Misconceptions and urban legends

In the wake of the Elizabeth Warren DNA farce, a lot of attention has been devoted to the subject of DNA and ancestry. In a way this is good in that it seems to have prompted many Americans to consider having DNA tests done. My own observation, when talking about the subject to many Americans, show evidence that a lot of us know little about our actual ancestry, and what we do know is often wrong. Warren’s case illustrates this: she was convinced (supposedly) that she was Cherokee, and enough Cherokee to warrant calling herself by that tribal name.

It seems that the belief in Indian ancestry, most often Cherokee, amongst Americans, is persistent. So persistent is it that many Americans who get their DNA tested, still maintain their belief in their Indian ancestry even when the tests show all-European genetics. They claim that the tests have to be wrong, because Grandma or Granddad told them that they had Indian blood, even a ‘Cherokee Princess’ in the family tree. As I’ve written before, this does not hold up when the actual testing results are negative. People will believe what they want to believe, reality be damned. This is true in many areas of life, to our detriment.

How much Indian blood does the ‘average American’ have? Many recent news articles mentioned an average percentage, which I don’t have at hand now, but it was very low, but still more than the minute percentage Rep. Warren’s tests showed. Unfortunately lots of bloggers and commenters took that ‘average American’ phrase as meaning that pretty much all pre-Revolution families have some Indian blood. I saw this claim made on dozens of comment sections, and even by a couple of bloggers. But is this true? Obviously not; firstly there were just not that many “Native Americans” in the early days of this nation, their having been either relocated, as well as dwindling in numbers. How could literally every family find Native Americans to mate with, if there was any wish to do so?

True, it was not uncommon for the men who were among the early settlers of the western frontier to take Indian wives or concubines, since women of their own stock were few and far between. But otherwise there was not a lot of miscegeny amongst the early colonials or the post-Revolution Americans.

So how much Indian blood is found amongst White Americans on average? This  shows it as very low.
From the link:

“If I were to give a percentage, I’d say the vast majority of White Americans have no Native American ancestry at all. A small percentage of White-identified families have Native ancestry of varying degrees and this will show up on genetic tests and provide a low average for the overall White population of somewhere around 2-3%.”

But remember, ‘average’ does not mean that every American has 2-3% ”Native” ancestry. According to many sources most Americans do not have Indian ancestry. So an individual White American’s chances of having Indian DNA are pretty small.

In the South there is a tendency for most Whites to say they have some Indian ancestry, usually female ancestors, most often Cherokee. I can’t count the number of people I know that say their great-grandmother was a “full-blood Cherokee”. In some areas this is plausible but overall it can’t be as prevalent as people’s self-reports make it.

I still believe everyone should be interested in their ancestry, interested enough to try to verify the often-erroneous oral traditions of the family. Contrary to what my liberal professors said in college, oral traditions are not as accurate as actual data.

But if most Americans learned of their true ancestry, and some of their ancestors’ stories, they might just learn to care more about what our forebears endured in order to come to this land, and to help create this country.

I also suspect that with more extensive testing, the estimates of the numbers of various ethnic groups would change considerably.

Are DNA tests unreliable and useless? There are skeptics who assert that they are, but in my own case and others, the DNA testing tallied very closely with what the genealogy research and family lore told us.

As to Warren, Ward Churchill (remember him?) and many others like them, the question remains as to why the need to claim the Indian heritage? Oddly the same phenomenon occurs in Australia, where many White Australians, with a very White phenotype, claim Aboriginal descent, and insist on being called Aborigine. I leave it to others to explain why.

One thought on “Misconceptions and urban legends

  1. I have no explanation for the phenomenon you cite, other than that in many cases I personally know of the (white) persons in question desire the benefits derived from membership in one of the various tribes – dental and medical care, food assistance, housing assistance and so forth. I have a CDIB roll number in the Choctaw tribe, but I do not receive any tribal benefits. When my wife and I were first married and struggling to make our way in the world, we did receive food assistance from the Choctaws for a couple of months before I decided that if I needed to pick up cans on the side of the roads to supplement our food budget, that is what I would do from then on out, and I have never regretted that decision.

    There are any number of reasons that people believe what they want to believe about their purported “Indian heritage,” I should think. The benefits thing is one, and there is a “need” amongst certain individuals to attain a kind of social “status.” Being “native American” for some confers that status (or so they believe), just as, for certain women, raising a “gay” or “transgender” child is a status symbol. Just as having a “special needs” child is a status symbol for some. It is a kind of a mind sickness.

    And with regard to certain of the Indian Tribes, they intensify the problem by lowering their standards of admittance into the tribe in order to receive more “federal dollars.” I have even been told by more than one person that (s)he thinks I am “neglecting” my children because I do not sign them up at birth in the Choctaw tribe, from whence they would derive great benefits as mentioned above. When I am told that, I more or less (quietly) cut off all contact with that person…


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