Thursday, July 7, 2011

American Indian Ancestors: Fact or Fiction?

Having researched hundreds of American family groups at this point, and having spoken to many family researchers over the years, one conundrum seems to persist in most every white American family:  the tale of the mysterious "Indian" ancestor.

Try asking any white American what their heritage is, and I will bet you that most all of them will mention being part Native American.  It's a strange phenomenon, all these ivory skinned people claiming to be a small part of a rich native heritage. 

I've heard a number of variations on the story, with most of the stories involving one of the more famous Indian chiefs:  Geronimo, Sitting Bull, Massasoit, and even the famed and laughable tale of the "Indian Princess".  It sounds quite exotic, but Native tribes did not have titles like those of English Royalty.  A daughter of an Indian Chief might be referred to as a "Princess" in hindsight by an English Colonial, however, and I'm sure that's where the term originated and was then romanticized into infinity.

One blog about the famed fake Indian Princess named "Nicketti Powhatan", the supposed niece of Pocahontas, expertly hones in on the phenomenon revolving around one of the more enduring Indian Princess stories.

But stories are all that can be offered.  When you think about it, how could one actually prove a link (with true documentation) to a famous indigenous American from the 17th century?  It's not like they have their own vital records database going back that far.  What we have here are an assortment of family legends, nothing more.

Slate wrote a very thoughtful write up on this phenomenon as well, and the main thesis there was "To claim Cherokee blood is to authenticate your Americanness".  A very salient point captured here is that there is some basis for believing in a high frequency of Cherokee-Euro Settler marriages, in an effort to establish diplomatic ties, and to secure trading business between native and settler.  Further, Cherokees also were known to take on African slaves, which led to a certain amount of mixed blood offspring.

I think the connection is there, but it's been exaggerated over the generations.  A great many Hollywood celebrities make the claim to Indian ancestry, and many of these claims are simply unverified.  Former NFL player Emmitt Smith, like many African Americans, grew up hearing the story of having a significant amount of Indian blood, and DNA testing proved him wrong.

It's understandable though.  Growing up here, it's quite exotic to believe that one's family is rooted in anything other than European or African stock.  Speaking for myself, as a run-of-the-mill white person from New England, it's exciting to imagine that even the slightest touch of Spanish, Asian, African or anything other than the standard Irish/English/French blood could be involved.  I would view it as welcome news (not everyone shares that excitement, of course).

My opinion is that the true number of Americans with Amerindian blood is much lower than what has been claimed, and, outside of the folks who can easily prove this by having grown up on a reservation, or had recent ancestors who have done so, those few who truly have that famed "1/16th" Indian blood will find it near impossible to prove. 

Not all family researchers share my pessimistic viewpoint, however.  Many appear to like hanging on to the family story of the Cherokee Indian Princess, or other such stories, despite lack of available documentation.  But of course some families have a strong link.  I'm very curious about this process of proof, and would welcome feedback from those who have succeeded in bridging the gap between family lore and substantive documentation.

Many members of indigenous tribes of North America have expressed anger, outrage, and disgust over the fact that many white Americans claim to possess American Indian traits, understandably so.  Many other natives decry the rising interest in Amerindian genealogy as well.

"Indians" began being counted as a specific race on the 1870 U.S. Census.  During the prior census, taken in 1860, "taxed Indians who have renounced tribal rule" were the only ones to be counted (even though they were often still checked off as 'white').  After 1870, there is still some evidence that census takers (whether racist, coerced, or careless) would still list most people as "White" anyhow.  By 1885, many tribal nations started being counted on the U.S. Indian Census Rolls for those living on reservations.

The story I had always heard in my family while growing up was that somewhere on my mom's mother's side of the family, we are from the "Blackfoot Tribe".   As a child, it sounded interesting enough to me.  I began to adopt the idea as fact as a teenager, and believed myself to be special in some way, given that I already had been told that my dad's side of the family had Mayflower roots (a rumor I was able to prove true with a lot of help from cousins, and digging through a lot of old records).  I found it fascinating to imagine myself as descending from native people and also from those who colonized.  But this Tribe is from Montana, and my own research proved that I had no roots in Montana at all, so I quickly dismissed the story as family folklore.

There have been some great strides in genealogical DNA testing, whereby one can determine percentages of ancestry from just a cheek swab.  FTDNA is one such company, and such percentages can be revealed, along with the news that you may actually be part of some reputed Amerindian "Haplogroups".

My mother had her cheek swab done in 2010, for instance, and her group came up as "Haplogroup X".  Now, A, B, C, D, and X are all associated with migratory Siberian Asian (and Central Asian) people that settled in the Americas as the first, "Native Americans"...for lack of a better term.  There was some evidence at the time, however, that Haplogroup X also is potentially linked to European people, so the jury wasn't out yet.  In 2015, the Haplogroup got revised to a subclade of X, namely X2b4, which was confirmed as rooted in Western European ancestry, and NOT Native American.

I feel relieved to close this chapter on my family history - this story of the mysterious (and false) Indian, at least in my family, can finally be put to rest, along with the one about that guy who invented the telephone.


  1. You touched on the main reason I think it's hard to locate a name/face of an Indian relative, that is--how they would be counted for instance in the Census. Many, if not most New England Indians would by the early 1800s have had "white" names and by the mid 19th century have largely been assimilated. Also, prejudice was still damn thick regarding racial mixing so such information wouldn't be openly bandies about.

    But who knows, blood tests are a pretty definitive way to find out if one is that curious but even that will never tell anything more than yes or no to such a bloodline.

  2. Go and have your DNA analyzed :)

    1. I guess you didn't make it all the way to the end of this post!

  3. There is another tribe called blackfeet. They where the biracial children of black and cherokee people( they were the children who where to dark to pass). The children where not put on the rolls...but on the negro list. Some of the children who could pass married others who where passing have to look into books writen in the 1700s to 1800s. Its a topic that Cherokee Indians want to keep hidden..

  4. this is a legitimate cultural phenomenon. I too have documented 1000s of family groups and interviewed 100s of people about their family history and it is an extremely high number of people who claim a Native American ancestry. I have yet to find one. Often when I am reviewing my findings with people they will ask me which ancestor was Native American. And often my reply is to show them the immigration records. The only thing I would add to this article is that its not just white people. I find a good portion of African Americans have this same infatuation.

  5. My DNA swab from the National Geographic testing kit listed 56% English, 19% Scotch-Welsh-Irish, 6% Iberian, 17% Italian. and 2% Native American.

  6. My grandmother was fond of the ol' mysterious American Indian relative story but I never repeat it because:

    1. I don't care
    2. Anyone who does looks as dumb as Elizabeth Warren now does.