Becoming Indian

I’ve been chuckling about this video for a few days now.

  • the1491s. “I’m An Indian Too“. YouTube <>. Sep 21, 2012, retrieved Dec. 12, 2020.

So then. When the laughing subsides for a bit, I’m ready to go on with some more reading around this topic. There’s a particularly active faux Red community on I have a long standing interest in the subject of racial identity, but these folx really lit my interest. A wide variety of pipe carriers, and vision warriors, and chiefs of various standing. They couldn’t bear to hear that they might not be as NDN as they want.

I remember reading a few years ago about White folx with a tiny bit of Indian ancestry weighing in on whether the Washington Redskins name is racist. Invariably, they’d (a) assert their claim to Indian ancestry, then (b) say they aren’t offended by the name. Can people be less self-aware than that? I don’t think so.

I was pulled back to this issue recently by Darryl Leroux (no surprise there) and his latest article about indigenization.

There are also these older articles, still on my radar:

In other words, some people are making a very basic mistake of confusing ancestry and identity. It doesn’t have to be this hard–I have Swedish ancestry but I am not a Swede. So simple and obvious but it might be easy to lose your bearings if the only culture you know is your own.

Ultimately, this approach acquires an ersatz legitimacy from a related debate about the U.S. government using blood quantum rather than culture as a determinant of Indian identity. I wrote about that a few years ago. It should take only a few moments of reflection to see the difference between saying if you have the culture blood shouldn’t matter, versus saying if you have the blood you can claim the culture.

I’ll be watching to see where this goes. From the resistance I’ve encountered personally, I’d bet the ranch that rationality loses this round, this generation. There’s a powerful undercurrent in the dominant settler culture of wanting to be indigenized, some way, some how.

Update: Now here’s a book for my reading list: Circe Sturm, Becoming Indian: The struggle over Cherokee identity in the twenty-first century (2011). Looks like it’s still available from UNM Press for $27, but twice that used. Should be half that. Something hinkey, there. I’ll put it on my want list and wait for the market to play out.

Warren’s Cherokee Ancestry

I was at coffee with a friend a few days ago when we got mired in a debate about Elizabeth Warren. I was struck by how much misinformation I was hearing. It doesn’t need to be this hard.

There is a political narrative that says Warren lied about her Cherokee ancestry. That’s a story for suckers.

First, anyone with experience doing American genealogy will be aware that stories about Cherokee ancestry are a dime a dozen. It seems like half the people in the American South and West think there’s a Cherokee princess somewhere in their ancestry. And, the number is significantly higher in Oklahoma, where the Feds ultimately settled the Cherokee tribe.

Very few people who claim Cherokee ancestry can prove it. Many of them spend a lifetime trying to find some evidence, anything at all. It shouldn’t surprise anyone–except maybe an insular New Yorker–that Elizabeth Warren, who is from Oklahoma, would have a family tradition about Cherokee ancestry. It’s even less surprising that she can’t prove it. (Welcome to the club, Liz.)

Second, Warren made the mistake of taking a DNA test, in hopes of ending the controversy. That was probably just about the worst thing she could have done. The test ticked off Indians across America without producing an answer that would satisfy non-Indians.

Anglo America has defined tribal membership for Indians by using European kinship rules rather than Indian rules. Anglos ask how much Indian ancestry someone has. Indians nowadays generally want to ask whether someone is part of the culture of their tribe. One of Warren’s mistakes was exactly this. By taking a DNA test Warren was using Anglo rules to claim an Indian identity.

In an ideal world, the DNA test that showed Warren’s Indian ancestry might have satisfied non-Indians but it didn’t. The test showed she is about 1 / 1024 Indian. In other words, speaking very approximately her DNA is about what it would be if she had a 10th great grandparent who was Indian.

Except it doesn’t work that way. The science isn’t that exact. One of the problems (there are others) is that DNA gets shuffled. Percentages are an average. No one gets an exactly equal amount of DNA from every ancestor in a particular generation. After about 5 generations the DNA tends to wash out. In other words, there is no way to know whether Warren’s 1 / 1024 is luck of the draw from a 2nd great grandparent, or a miraculous survival from 10 generations ago, or even a false positive.

The Cherokee Tribe presents another wrinkle to the problem. Almost every Cherokee I know, including some close relatives, appears to be very Anglo judging only by physical appearance. One reason for that is membership in the tribe depends only on having an ancestor who appears on the 1906 Dawes Roll, a citizenship roll prepared by the Federal government. Neither biology nor cultural plays any role here. If Warren were to discover an ancestor on the Dawes Roll, the political debate would be resolved immediately.

Over and above these problems, there is another. Not all Indians are critical of Warren’s claim of Cherokee ancestry. There are competing schools of thought. One is that Anglo America can never be secure in their conquest until they have entirely exterminated or assimilated all Indians.

The other school of thought is that Indians gain increased security for the future by having White allies. The Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma in reported to have said in 2012 that he wished “every congressman and senator in the U.S. had a kinship or felt a kinship to the Cherokee Nation.”

Elizabeth Warren’s case interests me because in my father’s family we have some contested Indian ancestry, although the details play out differently than Warren’s. For myself, I find the problem of Indian ancestry to be a reason to ask questions, to learn and grow, and not so much a reason to dig in. If Warren weren’t so busy with other things, that would be my advice to her.

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Scotland’s regional DNA

I’m still getting used to the new-ish research that shows ancient European populations were largely replaced by later invasions, but the most recent invasions (like the Anglo-Saxons in England) didn’t really replace the local population like we always thought they did. It takes a degree of mental agility to keep up.

Now there’s some DNA news to comfort my conservative soul. “Experts have constructed Scotland’s first comprehensive genetic map, which reveals that the country is divided into six main clusters of genetically similar individuals: the Borders, the south-west, the north-east, the Hebrides, Orkney and Shetland.

“These groupings are in similar locations to early medieval kingdoms such as Strathclyde in the south-west, Pictland in the north-east, and Gododdin in the south-east. The study also discovered that some of the founders of Iceland may have originated from north-west Scotland and Ireland and that the Isle of Man is genetically predominantly Scottish.”

You can read the full article at, or take a look at the underlying study at PNAS. Either way, the part that amazes and pleases me is not just the evidence of regional continuity but the fact that the evidence comes from DNA.

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Race vs Ethnicity

Masaman asks, “What’s the difference between the terms race, ethnicity, culture, ancestry, heritage, nationality and other terms that seem like they all should more or less be discussing the same thing?

What’s the Difference between Race and Ethnicity?

I’ve written about this before, including:

I come back to this subject over and over because it’s often a stumbling block for genealogists. Someone who doesn’t understand the differences will end up making mistakes when they interpret DNA results, and — very often — become confused about whether their own identity.

I’m going to keep posting and posting and posting.

Grandma’s Ethnicity

When I was in, oh say 3rd grade we were supposed to go home and ask our parents where our families came from. That was probably the first time in my life I ever heard about this ethnicity thing I’m always writing about. It might also be the first time I had any sense of genealogy.

I don’t actually remember what my mother told me or what I told the teacher the next day. I’d bet my answer was that I’m English and Swedish. Something easy, anyway. I know that because I was surprised so many kids the next day didn’t know and some had what seemed to me to be unnecessarily complicated answers. One guy said he was “Heinz 57” and that was the first time I ever heard that expression. This was Brigham City, Utah circa 1964. You’d think parents would be prepared with answers to genealogy questions.

I’m pretty sure the point of this exercise was to begin introducing us to fractions, but I don’t remember actually doing any fractions here. At least not in school.

But I do remember my mother explaining it all. Her father’s parents both came from Sweden, so he was full Swedish, and that meant she is half Swedish, and I’m a quarter Swedish. There was even an Swedish sailor when I was little who called me his “little qvarter Swede.” (In Greeley, Grandma Long’s boarder.)

What I really remember from it is that Grandma Place was German. Easy. She spoke German. And Grandma Swanstrom was “half English, a quarter Scottish, and a quarter Irish.” Hard. I learned something about fractions.

When I was a bit older I figured out that Grandma Swanstrom’s ethnicity was simpler than I imagined at first. My bet was she arrived at her numbers by figuring her dad was English, and her mom was Scotch-Irish. I was able to confirm this insight many years later when I saw the marriage record for one of Grandma’s brothers. It said exactly that. Father English, Mother Scotch-Irish.

The cool thing for me is because the calculation is not strictly correct, it tells me something about how people simplify American ethnicity. See the chart above for a more detailed analysis of Grandma’s ancestry. Her father has an English mother but his paternal ancestry has bits of Scottish. And her mother has bits of English. But both of them are really mostly just colonial American.

In the course of Grandma’s life I got a few other clues to how she saw ethnicity. Without asking directly. Because I already knew you can’t ask leading questions if you’re really intent on finding out how someone sees something.

I learned that Grandma thought of her red hair and her parents’ red hair as a part of their ethnicity. Her dad had “bright red hair and red handlebar mustache”. Of course. I think today we would say he was a ginger. His mother was from Yorkshire. And her mother had “auburn hair”, which her father said was her mother’s “crowning glory”. Her ancestors were Scots and Irish, so it’s not a surprise they had red hair.

Then too, when Grandma was diagnosed with skin cancer and again when she had high cholesterol, she told me her ancestors would have included many Vikings raping an pillage in Ireland and Scotland. So she must have a lot of Scandinavian ancestry. And that reinforces her fair skin. Plus, she said, half in fun, Scandinavians live up there where’s there’s not enough beef (remember her father was a rancher), so they live on fish. And there’s no fat in fish. So their bodies store every bit of fat they get, to use when they need it. So her high cholesterol proved her Scandinavian ancestry. (Grandma liked to read science and psychology magazines, so I imagine she had a pretty accurate picture of the science behind all this.)

This is all fun stuff. I’m taking time to write about it because it might be interesting someday for Grandma’s descendants to have this little glimpse of how she thought about ethnicity.

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  • Go out and play with Pedigree Pie. It’s the software I used to create the chart of my grandmother’s ancestry. It takes your ancestry from Very handy.

Changing Ethnicity

Both 23andme and Ancestry have recently made adjustments to their ethnicity calculations. Before I go on I have to say it makes me nuts to have everyone babbling about “ethnicity” when they really mean “ancestry.” I’m an ethnic American. More specifically an ethnic Mormon. I can be chill about it as long as I get a chance once in a while to be pedantic. Ethnicity is culture, not biology. Gedmatch calls it “admixture“, so it seems they’re putting in a bit more effort to get it right.

All of the testing companies change their “ethnicity” estimates now and then, as new data emerges and modeling gets better. And you won’t get the same estimate at two different companies. It’s not an exact science, but it has gotten better—much better—over time.

I got a chuckle out of Roberta Estes’ comparison to the old weather joke. “If you don’t like the weather here, wait 5 minutes, it’ll change”. (Don’t Like Your Ethnicity? Wait 5 Minutes.) People in other cities say it, but being a loyal Denverite, I know in my heart it was originally said about Denver.

The picture above shows my current results at Ancestry. These are probably the closest I’ve ever had to results that match my expectations and what my genealogy paper trail shows. Except the Norwegian. That makes no sense. Has to be a mistake for Swedish. My grandfather’s parents came from Sweden, so my DNA ethnicity should be about 25 percent Swedish. Instead, as you can see, Ancestry has me 14 percent Swedish and 9 percent Norwegian.

I think more than anything what impresses me here about Ancestry is that they are able to tease out my connections to Mormon pioneers and Ohio River Valley settlers. They’re missing the strong New England component, though. When I compare my numbers in this table to the numbers in the map, I see that what Ancestry seems to be doing is accounting for my “non-American” ancestry in their estimates for German, Irish, and Scottish. And that reinforces my sense that I am actually old-time colonial American with a few bits of other stuff.

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Ethnic Mormons

I tell people I’m an “ethnic Mormon”. The label confuses almost everyone, and that’s why I do it. It gives me a chance to explain. My experience is that when you’re a Mormon you’re a Mormon whether you believe or not, and whether you belong to the Church or not.

I was excited to see Masaman’s newest YouTube video. I enjoy almost everything he does (although I’ll never live long enough to watch everything). His latest video is Masaman’s Ultimate 2019 Ethno-Racial Map of the World. Quite an accomplishment, so maybe it’s a little self-serving to say my favorite part is where he affirms Mormons are their own ethnicity:

Now if you’re curious, I did indeed count Mormons as a separate ethno-religious categorization from Anglo-Americans or English, as the majority of the Mormon community of the western states are a tight-knit group that has somewhat become a homogenized, cohesive population with a separate identity, and hence many consider old stock, non-convert Mormons to functionally act as an ethnicity in their own right, as I discussed in the past.

Okay. Not really a blunt “Mormons are their own ethnic group” but close enough for now.

As a Mormon / Non-Mormon / Ex-Mormon living in Colorado, as soon as someone finds out I’m from Utah the first thing they ask is whether I’m Mormon. I’ve had dozens of different answers to that over the years. Most often, I’ve often described my relationship to Mormonism as similar to the relationship a non-religious Jew has toward Judaism. You’re not ever going to get away, and what would be the point anyway?

This idea of ethnic Mormons is still an emerging idea, I think. That is, the idea is emerging. The reality has been around for a long time, with roots in the “jack Mormons” of my childhood.

The idea that Mormons are not just active church members only became possible over the last few decades as the Church has lost some of its stranglehold on Utah, leaving many ethnic Mormons with lives not oriented to the Church and its members. It’s possible to stay in Utah and not be a Church member anymore.

And the general consciousness of Mormons as a separate group, not just a quirky religion, really only dates back to Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign. And the cartoon South Park. Let’s not forget South Park. This would be 2012, which also happens to be when the term Ethnic Mormon was added to

When I lived in Salt Lake City (1977-1986) some of us used to joke about being ethnic Mormons, and occasionally we’d swear off dating Mormon men (because of the many problems). I think my first encounter with the idea that ethnic Mormonism could really be a “thing” was David G. Pace’s article, “After the (Second) Fall: A Personal Journey Toward Ethnic Mormonism”. (I’m fairly certain he must be a relative, and maybe one of these days I’ll look it up.)

Pace’s idea in short is: “I for one am not interested in changing the corporate church as I am in exploding the notion of what it means to be Mormon. There is a difference between being a Mormon and being a member of the LDS church; the former embraces the latter.

Since Pace’s article, I’ve heard bits and pieces of chatter here and there, but nothing very weighty. Probably the best has been Mette Ivie Harrison, What is an Ethnic Mormon? but still I want more. My sense is that I’m going to have to wait. More people need to notice that ethnic Mormon is a thing, and more people need to join the conversation.

Update March 22, 2019

I finally checked our relationship to David Pace. He’s Dad’s 3rd cousin.

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BritainsDNA Goes Down

Many of us who delve into DNA for genealogy have the same frustration. The general public seems to have an almost childlike belief in stories. People either believe their DNA tests are telling the absolute, scientific truth, or they’re skeptics who think it’s all bunk.

Comparatively few see the stories for what they are—marketing. Does that seem harsh? Keep reading.

The valuable part of DNA tests is that they can tell you who you’re related to, and working from that you can learn quite a bit about your family history.

What DNA can’t tell you very accurately is where your ancestors came from with any meaningful specificity.

All of the DNA companies walk a narrow line here. They have to put your DNA results into enough context so you understand what your results “mean”. But, they have to avoid leaving the impression the results show more than than they do.

BritainsDNA was far over the line, and everyone knew it. They focused on yDNA and mtDNA, which are only a small part of a person’s DNA, and they spun highly romanticized stories. When called on it, they threatened legal action. Now they’re gone.

There were reports back in 2012 and 2013. I remember reading Exaggerations and errors in the promotion of genetic ancestry testing by Vincent Plagnol, at Genomes Unzipped (Dec. 17, 2012). Can’t believe I missed BritainsDNA – Caveat Emptor by Roberta Estes, at DNA Explained (Dec. 20, 2012). She’s my DNA cousin on the Estes line. I almost always see her stuff even when I miss everything else.

You can read the story here: What we learned about fighting bad science by taking on a genetic ancestry testing company by David Balding and Debbie Kennett, at Cruwys News (Jan. 3, 2019).

I’m betting this isn’t over. I won’t be surprised if BritainsDNA finds a way to come back. People don’t walk away from a lucrative business. I just hope when they come back, they do it with more professional skill.

Ethnic Imposters

How often do we see it? People claim an ethnic heritage they don’t really have. Remember Rachel Dolezal? There was a scandal a few years ago because she identified as black and even served as president of the NAACP in Spokane without having the right DNA for the job.

Some people might think it’s an easy call. She claimed to be black but she’s not, so she’s an impostor. It’s easy to see that way of looking at, but for most of us there’s probably also a lingering suspicion that we haven’t quite hit the nail.

In fact, there are layers and layers of meaning and complication here.

For example, our society is coming to terms with trans people. I think most of us can understand that someone who is born in a male body can nevertheless identify as female (or vice versa). Conservatives might think we just need to beat it out of them, but that view is becoming less common (I think).

But how is ethnic dysphoria any different than gender dysphoria? That’s a hard question. And it doesn’t stop there.

Right now, Ralph Northam is fighting to save his political career after it became public that he wore black face in high school. (Because that used to count as entertainment. I don’t remember it that way but everyone sez so.) Northam’s basic argument is no one back then knew it was wrong so it’s not fair to hold him accountable now.

So, the world seems to have agreed black face is bad. But when I was a kid I read a book called Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin (1961). He darkened his skin and traveled around the South, pretending to be black. Broadly speaking, that seems like a kind of black face, but the prejudice he suffered served a purpose. It wasn’t just entertainment. He was my hero for years.

We could say there was no redeeming social value to Northam’s black face, as there was with Black Like Me. But I don’t think we can make “redeeming social value” the bright line between right and wrong, good and bad. Rachel Dolezal was doing good work as a civil rights activist, but that didn’t save her. Trans people aren’t usually offering anything for the greater social good, except of course their own wholeness, but that doesn’t mean we dismiss them.

Nor are we at a place where we can posit a rule it’s okay for people to define their own gender but not their own ethnicity. Northam is in trouble for doing black face 40 years ago, but he could probably do red face right now and get away with it. Kim TallBear notes, “Since the 18th century, non-Natives have dressed as Indians at the Boston Tea Party, in fraternal orders, in the Boy Scouts, at hobbyist powwows, within the New Age movement, and in sports, as racist mascots.”

Indeed, Italian immigrant Espira DiCorti made his entire television career posing as Iron Eyes Cody, supposedly a Native American with Cree and Cherokee ancestry. We’re in the upteenth year of the Washington Redskins trying to explain why their name is not really racist. And President Trump is using Pocahontas as a slur for political rival, apparently with the approval of the Republican party.

As a genealogist I don’t have to wait for cases like these to hit the front page. There is a constant drizzle of people who’ve had a DNA test, found that they’re zero point five percent Native American, and have adopted a full-blown Native American identity. Impostors who emerge as “Pipe Carriers for the Blackfoot Nation” or “Cheraw Nation Non-Profit Members” are a pain in the butt for all of us because their vanity distorts the research.

Very often the problem is nothing more than a stubborn naivete, usually on top of an inept and uneducated use of DNA. But in other cases, the DNA gets pressed into service to support an imposture that would be made anyway. It’s as though Rachel Dolezal could point to a 5th great grandmother who might have been black. (Oh, never mind then. That makes it okay.)

And that’s still not the end of it. Someone like Elizabeth Warren can have a genuine tradition of Cherokee ancestry, validated by DNA, but still run afoul of prevailing norms because her ancestry didn’t make her Cherokee.

But it could have. The layers just keep piling up. If her family has maintained their Cherokee culture there might not be the same controversy. And, if she had an ancestor on the Dawes Roll she would be eligible for Cherokee citizenship. But even then, there’s a strong feeling nowadays that blood quantum is an ineffective and perhaps even imperialist way of determining Native American identity. This is quite a complex topic. I was fortunate to come across a symposium in progress by the Smithsonian many years ago. I finished watching, then I’ve come back to watch and re-watch many times since. I highly recommend it. The short version is that culture not DNA determines identity.

I’m going to leave it there. Our current cultural landscape is a mess. Whites are in the same privileged position we’ve always been in. Judging by public opinion it’s sorta, kinda not okay for whites to do black face, but it might be okay to adopt a black identity. But Native Americans are different. It’s okay to do red face, okay to adopt a Native American identity, and even okay to make a living selling Native American shamanism.

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Revised to update links.