The (Imaginary) Indian in the Woodpile
Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren`s bogus claim of Native American ancestry call to mind 1) childhood memories of every third kid claiming to have a Navajo chief great-grandfather or Choctaw princess grand-grandmother and 2) a friend`s retelling of a geneaologist`s take on these claims.
I grew up in the Midwest, going to mostly white Catholic and public schools. We`d sit and listen wide-eyed as kid after kid boasted about the one Native American — typically of royal stature, never a mere brave or squaw — in the family tree. It was always a great, great-great or triple-great grandparent, so nobody could demand production of the live person. We`d ooh and aah at the exotic-ness of it, and I`d feel vaguely jealous that I wasn`t similarly blessed.
This continued into college, with even sober-minded parents and relatives of the claimant affirming the account. The strength of the belief was powerful, no matter how blonde or blue-eyed the believers were.
Fast forward to the comments of a friend with a keen interest in his own geneaology. He`d spoken with a professional geneaologist about these claims, and the geneaologist told him he`d been hired several times by white people looking to confirm the existence of the Native American ancestor.
The results were always the same: no Indian. All the ancestors, white as snow.
But the families would not believe the geneaologist. They`d fume. Yell, Shout their disbelief. “But it`s true. The family has known this for years. Uncle Harvey would tell us all about it.”
Sorry, the geneaologist would say. No Sitting Bull, no Pocahontas.
Now, it`s not difficult to figure out why American whites would so desperately want this fantasy to be true. For one, of all non-white groups, Indians-slash-Native Americans hold a special place in our hearts as noble, heroic, environmentally wise, blah blah. Unlike Hispanics of today, we invaded them, not the other way around. For two, the multicultural juggernaut has devalued European/British ancestry in favor of more colorful hues. Nobody brags about being related to Charlemagne. And three, there are practical benefits to the claim, like free fishing rights, casino licensing and, as Elizabeth Warren has discovered, tenure at Harvard.