I’ve read lots of articles and information related to Elizabeth Warren’s claim of Native American ancestry. It interests me because I have appropriated (I think appropriately) some symbols and ideas from America’s tribal peoples. This politician seems a little brain dead on how she comes across, and I worry that some anger or misunderstanding might be transferred onto me.
Before I ‘splain myself, it seems best to share a few native perspectives that I came across that speak rather eloquently to the issue of native ancestry and cultural appropriation. This opinion piece from HuffPost covers the issues nicely. There’s also this official statement from the Cherokee Tribe:
“A DNA test is useless to determine tribal citizenship. Current DNA tests do not even distinguish whether a person’s ancestors were indigenous to North or South America. Sovereign tribal nations set their own legal requirements for citizenship, and while DNA tests can be used to determine lineage, such as paternity to an individual, it is not evidence for tribal affiliation. Using a DNA test to lay claim to any connection to the Cherokee Nation or any tribal nation, even vaguely, is inappropriate and wrong. It makes a mockery out of DNA tests and its legitimate uses while also dishonoring legitimate tribal governments and their citizens, whose ancestors are well documented and whose heritage is proven. Senator Warren is undermining tribal interests with her continued claims of tribal heritage.” - Cherokee Nation Secretary of State Chuck Hoskin, Jr.
My first novel is called ThunderBird Walking: A Grand Canyon Ghost Story. It’s told in first person by a character who has a dream or ‘vision’ where he is given the name ‘ThunderBird Walking’. He feels disconnected from his white Catholic family, and this leads him on a path of self-discovery that takes him to live on the edge of the Grand Canyon. As a narrator, he is somewhat unreliable, but he never makes any claim of native ancestry, nor tries to seek a tribal identity.
As a writer, this book is autobiographical fiction. I originally intended to write a memoir, but I didn’t have the money for proper research, and the writing took some strange turns into spooky places. I shelved it for a while but it kept coming back to me. Eventually, I had the idea to make it autobiographical fiction, and I did have a vision-like dream where the name Thunderbird Walking was given to me.
My interest in Native American lore goes back to childhood. Whenever we played ‘Cowboys and Indians’, I always wanted to be the Indian. I lived in an area in Maryland with lots of tribal names (this is fairly common in America), and I remember hiking along Seneca Creek and visualizing ‘Indians’ living there 300 years earlier. I also remember a trip at about age 11 to a family cabin on a lake in Minnesota (a state name derived from a tribal word) where my uncle took me on a canoe and talked about how Native Americans never let water drip from their paddles (most-likely a myth).
In high school, I had two close friends who were part Cherokee by blood, but they weren’t members of the tribe. I also had a girlfriend who traced some heritage back to South American tribes. A few years ago, my mother asked me to help clean up her brother’s house for the estate, and among his belongings were several old books on Native American tribes and customs. I also found some old pictures from the late 1800s, including one of my maternal Grandmother as a teenager. She looked hauntingly like my girlfriend from high school. The family story is that she was born in 1884 to an English family, but she didn’t get married until age 36—to an Irishman. I started to contemplate my Grandmother’s life, and I began to wonder if she might have been part Native American.
If I ever get off my ass and finish my second novel ThunderBird Talking: Spook on the Loose in Tucson (working title), it explores this mystery deeper. In my Catholic family back in the 1800s, a marriage to a person with tribal blood probably would have been repressed and covered up — similar to the story in one of my favorite books, Sometimes a Great Notion.
Getting back to the political aspects of this whole thing, it’s amazing that the person currently being called the Democratic frontrunner for 2020 is a 70-year-old white woman from Oklahoma who was listed as a person of color by Harvard Law School in the 1990s. I’m sure there are actual women of color in the Democratic Party, but it would be just like America to not see that straight in 2020.