determination to defend their rights against an aggressive federal government, as they imagined the Cherokees had done. These may have been self-serving historical delusions, but they have proven to be enduring.”

It's interesting to me because it's basically the diametric opposite of the historical truth. The federal government on the whole didn't initially want to remove the Cherokee – it should be noted that the Federalists who wrote the Constitution did so in large part because they were tired of individual states wantonly violating the treaties that the U.S. as a whole had signed with Native nations. It was the state of Georgia which thirsted for land or blood, and it was the emergent southern power bloc that got Jackson elected to the presidency so they could obtain one or the other. John Marshall's Supreme Court did some good standing against Georgia and insisting that tribes are sovereign and must be allowed deal directly with the federal government, but Jackson was in a position to manipulate that trust, and used the time-honored American method of finding some hapless Cherokee somewhere to put his name on a piece of paper and then insisting that that hapless Cherokee somehow spoke for the entire nation. ("Oh, but don't you know? They don't believe in authority figures the way we do! So this was just the best leader we could find... Still, I suppose it's as valid as any treaty, isn't it?") President Andrew Jackson, a Southern man through and through, was doing a favor for Georgia by bending the federal government to their will. This involved both President Jackson and the state of Georgia wholeheartedly violating the principles of tribal sovereignty set out by the Supreme Court.

So the Indian Removal was not Natives "defending their rights against an aggressive federal government." It was Natives being violated by white Georgians, of their own accord, with the permission and forbearance of a newly-elected Tennesseean in the White House, in violation of the express dictates of the Supreme Court, which had ruled that tribes are sovereign nations and had a right to direct negotiation with the federal government (something they were utterly denied) and could not be constrained by the states.

It was, in sum, the opening shot of the Civil War. It was the beginning of the conflict in which individual states insisted they had the rights to exploit and destroy minorities at their whim, in violation and contravention of federal authority, and that the federal government, the duly elected government of the people, had no authority to stop them. Georgia was already seceding then. They just didn't call it that yet. And the Cherokees who were so viciously removed from their lands stayed in the popular imagination, germinating the seeds of the abolition movement.

So for anybody to suggest that the Cherokees were in any way an analogue of the rebellious Southern state governments during the Civil War is brutally and laughably false.
posted by koeselitz at 11:09 AM on October 1, 2015 [75 favorites]


Blech, because our tribe is in the midst of some pretty ugly infighting regarding our roll with the non-negligible chance that folks will be disenrolled and/or a certain subset of first-generation (read: children of tribal members, myself included in this ever-so-fucked group) individuals will be forever blocked from being on the roll in the future this sort of thing really hits home and stings in a very real way.

I grew up in a family where the living elders who could confirm that they'd grown up on a reservation raised by their Cherokee mother were extremely reluctant to do so...

I am guessing they faced a lot of discrimination in the Midwest.
[emphasis mine]

From the South but yep, that's exactly our situation as well. Part of the issue my family is facing is that rather than be labeled as Indian on a certain year's census we have a member who is listed as Black, despite being noted as (correctly) Indian on the other years' census records. Turns out it was often better to be listed as Black in the 1800s and since our tribe happens to be playing a legal game of three card monte with the census records they decide to honor, our family is looking down the barrel of disenrollment. The root cause of this recent political turn of events? You guessed it: money. The fewer folks on the roll, the less ways some recent capital gains have to be split, doubly so when first generation promotions to full members comes up.

Sorry for the derail, it's just fucking frustrating enough to be dealing with this among people who should just damn well know better than to disenfranchise their peers via legal manipulation because, guess what, it's not like it's something that hasn't been done enough to us from outside entities.

I guess what I'm saying is that as much as I hate to think of non-Indian folks claiming the heritage, and associated suffering of course, as their own... it's about a million times worse when it's being used as a cudgel within our own ranks due to greed and selfishness.
posted by RolandOfEld at 11:09 AM on October 1, 2015 [31 favorites]


By claiming a royal Cherokee ancestor, white Southerners were legitimating the antiquity of their native-born status

While the article doesn't go into it, the pattern of a specific claim to royal descent is something that stems from an actual historical marriage between an English colonist and a Native American princess, that of Powhatan's daughter Pocahontas to John Rolfe in Jamestown in 1614. Their son Thomas has many descendants among the culture group known as the First Families of Virginia and that heritage is zealously celebrated. (The self-applied title can reasonably be disputed, of course.)

Post-colonial intermarriage to the daughters of the previous regime was also practiced by the conquistadors in Mexico, so the basic idea, that of the conqueror marrying the old king's daughter, is about conquest and assimilation or intertwining.

The twist that makes the claims particularly problematic is that of course in 1691 Virginia effectively outlawed interracial marriage:

And for prevention of that abominable mixture and spurious issue which hereafter may encrease in this dominion, as well by negroes, mulattoes, and Indians intermarrying with English, or other white women, as by their unlawfull accompanying with one another, Be it enacted by the authoritie aforesaid, and it is hereby enacted, that for the time to come, whatsoever English or other white man or woman being free shall intermarry with a negroe, mulatto, or Indian man or woman bond or free shall within three months after such marriage be banished and removed from this dominion forever, and that the justices of each respective countie within this dominion make it their perticular care, that this act be put in effectuall execution.

Thereafter, public records of mixed marriages dropped off considerably.

The emergence of the idea of royal Cherokee ancestry in the 1840s as a pop-culture phenomenon is one that echoes a set of historic events. These events were used to legitimate economic and cultural sovereignty and at the same time to erect and defend perceived genealogical boundaries, in part by making a boundary once crossed by the high-status group inaccessible and outlawed, therefore preserving its' scarcity.
posted by mwhybark at 11:10 AM on October 1, 2015 [4 favorites]


Sherman Alexie wrote a poem that I think is relevant here. These are the closing lines of "How to Write the Great American Indian Novel":
An Indian man can be hidden inside a white woman. An Indian woman
can be hidden inside a white man. In these rare instances,

everybody is a half-breed struggling to learn more about his or her horse culture.
There must be redemption, of course, and sins must be forgiven.

For this, we need children. A white child and an Indian child, gender
not important, should express deep affection in a childlike way.

In the Great American Indian novel, when it is finally written,
all of the white people will be Indians and all of the Indians will be ghosts.
posted by compartment at 11:11 AM on October 1, 2015 [35 favorites]


Sure, but nadawi was mocking people for claiming Cherokee ancestry without "proof".

just since you seem to be keeping score, i too am mocking them.
posted by poffin boffin at 11:12 AM on October 1, 2015 [13 favorites]


I always find this amusing, because when you get closer to Mexico, the impulse flips. I'm surprised the article didn't highlight the fact that native american ancestry was a defense against an allegation of african ancestry.

I've always antagonized my grandmother that we probably had a fair amount of Native American ancestry. There weren't a lot of Spanish women who came over in the 1500's.

But a Spanish heritage allowed her family to enjoy a bit of class privilege on her border town. And eventually leave the Texas border and be accepted as white (with the occasional insinuation she might be Italian or Jewish).

When I got around to sending in my results, I was vindicated. 6.25% Native American. Pretty large percentage considering how white her husband and my father are.

Not that it much matters. My european genes are just as colonialist as my ancestors. The sole attribute of my minority heritage is a fuller backside.
posted by politikitty at 11:13 AM on October 1, 2015 [3 favorites]


I grew up with my mother telling me that her mother's side of the family had a Cherokee member, this in Southwest Virginia. A potential person who's photograph we have and would be something like my great-great-grandmother at least, did have what appeared to be a dark complexion. It was also a complexion that made me wonder if she didn't have some amount of African ancestry, instead.

I actually did the Ancestry.com DNA test, which has its flaws, and it noted that I didn't even have a trace of Native American DNA. A family claim that I had been suspicious of had another supporting piece of evidence, I thought, but then I saw my mom's brother's results from the same test...and darndest, right there was some trace Native American hits. So now I want to get her tested and see her results.

One really awful "I'm a Cherokee!" problem we have in Missouri are those who claim to be from the Northern Cherokee tribe, a people who split away from the Trail of Tears and settled in Missouri. These people are continually called out as and proven to be frauds, but continue to claim otherwise.
posted by Atreides at 11:15 AM on October 1, 2015


The article suggests that after carefully showing how there was in fact a large amount of intermarriage between Cherokee and non-Cherokee, at times a conscious strategy pursued by the strategy. It's missing the step proving deception, it just suggests that it may have happened in the South.

It's also missing the step that proves that most people who claim Cherokee ancestry are actually Cherokee. "But Cherokees intermarried alot!" isn't supporting evidence that most Cherokee ancestry claims are authentic.
posted by 23skidoo at 11:19 AM on October 1, 2015


I'm from Georgia originally, descended from white folks from Tennessee and North Carolina on my mom's side, and the Cherokee story was always told to us as kids. My great-great-grandma was dark-skinned, wore her hair in a long braid, so that was that, right? Except that once I started doing research online, I came across the Melungeons and found that her maiden name was one of the common Melungeon family names, and she was from one of the Melungeon areas in Tennessee. Found her in the 1910 Census listed as "Mulatto." So I got tested... AncestryDNA gives me 3% African DNA; 23andMe gives me 2.5% Sub-Saharan African and 0.1% Native American. Unsurprisingly, no one on that side of the family wants to hear anything about it; Mammy was not black, she was Cherokee, case closed. (Yes, everyone called her Mammy. Denial ain't just a river in Egypt.)
posted by candyland at 11:20 AM on October 1, 2015 [16 favorites]


Because of grandparents with high cheekbones.
posted by gyc at 11:21 AM on October 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


I will point out that the ethnicity estimate in DNA tests is basically junk science now, and a lot of it is based on self-reported ethnicity. It is, at best, a best guess based on what people like you think they are, and so should be treated cautiously.

My DNA test from 23andme has me at 0.1 percent Native American. I have my biological mother's family tree back to five generations, mostly back to Ireland, and there are no Native Americans there. I don't have my biological father's records (haven't found out who he was yet), but he was a British citizen who was only briefly in Alaska, so ... possible but unlikely.

Listen, like a lot of Americans, I'd love to claim some Native Ancestry. Even those of us Americans who don't have native DNA are heirs to a lot of the legacy of the American indigenous population, which has deeply influenced our diet, our environment, our language, etc., far more so that we generally realize or give credit to. It's a terrific heritage and I'd be very proud to even have a trace of it in my past.

But I'm not trusting the DNA tests here. Not until the sample size is much larger and less based on self-reporting. Because a lot of white folks without any Indian in them think otherwise, and I suspect that's skewing the results.
posted by maxsparber at 11:22 AM on October 1, 2015 [5 favorites]


it didn't occur to me to be suspicious about the claim until i noticed how widespread it was outside of my area.

Same here. Card-carrying Cherokee who can trace lineage up to this guy. It was weird to have people question me on it; I used to carry my Cherokee Nation membership card almost like a Navy challenge coin.
posted by dw at 11:22 AM on October 1, 2015 [6 favorites]


Herodios: "That is exactly what I meant."

My great-grandmother believed she had Potowatomi (not Cherokee) blood. She was an orphan, raised in a Catholic orphanage by nuns. She knew she had been abandoned by an unmarried young woman at the orphanage as a newborn; at the time of her birth there were still quite a few Native Americans in the area but white settlement was well-established, and the nuns were active with the local Native community. She had read old newspapers and birth records and whatnot, and there was a scandal with an unmarried couple, woman was white, man was allegedly Indian, with a baby resulting right about the time she was born. I think the man was charged with a crime, but fled the jurisdiction? Anyway, she firmly believed she was that baby (and also, without any evidence that I'm aware of, that it had been a love match that the families disapproved of).

It is possibly true? I mean, it wasn't an uncommon story at the time, and she was definitely abandoned as an infant at an orphanage by an unmarried woman. (And from the scraps of narrative she turned up, the modern critical eye says, "Yeah this could basically be referring to any sort of non-white man who wasn't part of the dominant community; he could have been literally Greek and these would have read the same.") But I think the narrative about the love match and the Native father and so on was important to her because she faced a lot of discrimination and social nastiness because she was an orphan. (I mean, when she'd been married 20 years and had 3 kids, her inlaws would still say nasty things to her about it and whenever anything went wrong, like she'd burn the roast and they'd be like, "Well, what do you expect from an orphaned bastard?"*) I do truly think it was something she needed to feel special and to make her origin story -- which was probably more likely to involve either violence or alcohol or seduction -- into something more romantic and loving.

One detail that's interesting is that she was a bit dark compared to the Germans and Scandinavians and Irish settlers in the area ... in a painting we have of her, they painted her very pale and rosy, but in the photographs we have of her, you can see that she's much darker and her facial features are more distinctive than the painter captured. But it's hard to know if he just wasn't a very good painter and she was 100% Northern European and just happened to have darker skin, or if she was being literally "white-washed" of multi-racial background.

When I was 10ish I took her story at face value but by the time I was in high school I understood it as an emotionally complicated filling-in of her unknowable origins, from a different era when unknown parentage was a bigger deal. I've actually always thought the story she created/filled in for herself would make an excellent historical romance novel, but it's a much more interesting story when you consider the unreliability of the narrator (my great-grandmother) and how her desires shape the narrative, and you can't really include that part in a straight-up historical romance.

I'm sort-of curious to do 23-and-me, but that also feels like cheating somehow. Like the ambiguity is the important part of the story! (BTW I do not say I'm part-Native when asked, I usually just say "Irish and other stuff.")

*Maybe if she had lived to see Hamilton that could have been her narrative instead! :)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 11:26 AM on October 1, 2015 [14 favorites]


[Couple of comments deleted. We've had two threads and the linked articles about this to explain why it's thought to be a problem. Just coming in with "so what" without acknowledging the particulars of the US white/native situation is just going to lead to a fight not a discussion.]
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 11:28 AM on October 1, 2015 [3 favorites]


[Another comment deleted. Sorry, we're not going to the Rachel Dolezal place with this.]
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 11:29 AM on October 1, 2015 [12 favorites]


Even if a now-white family does have a trace of Native American DNA, what's interesting to me is why they would choose to proclaim that heritage and even record it on a census vs. other parts of their no-doubt-incredibly-mixed-ethnicity background. My grandfather claims we have Native American heritage, which I haven't found yet genealogically*, but even if it's true, why is he proud of that undoubtedly miniscule heritage in particular and not, say, the fact that he's 1/4 Swedish? So I thought that part of the article was interesting.

*(I strongly suspect he misread the place name "Indiana" in his mother's family bible, but that's neither here nor there.
posted by muddgirl at 11:35 AM on October 1, 2015 [3 favorites]


"But Cherokees intermarried alot!" isn't supporting evidence that most Cherokee ancestry claims are authentic.
23skidoo

But it is supporting evidence that those beliefs aren't prima facie unreasonable. The article establishes that there is reason to believe that a good amount of intermarriage occurred, and therefore that today there would be a number of descendants of those intermarriages.

Of course this isn't to say that all claims of Cherokee ancestry should be immediately accepted, just that such claims shouldn't be met with the instant derision I'm seeing in this thread when there is apparently a sound basis for such beliefs.
posted by Sangermaine at 11:36 AM on October 1, 2015 [5 favorites]


Holy crap am I glad I refreshed before posting my reply/rebuttal comment.

Thanks mods, really. I can now walk away from this thread without going off the chain about how common it really is for folks to claim, often in the form of countering my statement of heritage, they are truly Indian in some way, shape, or form.

I'm looking at my own mother-in-law. Among others... but enough of that.

which I haven't found yet genealogically

As an aside, it can be hard to find. My mom worked, and continues to work to this day, for about 20 years putting all our pieces together with regards to our genealogical history. Even now she's got dead ends that are simply not there in the records and will likely go unknown forevermore. It's not like you can just walk into the Native American Church of The Land, Evelasting (a bad pun but I'm in a hurry) and look at the birth/baptismal/family records for certain centuries. Good luck.
posted by RolandOfEld at 11:40 AM on October 1, 2015 [6 favorites]


instant derision? or derision based upon knowing a lot of provably mixed cherokee people and seeing how their stories are very different than those who claim to be a long lost descendent of a cherokee princess...

and beyond that, yeah, muddgirl's point about how true or not, the way that some people prioritize their supposed cherokee ancestry above other stronger ties is an interesting part of all of this.
posted by nadawi at 11:41 AM on October 1, 2015


I thought it was just because it was profitable, but no, it was a different world back when such heritage couldn't be easily verified but did offer major social innoculation.

Wild.
posted by effugas at 11:43 AM on October 1, 2015


Huh. You know, I remember my mother once telling me ages ago that I had some vanishingly small amount of Cherokee ancestry (in the neighborhood of 1/64th or or 1/128th or something), but I never have actually tried to verify it. No idea where she got her information, if it was information, and not just something her mother told her. I haven't thought about that in years.
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 11:45 AM on October 1, 2015




It's not like it isn't easy to check, these days. $99 bucks, less if you find a sale. I used 23 and Me, which had the added advantage of locating six people who shared one of my two stretches of American Indian DNA, and allowing me to pinpoint the likely source (Powhatan, in my case.)

A lot of non-NA Americans do have some NA ancestors, but I suspect it doesn't map that well with the people who have the family legend.
posted by tavella at 11:49 AM on October 1, 2015 [2 favorites]


how their stories are very different than those who claim to be a long lost descendent of a cherokee princess...
nadawi

I don't think this sort of thing is confined to claims of Cherokee ancestry, though. All the people I know who are really into their European ancestors all have some kind of claim to nobility or relation to some important person, or that their ancestors were involved in some historically significant event. Or how people who claim to have had past lives were invariably someone important or part of some notable group.

I guess people generally just don't like saying their ancestors were common people.
posted by Sangermaine at 11:49 AM on October 1, 2015 [7 favorites]


My mom's family is from Oklahoma, and growing up she always told me that one of her great-grandmothers was Crow. A few years ago we were looking through old family photos together, and my mom showed me a photo of the great-grandmother and great-grandfather. As soon as I saw the photo I said, "Mom, she's not Native American, she's black." My mom looked at the photo again and said, "Wow! You're right! Why did everyone always say she was Crow?" I just looked at her and said, "Um, you've met your family. Why do you think?"
posted by odayoday at 11:54 AM on October 1, 2015 [33 favorites]


I don't think this sort of thing is confined to claims of Cherokee ancestry, though.

yes, but this thread is about the cherokee claims. should there be a thread about charlemagne i imagine we'd talk about how people mention him as a way to elevate their own history (but at least that one is more historically supported than the claims we're discussing here).
posted by nadawi at 11:56 AM on October 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


My dad is 3/8 Cherokee and 1/2 Choctaw. My grandfather hunted / poached every bit of meat his family ate. When we visited in 1959 we ate canned bear meat. I have a cousin farther down the line who took a PhD, courtesy of the Cherokee tribe, on just my aunt's records. Her husband was full Cherokee, they were my favorite relatives. My heritage cleared right up when I worked on the Navajo Nation for a year, recently. My students played many of the games we did, growing up. Being around the Navajo horse people was like coming home.

I can see why people would want to embrace Native American roots, this is a beautiful land. With the exception of farmers and ranchers there is only a recent turn to love of the natural world. This is something seen as inherent to Native American thought and spiritual practice. Who wouldn't want to dye those victorian roots? I am also a direct descendant of Mary Dyer, the first woman hanged in America, on my mother's side.
posted by Oyéah at 11:56 AM on October 1, 2015 [7 favorites]


I get called "Pocahontas" occasionally by ignorant turds, but I am pretty damn certain there is not even a trace of Native American ancestry in me, unless of course Japan is actually the long lost former coast of California. I also usually hear earnest claims of "I'm actually technically 1/16th (insert tribe of choice)" in the same breath as "OMG, I love sushi and anime!" I assume it's meant as some weird attempt to bond? But some days I can't even.
posted by Diagonalize at 12:00 PM on October 1, 2015 [2 favorites]


Of course this isn't to say that all claims of Cherokee ancestry should be immediately accepted, just that such claims shouldn't be met with the instant derision I'm seeing in this thread when there is apparently a sound basis for such beliefs.

You're conflating two things. "Having a sound reason to believe that a sizeable percentage of Americans have Cherokee ancestry" is different from "Having a sound reason to believe that most people who think they're of Cherokee ancestry actually are of Cherokee ancestry".

Is there a sound reason to believe that there are lots of Americans who have Cherokee ancestry? Sure.

Is there a sound reason to believe that most Americans who claim to be Cherokee actually are Cherokee? Totally not.
posted by 23skidoo at 12:02 PM on October 1, 2015 [8 favorites]


Sangermaine: "I guess people generally just don't like saying their ancestors were common people."

"This sad little lizard told me that he was a brontosaurus on his mother's side. I did not laugh; people who boast of ancestry often have little else to sustain them. Humouring them costs nothing and adds to happiness in a world in which happiness is always in short supply." -Heinlein

(Only of course the thread is about how it MAY cost something, not dismissing, just like the lizard/dino quote.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 12:08 PM on October 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


It's really too bad that (in the US at least) this kind of thing doesn't bring folks closer rather than creating yet another divide.
posted by OHenryPacey at 12:12 PM on October 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


[One comment deleted. "I wish this article were something other than what it is" plus dismissive snark is not a good way to engage with this obviously charged topic.]
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 12:17 PM on October 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


The article makes a claim—that many people are wrong about their claimed Cherokee ancestry—then gives no rigorous argument to support the claim.

Successful studies have been done about claims to heritage before:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Genetic_studies_of_Jewish_origins#Cohanim

But absent such evidence, it is pompous to claim that hundreds of thousands of people's beliefs about their identity is a "myth."
posted by andrewpcone at 12:25 PM on October 1, 2015 [3 favorites]


But absent such evidence, it is pompous to claim that hundreds of thousands of people's beliefs about their identity is a "myth."

Myth has a couple different meanings. I take it in the meaning that the heritage is not a documented fact, but rather a family story passed down generation-to-generation. You seem to take it to mean that it is necessarily false.

Even if a claim to Cherokee heritage isn't false, it may still be a myth to me because it's passed down without any attendant proof or even enough information to get that proof, like names or the matriarchal clan that the ancestor belonged to.
posted by muddgirl at 12:30 PM on October 1, 2015 [4 favorites]


Yeah, the point of the article didn't seem so much to be "people are lying about their Cherokee background" as "why is it important for people to make this claim"?
posted by maxsparber at 12:34 PM on October 1, 2015 [7 favorites]


Myth has a couple different meanings... You seem to take it to mean that it is necessarily false.

That's true. But, in general, the word implies something orthogonal, even if not contrary, to questions of fact. Also, when you have a title "why do so many x think y" with subtitle "The history of a myth," then I think the "false" sense of the world is clearly dominant.

The thrust of the article isn't to explain the mythological significance of claims to Indian heritage—though there is a bit of that—but to cast doubt on the veracity of heritage claims.

maxsparber: I guess I'd have to agree to disagree there.
posted by andrewpcone at 12:34 PM on October 1, 2015


mwhybark: the pattern of a specific claim to royal descent is something that stems from an actual historical marriage between an English colonist and a Native American princess

While the term might be applicable in the case of Pocahontas, it's certainly not universal for Native American nations to have leadership passed by inheritance, many tribal chiefs were in fact elected in some form. So the whole notion of royalty or of an "Indian princess" it's kind of suspect to begin with.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 12:35 PM on October 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


it is pompous to claim that hundreds of thousands of people's beliefs about their identity is a "myth."

It took me like one google search : "While just 1.7 percent of Americans self-identified as either completely or partially Native American on the 2010 census, the Cornell University Genetic Ancestry Project used genetic tests to identify Native American heritage in between 4 percent and 5 percent of the 200 undergraduates studied. That sample isn’t necessarily representative of the general population, because the students who volunteered themselves were likely curious about their backgrounds, but other projects of approximately the same size have produced similar findings. There doesn’t seem to be much correlation between an individual’s expectation and their actual ancestry, however. Many of the Cornell students who were found to have Native American blood expected to be exclusively European, and geneticists say the overwhelming majority of white Americans who expect to find Native American ancestry in their DNA are disappointed."
posted by 23skidoo at 12:35 PM on October 1, 2015 [13 favorites]


The interesting thing about these claims to me is not "is it literally true or false that this person has Cherokee ancestry" (often unknowable), but what it means that these are the stories we tell ourselves and others.

One interesting observation (which I think I stole from the blog Stuff White People Do, not to be confused with Stuff White People Like) is that most people who say this tend to keep their relationship with their (possible) Native heritage rooted firmly in the past. They're not interested in current political or social issues that "their" tribe is dealing with today. As has been touched upon in this thread, tribal membership seems to be pretty tightly controlled and subject to documentation, and these folks wouldn't pass the sniff test - but it doesn't seem like they would want to, anyway.
posted by sunset in snow country at 12:42 PM on October 1, 2015 [9 favorites]


So I've recently done a 23and me, and have also been aggressively tracking back my husband's ancestry, back to the 1300s, and what I discovered is that a lot of us have ancestry that we can't explain, or that is surprising. One of his ancestors that came from England in the 1600s turned out to have descent further up from France, Austria, and Denmark. We do not often think ten generations back. Most of us can't even begin to comprehend how far the chain of ancestry stretches.

And it is important to remember that to some extent race is a construct, and one you get to choose.

For example - it turns out that according to 23and me, I'm 2% sub Saharan African. I don't know how that comes from, or where. I have never identified as black and would find it weird to. But despite the fact that genealogy going back five generations says no, apparently I do in fact have a black ancestor somewhere on my family tree.

And I think it's important to remember how oral tradition works. When someone says "my grandmother was a Cherokee princess", they are rarely if ever talking about their mothers' mother, the 1/4 ancestry. They mean "a woman in my lineal ascent, between now and the 1600s." And in a world where 1/4 the world is a descendant of Ghengis Khan, I'm not sure how anyone can be certain anyone isn't descended from a Cherokee somewhere in the last 400 years.

It doesn't really make sense to argue or get angry at that statement. And I think when people are, it is because the statement is often being used as a shield. It makes sense to be angry at the shield - but that doesn't mean what makes up the shield is a lie.
posted by corb at 12:42 PM on October 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


anyway my 23&me said i am authentically 0.6% genetically ashkenazi jewish so this means that i get an extra slice of babka as far as im concerned

i demand babka
posted by poffin boffin at 12:42 PM on October 1, 2015 [11 favorites]


23skidoo: The two studies quoted involved 200 and 100 people and were not peer reviewed research. Of those few hundred, I can not find any record of how many stated they had Native American ancestry, and of those, how many were wrong. It's hard to imagine any general conclusion could be statistically inferred here.

Also, much of the article you linked to is devoted to discussing how testing for Native American heritage is scientifically iffy, and while future rigorous research may be possible as technology evolves, it's pretty shaky now.

I maintain that there isn't nearly enough evidence to make this claim.
posted by andrewpcone at 12:43 PM on October 1, 2015


My own clade (the same as andrewpcone? What kind of name is 'Cone') finally appears in the post. I am the great120+/-something-grandson of AARON, brother of MOSES, Mount-Sinai-mounting and from-Egypt-delivering hero of books 2-5 of the old testament. On my father's120+/-something side.
It could even be true. It has few consequences for me. Many people believe it is true, and I may even be among them. Certainly, I have never gotten any but the first aliyah.
posted by hexatron at 12:45 PM on October 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


you too may have babka
posted by poffin boffin at 12:46 PM on October 1, 2015 [18 favorites]


I maintain that there isn't nearly enough evidence to make this claim.

Funny, I say the same thing about a crapton of Americans who claim they're Native American.
posted by 23skidoo at 12:47 PM on October 1, 2015 [5 favorites]


What is interesting to me is how eager we Americans are to adopt cultures - Native American right alongside any other - so that we can nail down, once and for all, that we have a cultural identity to cling to that's not just plain "American". American-by-heritage - especially white American, is problematic and requires that we lose the magical lens of history and see that our ancestors weren't just the brave conestoga-wagon-driving settler families carving out a home in the wilderness, but that they did some ugly, ugly things along the way.

It doesn't seem to matter to a lot of us that we're very far removed from these ancestral cultures. In my nuclear family, it's really quite the thing to claim Irish heritage, even though only one great grandparent was actually born in Ireland. In my cousins family, it's claiming Native American ancestry, even though every single DNA test shows no markers for NA heritage anywhere. In any case, it's a highly idealized memory of the culture, and not the culture itself, that's important for our family lore. Happy little Irish people with their blarney stones and shamrocks and cute smiley Irish accents, or Native Americans with their spirit guides and dream catchers and teepees.

But the Irish have their own dark history, as do many Native American cultures, and let's not even start on our European ancestors and their pile of crimes. We just want our idealized histories to persist forever. I'm the family genealogist and I can state with clear documentation behind my words that we are 9 and 10th generation European American, aka mayo-white to the core. And yet, people still want us to be from somewhere else.

I'd love to be able to claim Native American heritage. I could then state that "we've been here for ten thousand years". With some of my relatives, that's what it would take to get them to stop being so damn "Irish" and start being American, because that's what we are, like it or not, by birth and history. No matter how problematic that history is, it's where we came from.
posted by disclaimer at 12:48 PM on October 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


I think some of the claims of Native ancestry are also used as an argument against affirmative action, since there's also a weird widespread belief among many white people that having "Indian blood" means you're automatically entitled to free college tuition and other government "handouts." So there's a often an implication (at least from the people who've brought this up to me) of "I could have taken all this free stuff but I chose to be honorable and bootstrap myself up and therefore all forms of affirmative action are bad." Several times I've tried to point out that their ideas about scholarships and tribal memberships and pretty much everything about that scenario are wrong, but I just get weird self-satisfied knowing looks in return.
posted by jaguar at 12:49 PM on October 1, 2015 [17 favorites]


23skidoo:
I don't think we should hold people making claims about their own ancestry to the same standard as academics who publish articles debunking such claims.
posted by andrewpcone at 12:49 PM on October 1, 2015


Clearly, I disagree.
posted by 23skidoo at 12:52 PM on October 1, 2015


I mean, I think part of the problem is because there is now beginning to be a visible separation between cultural identity and genetic identity and racial and visible identity. Is Pope Francis the first Latin American pope? Or just another Italian? Are we who we were raised or what our face says? The first time my husband met my grandmother, he was so startled he exclaimed aloud, "But she's white!" (She also suspiciously served him turkey and mashed potatoes as we celebrated Thanksgiving) Does her pigmentation count, or her ancestry? Her new American habits and cooking, or her Spanish/Nicaraguan culture and identity she has carried for 200 years? We know that certain races over time became or are becoming white - but not when that magic moment happens. It's just - this is all much more complicated than easy answers can deliver.
posted by corb at 12:53 PM on October 1, 2015 [5 favorites]


I suspect the questioning of this would be less offensive to you, andrewpcone, if you knew how much of the history of genealogy was wrapped up in creating and then pretending to document useful fictions. Family histories are frequently very muddy and filled with nonsense -- professionals who do family trees often discover that a sixable percentage of a family tree is not merely undocumentable, but actually disagrees with the documents that are out there. Family history buries some stories, reinterprets others, and sometimes just invents new ones, and this isn't a rare thing, but extremely common.

And why not? We everyday people should be as free to invent our own past as, say, European nobility could claim to be descended from Alexander the Great or Caesar, and Jesus could claim to be descended fro King David, and the Japanese emperor was a direct descendant of the Shinto kami.

So, knowing that a percentage of genealogies will be fictional, or reinterpreted, it is useful to ask "why? Why in this way? Why by so many?" This is not offensive. It is, instead, an interesting question.
posted by maxsparber at 12:53 PM on October 1, 2015 [9 favorites]


I don't think this sort of thing is confined to claims of Cherokee ancestry, though. All the people I know who are really into their European ancestors all have some kind of claim to nobility or relation to some important person, or that their ancestors were involved in some historically significant event. Or how people who claim to have had past lives were invariably someone important or part of some notable group.

I guess people generally just don't like saying their ancestors were common people.


Yeah, that does sound about right... a few years back I signed up with Ancestry.com on a whim and ended up tracking down my long-lost deadbeat father and the entire new family he had after divorcing my mom, but that's an anecdote for a totally different thread, and it was kind of fun clicking through all the links and discovering that, oh goodness, I'm descended from Charlemagne and the house of Plantagenet and the original Huguenot settlers of New Paltz, how exciting (insert reflexive jerking-off motion here), but honestly, "I'm descended from Charlemagne" is about as meaningful as "I'm descended from Genghis Khan", in that there are likely millions of people walking the earth today who could trace their lineage back to someone who was notable a few hundred years ago. But it's only the Charlemagne sort of connections that people are interested in hearing about when geneology is discussed. I'm more interested in the distant relative who survived the Civil War only to be killed by a bucket in a freak well-digging accident, because while I don't see any common traits between me and ol' Charlemagne, I am 100000% convinced Bucket Guy and I share some DNA.
posted by palomar at 12:53 PM on October 1, 2015 [16 favorites]


, that's what it would take to get them to stop being so damn "Irish" and start being American,

It seems perfectly possible for them to be Irish-American. We are a country that understands ethnicity, after all.
posted by maxsparber at 12:55 PM on October 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


Well bucket stories or it didn't happen, Palomar.
posted by corb at 12:55 PM on October 1, 2015 [2 favorites]


potatoes are SOUTH AMERICAN so in conclusion your gramma should give him the people's elbow.
posted by poffin boffin at 12:58 PM on October 1, 2015 [4 favorites]


I'm 1/16 bucket guy on my father's side.
posted by valkane at 12:59 PM on October 1, 2015 [6 favorites]


Hey, the Irish were forced to eat potatoes because other food was grown for export.

Delicious, delicious potatoes.
posted by maxsparber at 12:59 PM on October 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


really if you think about it technically christopher columbus caused the potato famine

what a wanker
posted by poffin boffin at 1:02 PM on October 1, 2015 [4 favorites]


More than that, Sir Francis Drake is actually the one who brought tobacco, maize, and potatoes to Europe. He was also part of the Rathlin Island Massacre.

So, you know, fuck that guy.
posted by maxsparber at 1:06 PM on October 1, 2015 [4 favorites]


Are these claims of Cherokee heritage mostly confined to the South?

I have lived most of my life in the midwest [Indiana/Chicago] and more recently on the East coast [Philadelphia] and I know of only one family that claims NA heritage. In that particular case, I believe that the father actually was a legitimate member of the tribe.

I am not trying to deny that it happens, I am just trying to figure out if I have just been completely oblivious or if it is just more of a Southern thing.
posted by nolnacs at 1:06 PM on October 1, 2015


I remember a trend of New Age types, especially on the West Coast, going to dubious genealogists and getting certified Native American. That has its own weird legacy, but it was common enough in the 80s to be a subject of discussion.
posted by maxsparber at 1:10 PM on October 1, 2015 [2 favorites]


corb, i actually do have a file saved somewhere with all the documents i was able to pull from ancestry before i closed my account (because jesus god those things get expensive fast), and there was a newspaper article about the accident... i wonder if i have that on a hard drive somewhere, it was hilarious. almost as hilarious as the old-timey names in my tree. like ancient forebear chancy and his younger sister, romancey.
posted by palomar at 1:10 PM on October 1, 2015 [2 favorites]


There was also that song in the seventies


I have my suspicions about whether or not it was actually by paul revere
posted by Ray Walston, Luck Dragon at 1:10 PM on October 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


I grew up in the Midwest and my family claimed Native heritage (though not Cherokee), which I'm fairly sure was passed-down lore and not accurate in terms of our genealogy (and 23andMe would seem to agree).
posted by jaguar at 1:11 PM on October 1, 2015


maxsparber: “I will point out that the ethnicity estimate in DNA tests is basically junk science now, and a lot of it is based on self-reported ethnicity. It is, at best, a best guess based on what people like you think they are, and so should be treated cautiously.”

This cannot be emphasized enough. 23&me is built on a lot of hokey stuff, and the hokiest is the ethnicity testing. No one should trust it. No one should think it is scientific. It's actually really problematic to me that they go around telling people it's something they can scientifically determine, but I guess there's no law against it.
posted by koeselitz at 1:15 PM on October 1, 2015 [6 favorites]


I have my suspicions about whether or not it was actually by paul revere

Written by John D. Loudermilk, who only discovered after he wrote the song that there were Loudermilks on the Trail of Tears.
posted by maxsparber at 1:18 PM on October 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


another thing to consider about genealogy sites is that many of them track back to the mormons who have been criticized by non-mormon scholars for not doing a great job at stewarding primary documents and filling in blanks using lore not facts. while the mormons should be applauded for doing any of the work when large swaths of people were just unconcerned with it, trusting their work implicitly isn't the best plan.
posted by nadawi at 1:20 PM on October 1, 2015 [4 favorites]


The Highland Scots got romanticized in a similar way by a chunk of the English, or anyway Queen Victoria - fast enough for actual survivors of the last terrible Highland battle to come down for a "Highland" parade and horrify the patrons. Just to add false hope and insult to injury.

Is this common in nationalism generally? Or all the fault of Sir Walter Scott somehow?
posted by clew at 1:22 PM on October 1, 2015 [5 favorites]


Because some of us are?

Sure, but that's really not the point of the question or an answer to it
posted by aydeejones at 1:22 PM on October 1, 2015


Is this common in nationalism generally? Or all the fault of Sir Walter Scott somehow?

I'm comfortable blaming him for anything at all. He was also responsible for the lost Roanoke colony, and had a hand in the start of the transatlantic slave trade, so what wouldn't he do? What wasn't he capable of?

I'm pretty sure he's the reason why celery freezes in my refrigerator.
posted by maxsparber at 1:28 PM on October 1, 2015 [15 favorites]


he is definitely the reason that the peaches you just bought like 3 days ago were rock hard the entire time and just now within the past 5 minutes they got moldy right before your eyes.
posted by poffin boffin at 1:32 PM on October 1, 2015 [13 favorites]


I was told once that "Indian ancestry" claims among white Americans were originally often cover stories for Black ancestry, since Indian ancestry didn't instantly put you in an oppressed class via the magic of the one-drop rule, but it would explain why one part of the family had darker skin, hair, and eyes than everybody else. (Especially if it was one child in a family who had a different father -- it could be those old Cherokee genes showing themselves.)

I have nothing to back this up though, it's just one of those factoids you hear.
posted by edheil at 1:33 PM on October 1, 2015 [3 favorites]


my daddy's skeeterpee is before

TMI.
posted by Xavier Xavier at 2:00 PM on October 1, 2015


maxsparber: More than that, Sir Francis Drake is actually the one who brought tobacco, maize, and potatoes to Europe. He was also part of the Rathlin Island Massacre.

Sloppy genealogical research almost started a family legend that we were descended from Sir Francis Drake. Somebody made a link that didn't actually line up. There was also a family legend that we had two great... aunts that were burned at Salem. I looked into this for my mother's birthday one year; it's false. Happy birthday!

Also: one reason everybody has a famous connection or significant event in their family legends is that these are memorable events; this is what grabs your attention and gets remembered.

I was told - and have remembered - that an Elliot came over with William the Conqueror in 1066. This is going to have to stay in the realm of legend; our records only go back to 1400 on that line.
posted by mountmccabe at 2:02 PM on October 1, 2015


that song in the seventies . . .

Written by John D. Loudermilk . . .


Man, I was scratching my head over all those references to Paul Revere up-thread, wondering what the silversmith from Boston had to do with Indians. Wasn't till I got down here to these comments that I realized they were ragging on Paul R. Dick, the late rock musician. I even have the 45 of "Indian Reservation", bought it at Pennys when is was still on the charts.

Herodios: . . . My great-grandmother believed she had Potowatomi (not Cherokee) blood. She was an orphan, raised in a Catholic orphanage by nuns . . .

Yeah, there's a similar story in my family, which I heard from people born in the 19th century, but I never bought it.

What I do know for sure is that I'm descended on both sides from an unbroken line of Shakers. On my father's side they were mostly fresh water whalers on the Great Lakes; on my mother's side, they were mainly stone-benders.
 
posted by Herodios at 2:09 PM on October 1, 2015


It's all in the gene's
posted by clavdivs at 2:13 PM on October 1, 2015


Wow, there's one big thing this article doesn't mention: The Cherokee Nation (of Oklahoma, aka the "Western Cherokee) doesn't identify membership using blood quantum but by ancestry. If your ancestor is on the Dawes Rolls, you're Cherokee. The article, though, talks like blood quantum is everything. But it's not for the main band of Cherokee, only for the Eastern Cherokee (in North Carolina) and the Keetoowah (the clerical order).
posted by dw at 2:15 PM on October 1, 2015 [4 favorites]


One interesting observation (which I think I stole from the blog Stuff White People Do, not to be confused with Stuff White People Like) is that most people who say this tend to keep their relationship with their (possible) Native heritage rooted firmly in the past. They're not interested in current political or social issues that "their" tribe is dealing with today. As has been touched upon in this thread, tribal membership seems to be pretty tightly controlled and subject to documentation, and these folks wouldn't pass the sniff test - but it doesn't seem like they would want to, anyway

In addition to this, I’ve noticed that while a lot of people who make these distant heritage claims (whether real or due to false family lore) keep their identity in the past, they do occasionally bring it out to justify their problematic actions or literally discredit the experiences and opinions of “connected Natives” (for lack of better terminology) who our engaging with real, contemporary issues. In particular, I see this a lot with the issue of Native American mascots and Indigenous representations in the media — lots of people will chime in “I’m 1/16th Cherokee and this doesn’t offend me!!” even as there’s little evidence they’re connected to their supposed culture or would actually even know what’s considered offensive within that culture.

This is what I find to ultimately be the most frustrating part of this issue: the idea that genealogy is all that matters to qualify as Native American, while culture takes the backseat and the idea that people feel they can speak for Native Americans because of this. Anyone versed the slightest in Native American identity politics knows it’s not that simple. It bothers me that actual Cherokee people get caught up in this trope, but it’s a really pervasive and harmful phenomenon overall. There is plenty of room for people to confirm, learn, and reconnect to their heritage, but Native communities are tired of that being used to speak over them.
posted by giizhik at 2:16 PM on October 1, 2015 [13 favorites]


Xavier Xavier - terrible name, great drink - what hard lemonade should be.
posted by nadawi at 2:18 PM on October 1, 2015 [2 favorites]


My mom was literally bored out an ancestry hobby by our orderly, documented unbroken line of Scots-Irish New Englanders engaged in wholesome Presbetarian labor.

One time someone married an Italian. That's it.
posted by The Whelk at 2:18 PM on October 1, 2015 [25 favorites]


yes but did you have any ancestors named Perseverance or Humility
posted by poffin boffin at 2:20 PM on October 1, 2015 [7 favorites]


There's a Constance in there.
posted by The Whelk at 2:23 PM on October 1, 2015 [6 favorites]


Ada, Ina, and Ena.

The three Edwardian muses of Battle Creek.
posted by clavdivs at 2:42 PM on October 1, 2015 [3 favorites]


I have a German surname. My father assumed it meant he was German. But when he researched his family tree, his name led him back to Holland. I bet there are still plenty of Germans up his family tree. His background is in a part of the USA that got a lot of German immigrants, which is probably how his name picked up the German spelling. Some of those male ancestors carrying the Germanized name must have married women with heavily German ancestry. My dad probably has more German ancestry than anything else, but there was a time, during the days of my grandparents and greats, when German ancestry was shameful, and people eagerly forgot it if they could.

And when you get back to Europe, what was Germany, 300 or 400 years ago? The battleground of Europe. Everyone else's armies raping and pillaging across that territory. Those unknown German settlers, their ancestors could be Swedish. Or Croatian. It's not like Europeans stayed home.

I've heard that paternity testing studies turn up a significant percentage of kids whose fathers aren't the guy on their birth certificate.

I have seen a picture of my father's mother as a toddler, standing next to her mother. She looks like a native American. I said as much to Grandma when she showed me that picture, and Grandma said her mother was always getting called out for that appearance, but she didn't have native American ancestors. Now Grandma is gone so I can't ask her if she thinks he mom was lying to her. And what would it mean if she did think that? For all I know Grandma would have found it shameful to have such ancestry, too. And maybe I don't remember any of this correctly anyways - I don't have the picture. But I'm closer to Grandma and Great Grandma, than my own grandkids would be - to them I'd be an authority on this stuff, even though I have no clue. At least I know I have no clue, so I refrain from embroidering a story about it. But if I were more fanciful maybe I would.

What it comes down to, is, what can we know about what dead people knew, especially the things they never spoke of? The things they chose to encourage their kids to remember, has a huge impact on what we know today.
posted by elizilla at 2:53 PM on October 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


Maybe because Cherokee food is so good. Who doesn't love crab and mayo salad?
posted by jpe at 2:59 PM on October 1, 2015 [2 favorites]


"that's what it would take to get them to stop being so damn "Irish" and start being American

It seems perfectly possible for them to be Irish-American. We are a country that understands ethnicity, after all.
posted by maxsparber at 3:55 PM on October 1 [+] [!]"


Very true, Max, they do call themselves Irish-American. It's only 1/16th of our heritage, though. My sisters spent a couple of weeks in Ireland a couple of years ago, and from Dublin all the way out to the west coast of the country, they inevitably ended up in arguments in pubs (was it their "Irish temper?"). At first, they'd explain their Irish heritage, you know, great grandpa emigrated from Ireland in 1910, or whatever. After the first few incidents of being called "plastic paddies", they just started calling themselves "tourists" so they could at least get a drink. Our cousins IN Ireland were especially offended by them.

I don't deny (or disclaim, heh) my Irish heritage, but it is such an insignificant part of our ancestry that thinking of myself as "Irish" is a joke. If anything, we are half and half German/British with a little Irish on the side. We're "Celtic", but we'd have to go back to about the 16th century to actually claim it by birth. Our long history of being on the North American continent makes us American. Just American. I just wish my family saw being American as a real cultural identity instead of something to be shrugged off in favor of being from somewhere else, or in the case of my "Native American" cousins, being someONE else.
posted by disclaimer at 3:10 PM on October 1, 2015


My great great grandmother on my mother's side was a Cherokee woman. We're also descended from Alfred Lord Tennyson according to research that was done back in the 1960s. That's all I've ever been able to find out, not being able or particularly willing to throw money at the likes of ancestry.com. I'm much more certain of the Cherokee heritage than that of Tennyson, Having actually seen an old photo of her at one time. Never have been able to find out much more about our origins, the old folks having long since passed, and chose to remain mum about it all when I was a boy.

Pretty frustrating, really.
posted by metagnathous at 3:13 PM on October 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


Ada, Ina, and Ena.

The three Edwardian muses of Battle Creek.


???? - and i'm from battle creek
posted by pyramid termite at 3:19 PM on October 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


While the term might be applicable in the case of Pocahontas, it's certainly not universal for Native American nations to have leadership passed by inheritance, many tribal chiefs were in fact elected in some form. So the whole notion of royalty or of an "Indian princess" it's kind of suspect to begin with.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 12:35 PM on October 1 [1 favorite +] [!]


Without question. It's entirely a European (or, later American) construct.
posted by mwhybark at 3:25 PM on October 1, 2015


I got the considerably more mild version of "you're all these European ethnicities, plus some guy back in the fur trading days might have married a native woman, we're not really sure". Which, okay.

I never thought about how a large portion of spurious claims were specifically Cherokee though. The ties between that and Southern identity stuff is interesting.
posted by vibratory manner of working at 5:47 PM on October 1, 2015 [2 favorites]


Surprised no one's told this joke: What do you call sixty-four white men? A Cherokee.
posted by Halloween Jack at 7:31 PM on October 1, 2015 [5 favorites]


I've heard that paternity testing studies turn up a significant percentage of kids whose fathers aren't the guy on their birth certificate.

Misattributed paternity. It's not shockingly uncommon, but you have to be critical with the stats because the claims are often inflated in child-support and men's rights arguments. But it did happen historically; it also happened that the assigned father knew a child wasn't his and raised it as his anyway, and it also happened that babies born to unwed girls were passed off as the daughter of the mother (its actual grandmother) or even another female relative than the daughter of the unwed girl. There are a lot of things that can really confound genealogy.
posted by Miko at 7:51 PM on October 1, 2015 [4 favorites]


I got the considerably more mild version of "you're all these European ethnicities, plus some guy back in the fur trading days might have married a native woman, we're not really sure". Which, okay.

I had a similar tale, though it was specified as "Indian princess" and "French-Canadian fur-trader." I think, from the fractions that were bandied about, that it was my mother's grandmother who claimed that her grandmother was the Indian Princess -- all of which is weird, because I think that generation was all pretty much the immigrating-from-Europe generation. They were also Polish Catholic and Greek, however, so I wonder how much of the story was due to trying to explain away any Jewish or Greek heritage (since neither of those were "white" at the time) plus trying to claim American heritage to fend off accusations of non-Americaness.

And it took me entirely too long to realize that "Indian princess ran off with a Canadian fur-trapper" was a story most likely of sexual assault and quite probably invented. It's a weird story to be proud of, but I was proud of it for most of my life, and I'm still trying to deconstruct that.
posted by jaguar at 8:00 PM on October 1, 2015


Our long history of being on the North American continent makes us American. Just American.

My ancestors arrived between approximately 385 to 265 years ago. They came from Ireland, Scotland, England, Wales, Germany, and a few other places. Any honest to goodness cultural traditions or identifiers they brought with them have long since been eroded by the continually changing world of their descendants. Today, we're just the sum of that past and the best I can describe who we truly are is simply American. Our "old country" is east of the Appalachians, north of the Potomac, and the disembarkments of the Atlantic coast.

Even if there is Cherokee or another alternative Native American tribe member in my family tree as I mentioned quite a bit above, it's essentially just one more addition to my family's genetic heritage. Not much else, same as the Irish and so on, I would expect a home welcoming in Tahlequah as much as I would in Dublin.

Sam and Ella's is a good pizza, though.
posted by Atreides at 8:12 PM on October 1, 2015 [2 favorites]


Personally, I think of American as one kind of identity, but not at all an ethnic identity. So I can both be American - a geopolitical identity and a cultural one - and also claim a number of contemporary and/or historical ethnicities, simultaneously and with sincerity.

To me, it seems somewhat silly to credit Native people with an essential authenticity they derive only from have ancestry in North America for 10,000 years (even, as with so many Natives, when they don't live and have never lived anywhere near their ancestral lands) while acting as though the places that shaped my ancestors for an equal amount of time in Europe and Africa and Asia (or wherever) have no relationship to my own present-day identity. Yes, as with others they've been quite blended and mixed, but that doesn't make them meaningless or inauthentic or not worth referencing. When you explore the individual ancestral histories of many Native people, you soon discover the same complexities, migrations, cultural mixing and interrelationships among them, too.

Our histories matter.
posted by Miko at 8:31 PM on October 1, 2015 [3 favorites]


My dad was born in Tahlequah.

My searches turned up some interesting things. Just read the Anderson Roll sometime. It is a government shopping list of holdings, land attributes of the Native Americans on the Gulf Coast and lower southern states. The names are revealing, among the Native Americans were Mohammeds and Ishmaels. The Anderson Roll seems to be the earliest roll, the names were stil original.
posted by Oyéah at 9:10 PM on October 1, 2015


Based on the genealogy research I picked up after my grandmother died, the American half of my biological ancestry is split 50/50 between prestigious old American family names (Van Horn) that once claimed to own lots of human beings and land, and engineers who emigrated to the U.S. through Canada (Mizener, from who knows where) to help build the first railroads. The German half of my family has a pretty well understood history: the Brelöhr name (my mom's maiden name) is very unique in Germany, and supposedly traces directly back to Huguenots (brie makers at that) who fled persecution in France to settle in Germany. Then the other half of that half of my immediate family is pretty much Swedish going back to prehistory. The fact the Faust family name came into it only six or seven generations back was my biggest surprise, but really only because I had already spent so much time working on Faust-themed art projects before making that link. More shocking was learning one of my American ancestors had chased Walt Whitman out of his editorship of the New Orleans Crescent newspaper and was a prominent secessionist. I'd been hoping they were all anarchists and labor activists.
posted by saulgoodman at 10:03 PM on October 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


What I learned from this thread: The Cherokees had the largest ratio of princesses to population ever known to mankind.
posted by Pyrogenesis at 3:14 AM on October 2, 2015 [2 favorites]


I got stuck with a VERY Irish name because apparently my dad was part of that cohort of men blabbering about their Scots/Irish heritage. You know the type, lamenting the auld sod and drinking Guinness and talking about how Irish they are. (So basically Bostonians). Seriously contemplating kilts. Sighing over Braveheart. The irony is we're not Irish at all, because a great aunt on that side did a lot of digging and tracked us back to the boat from England and from there further into England. I have binders of paperwork and notes and such.

I just tell people I'm a white dude when they want to get into that "I'm 1/124th Dutch and 1/168th Slovenian and a Cherokee princess..."

My great aunt stopped her project when she found one of us was hanged for horse thievery in a Dakota because it was so embarrassing.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 3:31 AM on October 2, 2015 [5 favorites]


I suspect a lot of the use of claiming Native heritage in order to claim authentic Americanness is coming from generations of people whose right to being full citizens of the U.S. was being strongly questioned, due to both immigration and race/ethinicity, and then it got passed down as family lore to generations who aren't dealing with that challenge. (Not that claiming Native heritage was the right way to combat the challenge in the first place.)
posted by jaguar at 7:25 AM on October 2, 2015


"Indian ancestry" claims among white Americans were originally often cover stories for Black ancestry

The flip side of this are claims of Indian ancestry among Black people, particularly light-skinned folks. Still a way of avoiding stigma, though in this case eliding over sexual violence rather than adhering to notions of racial purity.
posted by Panjandrum at 8:07 AM on October 2, 2015 [1 favorite]


I suspect a lot of the use of claiming Native heritage in order to claim authentic Americanness is coming from generations of people whose right to being full citizens of the U.S. was being strongly questioned, due to both immigration and race/ethinicity, and then it got passed down as family lore to generations who aren't dealing with that challenge.

I was typing fast and that got confused. I meant: I suspect a lot of the use of claiming Native heritage in order to claim authentic Americanness is coming out of a time in each particular family when that generation's right to being full citizens of the U.S. was being strongly questioned because of immigration and race/ethinicity, and then those claims got passed down as family lore to generations who aren't dealing with that challenge.
posted by jaguar at 8:30 AM on October 2, 2015


Incidentally, there are six tribes in Virginia that the Commonwealth recognizes, but the federal government does not. Those tribes contend the federal government has withheld official recognition because when Virginia was in a bit of a eugenics craze, the state bureaucrat in charge of overseeing census data and vital statistics noted the tribe members as being African-American, not Native American. More ironically, these are the tribes that would be the direct descendants of the same people of the original 'Indian Princess.'
posted by Atreides at 8:30 AM on October 2, 2015


Why are Americans so obsessed with ancestry and ethnicity generally? Whenever I visit the USA, I meet people with American accents who tell me they're a quarter-Irish, or half-Polish, or Italian-American, yet seem not to be fluent in those languages and often have never been to those places.

In contrast, in England, we tend to define ourselves as English. A very dark-skinned friend of mine told someone who asked him where he's from that his parents came from Sri Lanka, but he is English. Not "Sri Lankan-English", but "English".

Each to their own, but the narrative we get from Americans is that people came to Ellis Island to escape persecution etc and "start again" in the American melting-pot, so I expected everyone to declare themselves as proudly American rather than with some modifier that hearkens back to somewhere their grandparents ran from for new life.
posted by Pericles at 10:57 AM on October 2, 2015 [1 favorite]


Each to their own, but the narrative we get from Americans is that people came to Ellis Island to escape persecution etc and "start again" in the American melting-pot, so I expected everyone to declare themselves as proudly American rather than with some modifier that hearkens back to somewhere their grandparents ran from for new life.

Well, no. The melting pot thing was sort of forced on them, and it generally meant "melt into the Anglo-American culture that preceded you by just a few years."

There were immigrants who embraced assimilation, but there were quite a few who combated it. Czechs, as an example, set up Sokol Halls across the US which served as cultural centers. Germans often formed their own schools that taught children German history and the German language.

America has never been a monoculture, unlike a lot of places in Europe (although their history as a monoculture is largely invented about the time that nationalism came about, disregarding how complicated and multinational their actual history is). And so there has never been a time in history when people universally disregarded their ethnic identity in favor of a generalized American one.

And I think ethnic identities are actually important to maintain, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the supposed melting pot American identity is pretty closely tied with Americans abandoning ethnic identities in favor of generalized white identities, and so has long and uncomfortable ties to the history of racism in American. Secondly, by dropping our ethnic identities, we risk forgetting our own immigrant narratives, and as we are still a nation of immigrants, we risk treating newer immigrants with hostility or a lack of compassion, forgetting that we are not very far removed from their experience.
posted by maxsparber at 11:04 AM on October 2, 2015 [12 favorites]


Why are Americans so obsessed with ancestry and ethnicity generally?

Because our nation was founded with a huge caveat that you were only fully human if you came from a certain ethnicity, and then had a system in place for a long time that encouraged selective breeding of the non-fully-human chattel by the aristocratic class, which itself justified its existence because of its own selective breeding.
posted by Etrigan at 11:07 AM on October 2, 2015 [4 favorites]


Well, in a larger sense, America wasn't founded by a single tribe or ethnic group the way we would've defined it in Europe. We're a country of immigrants. The colonies consisted of everyone from schismatic Protestants to remnant Dutch to utopians in Pennsylvania to Quakers to Scots-Irish convicts down South, and waves of immigration has disrupted that even further. The American cultural identity could mean anything, from the Chinese railroad worker to the Somali that moved here as a refugee to Honkey Whiterson, one of Virginia's first families. The identification by skin color is largely a legacy of slavery and the one-drop rule, which leads to hilarious things like Americans insisting whites just CAN'T be discriminated against (see any Eastern European in Western Europe) or trying to call black people born in England "African-American."
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 3:05 PM on October 2, 2015


Why are Americans so obsessed with ancestry and ethnicity generally?

Europeans tend to ask us that a lot (as do some Americans, see above), but I think the reasons are very good ones. I was going to rehash my comment above (American isn't an ethnicity, our histories matter to us, it's important to build a tolerant society to recognize the differences in those histories), but now I would just say, as I so often do, "what maxsparber said."
posted by Miko at 3:06 PM on October 2, 2015 [3 favorites]


Thanks for the answers, maxsparber, Etrigan, Ghostride the Whip and Miko.
posted by Pericles at 4:18 AM on October 3, 2015


In contrast, in England, we tend to define ourselves as English. A very dark-skinned friend of mine told someone who asked him where he's from that his parents came from Sri Lanka, but he is English. Not "Sri Lankan-English", but "English".

And just to follow up on this anecdote:

You hear the exact same conversation in North America very, very often. Google "where are you from"+Asian for infinite examples. Euronormativism is unfortunately alive and well over here. This is also why hyphenation of white people is completely voluntary, while for everyone else, not so much.

Also, there's the issue of recentness. The second generation, regardless of their parents' country of origin, and regardless of the country they've moved to, is hyper-assimilationist as a rule. You don't get hyphen-white-American-style romantic "old country" sentimentalism until well down the line, when the grim realities have long faded.

Finally, it's worth pointing out that the situation of immigrants to Britain from the former British Empire is a whole other kettle of fish, because it often involves giving up citizenship in New Independent Republic in order to remain a British subject (or vice-versa for those who stay in New Independent Republic), or something like this happens and the choice is made for you. So in addition to the timeless international phenomenon of racist idiots yelling "Go back to where you came from" at people who were born down the street, there's that extra bit of I AM ENGLISH to the response.
posted by Sys Rq at 9:36 AM on October 3, 2015 [1 favorite]


I get that there's often a lot of ill (racist) intent in people asking where you are from, but I am guilty of being one of those Americans who is endlessly fascinated with people's various combinations of ethnic makeup and the stories (often recent) of how they came to be American. My own heritage is a slightly boring medley of middle and southern Europe, both recent and past, and to me it is just an amazing story of so many people leaving leaving their nation of origin and restarting life on another continent. That story of resettlement (sometimes forced, in the case of African Americans) is what nearly all Americans have in common. I see the sharing of these stories as a way of recognizing the American identity for what it really is. The melting pot is an amazing ongoing social experiment that Americans embrace (for the most part) as a defining feature of our nation. A few of my forebears were Germans who homesteaded in the 1860's and were clearly seeking economic opportunity in the new world. Other more recent forebears were escaping political strife and war. My partner has a bloodline that goes back to 1640's settlement of America, which mixed on the other side with very recent immigration. A good friend of mine was one of the "boat people" fleeing Vietnam in 1978. Her story features a lot more drama and courage than any of my immigrant forebears, but it also one of assimilation and a similar desire to make a better life.

I've heard lots of people claim that drop of native american blood, and I've always attributed it to a desire to anchor their past in something authentically or mythically American, so it's fascinating to learn about the other motivations that might have driven people to claim that ancestry.
posted by amusebuche at 5:33 PM on October 3, 2015 [2 favorites]


You don't get hyphen-white-American-style romantic "old country" sentimentalism until well down the line, when the grim realities have long faded.

As a general rule, perhaps. As someone from an area just jammed full of mixed-origin immigrant descendants of the second and third generation to be born in the US, I'm not really sure I go for it. My grandmother was the first generation of her Irish immigrant parents born in America, and always embraced the label Irish-American, and never were we given a chance to forget it. Between the church schooling all her children got and our rootedness in an immigrant Irish community, it wasn't an abstraction or something we came to later in revivalism. It's just what we were. Similarly the Italian-American families among us: the immigrant generation considered themselves Italians (or more likely, Sicilians, Neapolitans, or Calabrians) in the US, and their children - the parents of my peers -definitely embraced a sense of themselves as Italian-American - not hyper-assimilationist, but Americans with a particularly strong cultural influence from their families of origin. I could go on about the other immigrant groups from the 1880-1920 period whose third-generation children I grew up with, but I think that general narrative is too simplistic. There was not really a time when our families weren't consciously aware of "what" they were.
posted by Miko at 7:15 PM on October 3, 2015


My grandmother was the first generation of her Irish immigrant parents born in America, and always embraced the label Irish-American, and never were we given a chance to forget it.

Yes. Probably because by that time there was already a well-established and significant community of Irish-Americans to hitch her wagon to.

Similarly the Italian-American families among us


...congregated in segregated, ghettoized bubbles where they were the American model to which newer Italian immigrants assimilated.
posted by Sys Rq at 11:54 AM on October 4, 2015 [1 favorite]


Right, so I think you are trying to refute what I'm saying but you're supporting my point that an ethnic identity was strong (though varied in expression) through the second and third (and now fourth) generations of immigrant descendants. My grandmother was the first American-born generation in her family line. If there was a "Irish-American community" to "hitch her wagon to" - and there was, as she was in an ethnic enclave of the Bronx - then it was identified by its clear expressive Irishness and the cultural bonds among the immigrants who arrived in closely packed successive waves, joined the same institutions, supported one another and maintained and evolved elements of Irish cultural practice in America. In other words, at no point did anyone in her milieu adopt a "hyper-assimilationist" stance or suggest they were just regular, no-particular-kind of "American." They became American by intentional affiliation - choice - but retained their strong sense of Irish ethnicity as an essential cultural identification.

I mean, your statement is one generalized popular consensus, but from a historical perspective I think it's insufficiently nuanced. Identification as "American" only came late or not at all to many immigrant communities. The affiliation/assimilation of immigrants - and their desire and will to assimilate - varies with time of arrival and place of settlement. It's worth remembering that a very large proportion of immigrants to the US in the peak decades were economic migrants or economic refugees; many were not interested in permanently homesteading, and fully intended to return home once they had made some money (that is one reason men immigrating often dramatically outnumbered women). They were not rabidly and rapidly surrendering their cultural identity.

segregated, ghettoized bubbles where they were the American model to which newer Italian immigrants assimilated.

They were the new, creolized Italian-American model to which newer immigrants assimilated (by which I mean, cultural identity mattered; they didn't assimilate to Polish-American models or Jewish-American models). They also were not "hyper-assimilationist." I just completed a big project incorporating immigrant food history, and one of the interesting phenomena, particularly about Italian-American immigrant communities (and very true of German immigrant communities too), is the extent to which they did not rapidly assimilate to the US in dietary patterns, but instead used their newfound wealth to embrace a level of middle- and upper-class consumption that had largely been totally unavailable to them in the old country. Their foodways were not a blend of American foods with Italian foods; instead, they were an intensification of Italian festival and feast day traditions now liberalized for weekly, even everyday, enjoyment, and distinct regional and local traditions blurred and elided into a less regionally specific "Italian" (or "German") identity which only existed in America - but was also not a ethnicity-free "American" identity. The first American-born generation's greater Americanization is largely a function of their language learning (the generations who immigrated as adults did not learn English at significant rates) and their public schooling in mixed cohorts, but though that often involved ethnic conflict and hazing (and in the case of Jews and Italians in particular, outright discrimination), it did not demand or enact a total abnegation of cultural identity. That is an exaggeration.
posted by Miko at 12:24 PM on October 4, 2015 [3 favorites]


I think we're being ethnicsplained to, Miko.
posted by maxsparber at 1:24 PM on October 4, 2015 [2 favorites]


The first American-born generation's greater Americanization is largely a function of their language learning (the generations who immigrated as adults did not learn English at significant rates) and their public schooling in mixed cohorts, but though that often involved ethnic conflict and hazing (and in the case of Jews and Italians in particular, outright discrimination), it did not demand or enact a total abnegation of cultural identity. That is an exaggeration.

Yeah, I'll cop to that, although you've rather exaggerated the exaggeration. Besides, considering what you're objecting to is a single word of a single sentence, and not a 500-page sociological study, I think the notion that I was overstating pat generalizations pretty much goes without saying.

Maybe you can just pretend I qualified "hyper-assimilationist" with "relatively," which would make it in complete accord with the above pullquote, yeah? Sheesh.
posted by Sys Rq at 8:05 AM on October 5, 2015


No, I still disagree (it's hard to have something be "relatively hyper" anyway). This is a significant discussion for me in my work, though I get that it might have been a tossed-off observation for you. I think that the general second-generation-assimilationist narrative comes out of Cold War historical constructions and that more recent scholarship is significantly complicating it.
posted by Miko at 8:23 AM on October 5, 2015 [1 favorite]


So you disagree with the thing you wrote that I just agreed with?

(it's hard to have something be "relatively hyper" anyway)

"What is this 'more' you speak of?"

This is getting silly.

Later.
posted by Sys Rq at 9:21 AM on October 5, 2015


So you disagree with the thing you wrote that I just agreed with?

Well, not quite. You were seeking to modify your position, and the reason I still can disagree is that I just kind of reject that position, even with the proposed modification. I agree the conversation is not worth continuing and thank you for dropping the argument. It was silly.
posted by Miko at 11:37 AM on October 5, 2015 [1 favorite]


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