I’d like to admit at the outset that I have gotten a certain amount malicious enjoyment out of roasting Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren for her claims of having Cherokee ancestry  when DNA tests have indicated pretty clearly that she does not have enough to qualify as a member of the tribe, regardless of how much she tries to pander to the tribal vote with promises of greater autonomy and more federal money going their way. It is not my intention today to talk about my antipathy to Warren’s politics, serious as it is, or my thoughts about the various problems that hinder economic development in tribal lands, some of which can be placed on the failures of tribal authorities themselves to act in the best interests of the residents of reservations and some of which can be placed on various structural failures with regards to the security of private property rights within reservations. No, what I would like to talk about is an area where I can actually empathize with Elizabeth Warren, but I suspect the same thing happened to her that happened to me. And if it happened to such different people as Warren and myself, it could happen to you too.
In the summer of 2003, I visited my father’s family farm during part of the summer. It was a terrible summer for the farm, raining every day with gloomy weather that made it impossible to harvest hay in square bales throughout the entirety of June and July, seriously endangering the food supply of our family’s then-healthy set of dairy cattle for the upcoming winter. During the course of that gloomy summer my father and I, along with my grandmother, visited my great-aunt and her daughter who lived in nearby Irwin. While we ate at a casual dining place in town, my great-aunt expressed her thoughts that her mother had a great deal of Cherokee ancestry and expressed the fears she had of being deported by the government. She happened to be a very loyal and somewhat elite member of the Democratic party in Westmoreland county (her late husband had been involved in the party structure somehow) but she was convinced that she had enough Cherokee blood to endanger her safety and property rights, an example of the sort of paranoia that I inherited from that side of the family when it comes to tyrannical government behavior.
Yet my own research about my great-grandmother  suggested that rather than dangerous levels of exogamy through marriage between German farmers and local freely ranging Cherokee, that her heritage had a surprisingly high level of endogamy with three of her grandparents’ lines converging on the same small set of Linderman ancestors. And my own DNA results and that of a first-cousin of mine both show large amounts of German ancestral DNA but not a single whiff of DNA from various indigenous tribes. I have no doubt that my late great-aunt was sincerely paranoid and sincerely thought that she had large amounts of Cherokee ancestry, but she was also apparently sincerely very wrong. I suspect Warren probably heard similar stories from her family members and was inclined to believe them, not least when it became woke to claim native ancestry and to receive a large amount of benefits for oneself and one’s institutions for doing so. The DNA evidence doesn’t lie, and even though it is possible that DNA segments once thought English or German could be revised and found to be Cherokee, it is unlikely that this will happen to a degree sufficient to make the claims of Warren or my great-aunt valid when it comes to the amount of Cherokee ancestry that they claimed for themselves. Instead of being clandestine possible members of tribes that had been able to successfully pass into white society while also still seeking to claim the benefits of tribal affiliation, we were simply fairly ordinary Americans of northern and western European ancestry.
Why did such family stories exist in the first place, though? At least speaking for my great aunt, she did not draw any sort of benefits that I could tell from her reputed Cherokee ancestry (unlike Warren, it should be noted). She did not use that ancestry to claim a status as a possible member of a tribe as a way of profiting from the intersectionality of diversity in hiring. She was an elderly widow living in a small town in Western Pennsylvania who seemed quite terrified of the possible implications of her ancestry. And yet she had a story of family ancestry that was not in line with the DNA that was passed down through to her relatives. Having come across a great many people who claim various native ancestral heritage (and do so frequently in error), I have pondered what it is that people seek when they claim such ancestry, especially when it comes at some cost to their credibility with other people as trustworthy people and when it opens them to ridicule as well as creates hostility with tribes who do not want such such people to receive such benefits of tribal affiliation as currently exist.
The most obvious answer I can come up with that explains the various cases of apparently false claims of ancestral heritage with members of various indigenous peoples is that there is a strong desire on the part of many white Americans, particularly those who are of the woke variety, to seek some sort of deep and personal tie with the original inhabitants of the land. My own ancestors mostly came to the United States during the colonial period and were part of that gradual westward push of white folk into sparsely populated tribal grounds were fur trapping and hunting were replaced by the placement of towns and the settlement of farmers with an incurable desire for land. In certain circles there is a high degree of guilt for the fraud and coercion that tribes suffered over the course of centuries so that our ancestors could find a haven from oppressive governments and obtain the land that allowed them to secure a better life for themselves and their descendants. We still benefit today from the fact that we are descended from freeholding settler colonists rather than Rhenish or British peasantry eking out bare survival generation after generation. Yet along with those benefits we also recognize that our gain involved a great deal of loss for other people who faced exile from their own homeland in the face of massive demographic pressures coupled with massive amounts of land speculation. In such circumstances it is all too easy to claim an ancestral heritage that includes the original inhabitants of the land, even where that is not the case, because it makes us feel more legitimate, that we truly belong where we are, with a claim to our land and our place in society that does not depend on force or fraud.
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