Ancestry Lesson

*Land Acknowledgment: I type these words while on the lands of the Paleoindians from 12,000 years ago, and from 200 years ago the Kiikaapoi/Kicapoux (Kickapoo), Peoria, Myaamia (Miami), Kaskaskia, Piankashaw, Wea, Mascoutins (Mascouten), Illiniwek, Odawa, Sauk, Mesquaki(e) (Fox), Ioway, Potawatomi, Ojibwe, and Chickasaw. These nations were forcibly removed from their lands by colonists that brutalized and stole from them. The nations have a rich history, traditions, and heritage that can be seen in festivals, local communities, and ceremony.

Family History Projects

A drawn female figure sits in a red gown with a wreath of twigs around her face. In the background is drawn her family tree.
“Family Tree. VTda.info” by vtdainfo is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Almost every year of grade school we’d be asked to produce a family tree, family tradition, and/or piece of family history. I grew up in a Midwestern rural village surrounded by basic, white people (including myself). My extended family seemed no different. Though a couple kids in my class would report on families from Italy and Ireland and places across the globe (European countries seemed cool because it felt far removed from flat prairie in the middle of “nowhere”) the assignments I submitted usually contained histories about poor, uneducated farmers that rarely strayed far from the area where I resided. This wasn’t exciting to me. It was a regurgitation of the stories being shared by my classmates.

Cultural Escape

What was exciting to me as a kid was sitting in a Waldenbooks or B. Dalton bookstore in the foreign language book aisle. I wanted to learn so many languages when I was young, travel the world, learn about cultures from people different from me and who had experiences and stories different from mine. I wanted to be able to communicate with cultures and learning foreign languages was the key. To those who dislike reading, this probably sounds incredibly dull, but for me it was an escape from a watered down, flavorless, safe, and mundane existence. I can remember being excited watching movies where cultures were celebrated; like a movie where there was a wedding ceremony that consisted of a ritual at the alter and traditional dance and song to follow. The few weddings I’d been to as a child were not this interesting or fun. All I felt was discomfort sitting in a wooden pew in a hot church enduring a ceremony with a lackluster white male who would ruminate endlessly, then driving to a reception hall and waiting more hours to be fed because the newly wedded couple had to take that many photos of their exceptionally long wedding party and families. The wedding photos were always scheduled at dinner time and the food was not brought out until the wedding party had been announced and seated. By the time we did eat, dinner service was cleared, and reception goers were ready to hit the dance floor I was ready to go to sleep from sheer exhaustion.

Patrilineal Ancestry Revealed

Then, one year, the project I had been assigned involved my grandparents. I learned that we had a record book of family names going back to the 1800s! (Adolescent mind blown.) Not only that, but I was descended from a Cherokee Indian Chief and Princess! (Adolescent mind doubly blown.) My mind whirred and I began imagining.

Adolescent me: Am I Cherokee royalty? A descendant of Cherokee Indians would need a horse (because representations of Indians always showed them on horseback). Finally, a legit reason to have a horse! Moccasins are trending in fashion, so I should probably get a pair of those as well.

Motivated by Doubt

Over time, I gleaned more ancestral bits. I added them to my personal narrative, so that by adulthood I had it down to: I am English, Irish, French, German, and Cherokee Indian. I was always most proud of the Cherokee. That pride grew as I got older, the knowledge that my ancestry went beyond the Midwest, yet also recognizing that I was predominantly a white person.

Then, a couple years ago, Elizabeth Warren made a similar pronouncement. That she was descended from a Cherokee Indian Chief. The media — broadcast and social — chewed her up and spewed her out over this. I remember hearing and/or reading more than one person saying that “too many white people claim this to feel special and/or get attention.” I remember thinking I have a genealogy that says it, but that thought was fighting for space with the doubt that was seeping in for a takeover. The other thought was that I can see validity in that criticism. The louder thought was one that was motivated by finding out more about my Cherokee ancestors.

Research Mode

Fast forward to COVID-19 and my place of employment shuts down and the state issues a shelter-in-place. A couple months of being shut in was time to think about where and who I came from and to gather information. My curiosity and need for knowing took the lead. I have only one living grandparent and I started discussing family history with them.

Eventually, I asked my mom about the genealogy book. She brought the book (now in binder form to preserve pages), and I got busy investigating. One of the first places I looked at were the paragraphs about the Cherokee Indian Chief and Princess. The paragraph begins, “Legend has it…” and I shut down. Those words transported me back to the criticisms of Elizabeth Warren and here it was confirmed in print.

Family Fiction and Fantasy

All the feelings were cascading throughout my body: humiliation, sadness, irritation, anger… My personal narrative, my family history, my identity were a lie; a great fantasy of a child not yet versed in evaluating resources and checking the credibility of the author. Furthermore, the lie was helped along and planted by my racist grandfather who desired to perpetuate his own fantasy. One where he hated on Black persons and those of Polish descent while attempting to play at sympathy for the indigenous peoples of America. He would argue about the treatment that indigenous peoples of America received from colonists, but was all too ready to trash the experiences of Black people in American and tell insulting jokes about Polish people. I can remember arguing with him as young as seven about how it was not nice to call Black people the “n” word and telling him I didn’t like it when he talked the way he did about Black people. Until this moment, I had believed that adolescent me was good for standing up to Pop about his treatment of Black people, but adolescent me missed the treatment of Polish people and indigenous people in this. Now, I was having to face it all down without him here to confront.

My anger thrust me into various resources for ancestry available through the local libraries. What I found were zero mentions or attachments to tribes in North America. Additionally, records for my grandfather’s family stop in the early 1800s in places like Kentucky, Virginia, and Indiana.

After searching through census records and digital record trails I got more frustrated. Many of my ancestors in this branch of my family tree did not know how to read or write. Therefore, they may/may not know how to spell their own name and how to sign it. Vital records were not something in their possession. Often things like births, deaths, and marriages were reported on account of familial memories/oral history. Which makes the onus of the census record keepers all the more confounding. In records I have looked at, spellings of names change from census year to census year and with one particular ancestor they reported the same age on two consecutive census’ and I know it was not from discovering the “Fountain of Youth.” This same ancestor has a questionable year of death as well. In some records and family trees, their death year is reported to be the same as that of the one where they are reported with the same age as the census a decade earlier. In other records, the death year is unknown and in the family genealogy book there is speculation about their death occurring before the last census year their name appears. However, the author of the family genealogy book is the least credible source. As their “research” was more about finding tiny bits of information and stringing them together with allegory and legend to construct a “family history.”

False Remedy

Given these examples, one can see how these frustrations drove me to purchase a DNA kit. An impulse buy. When the kit arrived, I decided I would mail my saliva. This would be the “best way” to find out exactly where and who I came from or so I had convinced myself in the heat of the moment and my urgency in needing to know. The impulse was also moved along with the knowledge of people I know sharing their good experiences with me, the commercials were convincing, and it seemed like a way to get the information I desired. Behold the self-fulfilling prophecy or a version of it…

Twins get ‘mystifying’ DNA ancestry test results (Marketplace) | CBS News | January 18, 2019

Within a couple weeks, my partner shared a video with me about the various ancestry sites. A reporter with their twin debunks the ancestry platforms first and foremost with their results that were not identical. (See video on left.) Woh. What?! They go on to interview various scientists, historians, and medical professionals who tell the viewer that the results initially presented by the company to you about your ethnicity can change. So, it’s not scientific? Valid? Accounting for error? The ancestry companies extract your DNA from your saliva and compare it against strands in their database. That is your strands are not individually analyzed, but compared against the aggregate of “findings” in their saliva collection. When you are provided results they’re provided as “an estimate.” Ultimately, your strand looked similar to this group of strands, hence, identical twins not having identical results.

Take the feelings of “Legend has it…” moment and overlay them here. My personal narrative, identity, and family history were starting to feel like a sci-fi/fantasy akin to The Matrix where things were duplicating, a sign of a glitch, and that glitch was my slip up with evaluating resources, yet again. (Childhood me, needing some recoding!) Take a passenger seat, adolescent me! The trained librarian in me needed to take the wheel. I attempted to do searches on descendants from a family history and tree website created by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. The site was one included on a LibGuide for doing genealogy work. There are written sources by some of my ancestors. Unfortunately, the availability of the sources are limited to one library worldwide and in languages foreign to me. Needless to say, the trained librarian has more work to do.

Choose Your Own Ancestor

At this point, the purveyors of the saliva database had taken my money and I was waiting to see what story I would be sold. Resignedly that is what I paid for — a company of lab coated figures (because pseudo science is trending and the lab coats help market to a basic white, Euro-washed target demographic) selling me a new personal narrative or more aptly a form of Choose Your Own Adventure (family history edition).

The “results” aka “Ethnicity Estimates” were populated this week. “Legend has it…” that I have no Cherokee Indian lineage. The estimates cover broad space and generalize my ancestors whereabouts. So much so that Scotland is listed as a significant percentage of my ethnicity estimate, but when I click on more information “Scotland” includes Northern Ireland and Brittany, France. (Last time I checked, Scotland was a country and not a region. But hey, I expected fantasy and I got it…where a country is now a regional territory stippled in a southerly formation.) I also have to remember from the video I shared above that these “results” are subject to change as they are an estimate.

I am now detached from this information and any future information I discover. Because I do not know if I will ever truly find valid and credible information. At every level of my searches, I have found data that can be manipulated or appears to have been.

Conclusion

In summary, I have learned things. First, I was not born a librarian. The adolescent version of me hadn’t known to read that fine print from the “treasured blue book” and how to unpack all of grandfather’s problematic thoughts on race and ethnicity leaving adult me to do this work. Second, to be interested and to pursue information in ancestry and genealogy requires a tolerant and forgiving temperament. Also, a person willing to consider that genealogy for many individuals and families teeters towards the fictional lore side. Third, the Cherokee Nation and nations of indigenous peoples in the United States are not a product to appropriate. I realize the re-telling of my childhood thoughts come from a place of cultural appropriation, instead of appreciation. I am working at making these childish thoughts a thing of the past. Fourth and final, my remorse. I am not of this land in which I have a home. My ancestors brutalized and stole the land I live on from nations of indigenous peoples. Though I do not know the names of ancestors that did the brutalizing they settled here without moral issue and were devoid of compassion for the peoples they robbed. The act of not fighting for what is right is its own form of brutality. To deny and force out whole tribes and nations of people, to squat on land we have no right to, to treat indigenous persons as beastly and other savages, to kill them mercilessly, and send them in droves in exodus without the essentials to live is a hellish, criminal, and apathetic act. This is a past that needs to be known, but it is not current history nor a reflection of how the nations of this land live today.

I currently do not have the funds to help repatriate lands, nor do I have relationships within the nations, but I do have information below to share. If you are like me and interested in learning more about what we can do to first honor the nations, please visit the links below. To finish with a quote from “A Guide to Indigenous Land Acknowledgment”:

“At the end of the day, remember: Starting somewhere is better than not trying at all. We need to share in Indigenous peoples’ discomfort. They’ve been uncomfortable for a long time” (Native Governance Center).

Additional information

*Information in this statement was gathered from Native-Land, Krannert Art Museum, McLean County History Museum, and Illinois State Museum

To learn more about territories, languages, treaties, and native lands, visit: https://native-land.ca/

Wanting to get started on a land acknowledgment statement, begin here: https://nativegov.org/a-guide-to-indigenous-land-acknowledgment/

Unpacking cultural appropriation in wellness spaces: https://nativegov.org/cultural-appropriation-and-wellness-guide/

A list of indigenous rights groups to support | article by Bustle: https://www.bustle.com/life/8-indigenous-rights-groups-to-support-on-indigenous-peoples-day-this-year-18814669

Queer Writer & Poet | Sex and Sensuality | Linguistics, Health, and Wellness Interests | Personal Experience | LINKTR.EE/TOLBERTMBB