by Bruce Dunlavy

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Generally speaking, in the USA, you are who you say you are. If you want to say you are (all or part) Chinese or Italian or Arab or whatever, go right ahead. No one is likely to go to the trouble of trying to prove you wrong. Of course, not many people are going to make it a point to consistently tell others about being “part Hungarian” or “part Korean,” especially if they have nothing to base it on other than oral family tradition.

There is one ethnicity, however, that is different. It is not unusual at all for Americans to claim a small amount of “American Indian” or “Native American” ancestry, even without genealogical or other evidence to back it up. One such person has been Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), whose claims started a contentious battle about whether they were true and whether she used them to gain some sort of career advantage. President Donald Trump has made it a recurring practice to ridicule Warren, calling her “Pocahontas” after a Seventeenth Century woman who was later the distorted subject of a Disney animated feature film.

A few days ago, Warren publicized the results of a DNA test that revealed that she does have a small amount of American Indian ancestry. The estimate by analyst Carlos Bustamante of Stanford University is that Warren is between 1/64 and 1/1024 American Indian. Trump immediately branded the test “a total fraud” and said he would believe her claim only if he tested her himself. How he would contrive to conduct such a test himself was left unexplained.

The test analysis itself is by no means exhaustive or definitive, and the results are nebulous, as the amount of DNA subject to analysis is small and is passed on irregularly. The meta-analysis is even more complicated and harder to explain than can be managed in a tweet, as this mea culpa from the Washington Post about its own misinterpretation reveals.

While the Warren controversy has become a popular political football, it provokes another question. Why do so many Americans claim Native ancestry, especially based only on family lore, which is often quite unreliable? In researching my own origins, I found that the various family stories I had been told were wrong as often as right. This much, however, is consistent: although some of my ancestors arrived in America as far back as the 1630s, I have never heard a story of my family’s being “part Indian.”

Perhaps that was because I was born and lived my earliest years in South Dakota, a State whose Native population approaches nine percent. There, in close proximity to several desolate, poverty-racked reservations and seeing many Natives in destitute circumstances and subjected to racial discrimination and disparaging stereotypes, rare would be the white citizen who would want to boast of being “part Indian.”

But away from such locations, such as in my current home State, Ohio, it is considered rather favorable to have Native ancestry. Those who do not encounter indigenous people except in popular culture often have a romanticized image of “the American Indian.” This stereotyped character is noble, philosophical, and attuned to nature, but also tragic and dispossessed.

There are other reasons for the desire to have “Indian blood.” Some may believe that such ancestry could entitle them to payments from reparations funds or the proceeds of tribal-owned casinos. The truth is that it won’t and, anyway, just saying you are American Indian is not good enough for any legal status; one must be enrolled as a member of an officially recognized tribe, and each tribe makes its own standards for membership.

Some see a potential for being able to gain advantages in hiring or other career advancement by having “minority” status. That doesn’t work so well, either, although it has been claimed that Warren used it to her advantage in gaining a spot on the Harvard faculty, a story for which there is no evidence and which has been refuted by Harvard. But that does not diminish the importance of the issue, as an astute analysis by Jerry Adler points out.
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Being able to say that your ancestors include the indigenous people of North America gives you a certain cachet, a connection with the nation that somehow makes you seem more “authentically American.” Or, as Trevor Noah put it, “Let’s face it, being part Native American is cool.” Or, as noted above, it’s cool as long as your experience with American Indians is limited to having seen Dances With Wolves.

Celebrated writer and activist Vine Deloria, Jr., of the Oglala Sioux tribe, notes in his best-known work, Custer Died for Your Sins, that the indigenous ancestor cited is invariably on the female side, most often a great-grandmother or great-great-grandmother. He slyly remarks that “evidently most tribes were entirely female for the first three hundred years of white occupation.” Deloria attributes this aspect of spurious claims to two things: the picture of the male of indigenous peoples as a primitive savage, and the myth of the “Indian princess.” Indeed, such hereditary titles were unknown in most Native societies, but Deloria sees in this myth not only a quest to underscore gentility, but also to claim descent from royalty.

There are however, two other aspects to the issue that carry with them more adumbration than amusement. When a person tells you of their Native American ancestry, it will usually be Cherokee. There is some historical basis for this, in that the Cherokee were one of the earliest tribes to interact with European settlers, and took on many of their ways – even so far as to practice the holding of African-descended slaves. The Cherokee were identified as one of the “civilized” tribes who were transported on the horrific “Trail of Tears.” Thus one can vicariously take part in the suffering of the American Indian – a convenient way to exculpate one from one’s vicarious guilt.

In addition, the Cherokee were originally a Southeastern tribe. This puts them in the middle of territory where slavery was legal and the social structure most stratified, with whites elevated and African-Americans oppressed and despised. While the official position was strict separation of the races, especially in sexual relations, it is an accepted fact that there was a lot more race-mixing going on than anyone wanted to admit. Since tiny amounts of African ancestry could result in one’s being classified as “black,” it was common for whites to explain away darker skin, eyes, and hair – anything that might hint “non-white” – by a family tradition of “Indian ancestry.”

White Southerners were not alone in this, either. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., the Harvard professor known for his inquiries into ancestry on the PBS programs African American Lives and Finding Your Roots, has upset many African-American families (including his own) by suggesting their treasured tradition of American Indian ancestry is as mythical as that of many white families. Just as white families used a claim of Native ancestry to explain possibly “non-white” features, it is common for African-American families to use the same story to explain their high cheekbones or straight hair. [Full disclosure: DNA testing suggests that Gates and I are distantly related through a common ancestor in Ireland.]

Geneticists have pointed out that DNA testing is not particularly reliable for this sort of classification. It is made even more problematic because the database of samples from American Indians is sparse. Many American Indians avoid giving DNA samples because of concerns about possible effects on tribal identity. Researchers such as Harvard Medical School fellow Katarzyna Bryc have determined best estimates showing that, at most, only about one in 30 African-Americans has a genetic makeup that includes as much as two percent American Indian, and the average for all self-identified African-Americans tops out between one-half and one percent. The average of European ancestry for self-identified African-Americans is between fifteen and twenty percent.

For whites, the vast majority have no Native ancestry at all. Of those who do, the portion with at least one percent American Indian genetic heritage is around one and a half percent. About three times that number have at least one percent African genetics. In the States of the Old South, eight to fourteen percent of self-identified white Americans have at least one percent African heritage. I do not know any self-described “white” people who boast of being “part African,” although that is much more likely than that they are part Native American.

What can we conclude from this? First, that calling yourself “part American Indian” does not make it so, and the likelihood is that, unless you are Latino or have firm documentation, you probably have no ancestry from the indigenous peoples of the Americas. A different shade to your skin or texture to your hair is much more likely to be from an admixture of European to African or African to European than from American Indian to either.

In addition, we can conclude that claims of Native American ancestry are almost always unreliable and are much more often used for social or political reasons than for scientific or practical ones. And in the end, “race” doesn’t mean much of anything in a scientific sense, anyway. If two Homo sapiens have a baby, that baby will be another Homo sapiens. That’s about as much as we can say. So, whatever you want to call yourself, go ahead, but don’t expect others to acknowledge it. And be as accommodating to their ancestral claims as you are to your own.