Land Back: Settler FAQ

A lot of people are saying #LandBack. The idea seems to be settlers should give back the land their ancestors stole. I hear about it more from Canadians than Americans, but the idea is circulating in both countries.

I’m listening, politely I hope, but I’m not really sure about what I’m hearing. How far do they want to go? How much do they want to take? What happens to the people who live on the land now? How can we settlers all go back to Europe? We wouldn’t all fit now. How could we decide which European country has to take us when many of us are mixed? How can they say all White people are settlers when many of us have been here for 12 or 13 generations? How can they judge who is a settler and who is indigenous when some of us are mixed, in varying degrees? And come to that, how do we know #landback wouldn’t be just replacement of one elite with another? (And on, and on.)

These are all concerns I’ve heard from friends at just the slightest mention of #LandBack. It all sounds very alarmist, doesn’t it? Or in some cases, dismissive. It would be easy to go off halfcocked.

I’m thinking we need to do more listening first. There’s a core element of justice here. The land really was stolen. Let’s not lose sight of that. And you don’t have to be a historian to know that evolving ideas of justice always sound radical against a comfortable status quo. Our Revolutionary War ancestors heard voices condemning slavery and maybe sympathized a bit, but not enough to begin dismantling the institution of slavery.

I haven’t yet found the careful, thorough, and nuanced breakdown I’m looking for. I’m guessing that’s because the idea of #landback is still evolving among Indian communities. If we could really hear, I think we’d hear a variety of voices and opinions.

One of my early encounters with the idea of #LandBack was Nick Estes, “The Battle for the Black Hills,” High Country News, Jan. 1, 2021. (Took me awhile to go back and find the article for this post. I follow him on Twitter, so I was pretty sure I remembered correctly he was the author but it took me longer to figure out it had to have been in High County News.)

I already knew about the legal battle for the Black Hills, but I didn’t know about the NDN Collective and the LandBack Campaign. Seems like the perfect resource. I looked at their website. One of the four demands listed in their Manifesto is “All public lands back into Indigenous hands.”

Specific and predictable, albeit controversial, but then it goes further. Estes quotes Krystal Two Bulls, Head of the LandBack Campaign, as saying “Public land is the first manageable bite, then we’re coming for everything else.” Seriously? I’m back to thinking #LandBack is a moving target.

I’ve continued to listen. Recently I came across an issue of Briarpatch Magazine devoted to #LandBack–September/October 2020. (Yes, it was published before Nick Estes’ article, but I didn’t find it until a few days ago.)

In particular, there’s an interesting summary article: “What is Land Back? A Settler FAQ” (David Gray-Donald, Sept. 10, 2020). It’s easy, short, and provocative. It raises more questions than it answers. I like that. I’m going to start recommending it to my friends as a place to start. (And here’s a hint for you: there’s plenty more in that issue of Briarpatch–if you’re minded to explore a bit.)

Native Lands

I’ve been enjoying the increasing popularity of territorial acknowledgments.

Here’s an artcle from CNN:

And here’s the app it recommends. A bit confusing in the way it presents information, but workable:

As expected, it says I live on Arapaho, Cheyenne, and Ute lands, as in the Denver City Council’s territorial acknowledgment. It also adds Dakota (Očhéthi Šakówiŋ), and because of my father, that pleases me.

Denver’s Territorial Acknowledgment

I wrote about Canadian territorial acknowledgments a few weeks ago. I wondered about doing them in the U.S. Turns out Denver City Council already does one. Embarrassingly, it also turns out I was at the meeting (via Zoom) when they adopted it (October 26, 2020). I made a mental note to come back later and get the text, then forgot all about it.

So, here it is.

The Denver City Council honors and acknowledges that the land on which we reside is the traditional territory of the Ute, Cheyenne, and Arapaho Peoples. We also recognize the 48 contemporary tribal nations that are historically tied to the lands that make up the state of Colorado.

We honor Elders past, present, and future, and those who have stewarded this land throughout generations. We also recognize that government, academic and cultural institutions were founded upon and continue to enact exclusions and erasures of Indigenous Peoples.

May this acknowledgement demonstrate a commitment to working to dismantle ongoing legacies of oppression and inequities and recognize the current and future contributions of Indigenous communities in Denver.

Good job, Denver.

Territorial Acknowledgment

I’ve been thinking about the territorial acknowledgments they do in Canada. They open events and assemblies, particularly in urban and institutional spaces, with an acknowledgment that the land in that area is the the traditional homeland of the ___ people, and that it was ceded under the ___ treaty (or not ceded). We could use something like that in the United States.

This is in my mind partly because on YouTube I watch Ed Trevors, an Anglican priest who begins each episode with the acknowledgement that his parish is in the unceded lands of the Miꞌkmaq people. Sometimes I feel a twinge of pride that he is doing that; other times a tinge of guilt that I am not.

I’ve known for years the Canadians do these territorial acknowledgements. I’ve often wondered when they will make it to the U.S. Probably not in my lifetime. Americans seem to me to be much more easily triggered on the subject of settler colonialism.

If I were to create an acknowledgment for Denver, Colorado where I live, it would be something like: “I would like to begin by acknowledging that we are in Fort Laramie Treaty territory and that this is the traditional land of the Cheyenne and Arapaho people.”

Social Constructions of Geography

Geography is a social construction. People make the rules, and the rules are often arbitrary. Yet, “social construction” seems to be a difficult concept for many people. I like to have a bit of fun when I hear someone complaining about illegal immigrants, I say, “God didn’t create the border.” It pushes them off-kilter. I’ve never heard a good rejoinder on the the spot, although some folx come back later to argue; typically with a Manifest Destiny or Lebensraum kind of argument, although they rarely recognize it as such.

Every American genealogist knows that place names and political borders have changed over time. A routine part of doing genealogy is figuring out the political geography of the town where your ancestor lived, when they lived there.

But the area also other ways to “bend” geography. Years ago, when I belonged to the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA), I lived in “Hawks Hollow“, the medieval fantasy area we usually call the northern suburbs of Denver.

And way before that, when I was in college at Boulder, it was the early days of Chicano liberation. We often heard Colorado re-envisioned as part of la República del Norte or even as Aztlán, the homeland of the Mexica and other tribes that went south ages ago. This one still has a strong pull on my heart. It’s only been a month now that the city of Denver renamed Columbus Park to La Raza Park. I’m not Chicano myself, but I had friends and relatives who would often say their ancestors didn’t come to the U.S. Instead, the border crossed them (in the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo).


Catoneras, An Indian Princess

One of my ancestors on my dad’s side was an Indian princess.

Well, sort of. If you know me I know that I’m a rigorist in these matters. There are no Indian princesses because the “Indians” didn’t have royal families. And, the vast majority of these claims are hokum anyway.

But Catoneras is one of those rare exceptions.

Jan Cornelissen Van Tassel and his sons attested in New York colonial documents that Jan’s mother Catoneras was from Eader’s (Eaton’s) Neck Beach near Huntington, Suffolk County, Long Island. A petition dated 1705 says, “his mother Catoneras a native Indian of the Island of Nassauw who in her life time was Seized of a certain Tract or parcell of land lying and being on the Island aforesaid, now in the County of Suffolk neer the Town of Huntingdon called by the natives Anendeiack in English Eader Neck Beach and so allong the Sound four miles or thereabouts untile the fresh Pond called by the natives Assawanama where a Creeck runns into the Sound and from the Sound running into the woods six miles.”

This describes land probably occupied by the Matinecocks, now called Crab Meadow. The Matinecocks inhabited Flushing, North Hempstead, the northern part of Oyster Bay and Huntingdon, and the western part of Smithtown, while the Montauketts were mainly in Southampton township. The English were purchasing land from the Matinecocks and Montauketts in the mid-1600s. New Haven Governor Theophilus Eaton purchased Eaton’s Neck from the Indians in 1646. The Van Tassels apparently claimed that Chief Wyandanch of the Montauketts had unlawfully sold the land, and they wanted the land back. This might have been what lead earlier researchers to conclude Catoneras was a daughter of Wyandanch. As a further complication, some researchers have been led astray by the word “seized” in the 1705 Van Tassel petition, incorrectly assuming the land was taken from Cateronas. In fact, this legal phrasing means Cateronas was the lawful possessor of the land.

Daniel Van Tassel’s 1942 Van Tassel genealogy says Catoneras was “the daughter of the sachem or Chief Wyandance, of the Montauk Tribe, who then lived on, and claimed ownership to that portion of Long Island, situated along the north shore or Sound about Eaton’s Neck in Suffolk County.” [Daniel Van Tassel (1942).] However, there is no contemporary evidence connecting Catoneras to Wyandanch, and it appears that Wyandanch was born too late to have been Catoneras’ father. Daniel Van Tassel himself backed off the Wyandanch theory in the 1951 edition of his book. Instead, he said Cornelis Van Tassel “married an Indian girl named Catoneras, the daughter of the Sachem or chief of a tribe of Indians which then lived on, and claimed ownership to that portion of Long Island, situated along the north shore, or sound, about Eaton’s Neck in Suffolk County.” (Daniel Van Tassel (1951)).

Cateronas was born about 1603, her “husband” Cornelius was born about 1600, and they were “married” about 1621. Therefore, it would have been impossible for Wyandanch, who was born about 1620, to have been Catoneras’ father. Some researchers have attempted to salvage the connection with Wyandanch by suggesting that Catoneras was his sister, or daughter of his brother Poggaticutt.

Nevertheless, if Catoneras’ ancestry can be reconstructed, she was probably connected to the Matineocks. Her children can have claimed Eaton’s Neck only if she had been daughter of a Matinecock chief, who under English notions would have been the owner. Further, she is likely to have been the only child with surviving issue. Mike Smith has suggested that Cateronas was daughter of Asharoken. It has also been suggested that Asharoken was a son of Tackapousha, which would mean Catoneras was the neice of Oppasum and Wenox.

Here’s another article on the same subject, but slightly different conclusions about Catoneras’ relationships: that she might have been Tackapousha’s sister and Opsam’s aunt.

Until more evidence emerges there’s no point stressing about precise relationships. The experts seem to have identified the correct family, and in the end there’s no doubt about the point that makes Catoneras stand out–she is an Indian ancestor of a (now) White family.

Petition, 1685

Thomas Dongan Province of Ne[w York]

The humble petition of Cornelissen Showeth:

That your petitioner is a native of this Province, his father a Christian, his mother an Indian of Long Island. “That he hath married a Christian in this Province, and by her hath nine children now living. “And whereas the Indians, his kindred, are willing to divide, set out and allot that share of land, which according to their wisdom is his right, and inheritance at a certain place called Tersarge, being to the eastward of the town of Huntington, on the north side of Long Island, which for the better support of himself and his family he is intended to cultivate and improve. He therefore humbly prays that your Honorable will be pleased to order him a warrant for the same, upon which he may obtain a patent or grant and confirmation from your Honorable, under his Majesty, for the same. And your petitioner will ever pray etc.

Upon the right side of the paper is written:
[illegible]…did come to N. York
John Cornelissen

Left side of the paper is written:

Deed of Sale 1685

[p. 104] This indenture made the Tenth Day of October Anno Dom one thousand six hundred and Eighty five and in the first Year of the Reigne ofour now Soveraigne Lord James the Second by the Grace of God of England Scottland France and Ireland King Defender of the faith?Ye? Betweene Opsam Venox and John Cornelison Flushing in Queens County Esqs of the One Part xxxand John Palmer of the City of New Yorke Esq John Royse of the same Place Mercant–and Richard Cornhill of Flushing I Queens County Esp of the other Part and Whereas the said John Palmer John Royse and Richard Cornhill have obtained Lycence from the Honorable Collonell Thomas Dongan Governor of this Province baring Date the five and twentieth Day of June Last Past to Purchase a Certaine Tract or Parcell of Land in the Couty of Suffolk on Long Island lying between Huntington and Nissiquake Land and Comonly Knowne by the name of Crab Meadow or Katomomeck Land, as by the said Lycence may move at Large Appeare Now this Indenture Wittnesseth that the said Opsam, Wenox and John Cornelison – for and I Consideration of the Sume of Twenty one Pounds Tenn Shillings Lawfull Mony of this Province to them

[p. 105] at and before the Ensealing and Delivery of these Presents by the said John Palmer John Royse and Richard Cornhill well and Truly Paid the Receipt whereof they the said Opsam, Wenox and John Cornelison Doe hereby Accknowledge and themselves to be therewith fully Sattisfied Contented and Paid and thereof and of every Part and Parcell thereof Doe Clearely Accquitt Exonerate and Discharge the said John Palmer John Royse and Richard Cornhill their Exec’rs and Adm’rs forever by the Preesents have given granted Allienated Bargained Sold ?Enscoffe? and Confirme unto the said John Palmer John Royse and Richard Cornhill theire Heires and Assignes forever all that before recited Parcell of Land Lying and being on Long Island to the Eastward of Huntington Comonly Called or Knowne by the name of Crab Meadow and by the Indians Called Katawomeck bounded on the West by a Certaine Cove Leading to Huntington Mill and from the Head of the said Cove Running South to the Highway which Leadeth to Southampton and soe and from thence northward all along the said hollow alng the Highways side to a Place Called Whittmores Hollow as the Hollow runneth to a Place Called the Fresh Pond and from thence Westward as the Sound runneth to the Westermost Point of Land which maketh the Cove aforesaid and so up the said Cove to the Head thereof where it first began with all and Singular its Rights Members and Appurtenances together with all and all manner of Messuages Pastures feedings Meadows Marshes Woods Underwoods Ways Fences Lakes Ponds Creecks Beach or Beaches Rivers Brooks Hunting Hawking Fishing and Fowling and Appurtenances whatsoever to the said Peece or Parcell of Land and Premisses or to any Part or

[p. 106] Parcell thereof belonging or in any wise Appertaining and the Reversion and Revercons Remainder and Remainders of all and Singular the beforemenconed Premisses and Alsoe all the Estate Right Title Interest Possession Property Claime and Demand of them the said Opsam, Wenox and John Cornelison in or to the same or any Part or Parcell thereof. To have and to hold the said Tract or Parcell of Land and all and Singular other the Premissses hereby Granted Bargained and Sold with theire and every of theire Rights Members and Appurtenances whatsoever unto the said John Palmer John Royse and Richard Cornhill their Heyres and Assignes to the only Proper use and behoofe of them the said John Palmer John Royse and Richard Cornhill theire Heyres and Assignes forever and the said Opsam Wenox and John Cornelison for themselves their Heires and Successors Doe Covenant Promise Grant and Agree to and with the said John Palmer John royse and Richard Cornhill their Heires and Assignes and every of them by these Presents in manner and forme following that is to say that they the said Opsam Wenox and John Cornelison at the timeof the Ensealing and Delivery of these Presents have full Power Good Right and Lawfull Authority to Grant Bargaine Sell and Convey all and Singular the before hereby Granted or Menconed to be Granted Premisses with theire and every of theire Appurtenances unto the said John Palmer John Royse and Richard Cornhill theire Heires and Assignes in manner and forme aforesaid and that they the said John Palmer John Royse Richard Cornhill theire Heyres and Assignes and every of them shall or may by Verture or force of these Presents from time to time and at all times forever hereafter Lawfully Peacebly and Quietttly have hold use Occupy Possesse and Enjoye the said Peace or Parcell of Land and all and Singular the Before Granted Premisses with theire and every of theire

[p. 107] Rights Members and Appertunances to theire and every of theire owne Proper use and behoofe forever without any Lawfull Lett Suite Trouble Denyall Interuption Evicion or Disturbance of them the said Opsam Wenox and John Cornelison theire Heyres Successors or Assignes or of any ther Person or Persons whatsoever Lawfully Claimeing by from or under them or any of them or by their or any of theire meanes Act Consent Title Interest Privity or Procurement And that the said Opsam Wenox and John Cornelison and every of them for themselves theire Heries Successors and Assignes the said Peece or Parcell of Land and all and Singular other the Premisses before Granted Bargained and Sold with the Appurtenances unto the said John Palmer John Royse and Richard Cornhill their Heires and Assignes forever Efend by these Presents In Wittnesse whereof the said Opsam Wenox and John Cornelison have hereunto affixed theire Hands and Seales the Day and Yeare aforesaid……

The marke of Opsam
The marke of Wenox

Memorandum that on the Tenth day of October Anno: Dm 1685 the within named Opsam and Wenox Appeared before the Councill and their Accknowledged to have Received full Sattisfaccon for theire two third Partes of the Land and Premisses within menconed

John Spragge

P. 1-8 Sealed and Delivered
by the within named Opsam and Wenox
in the Presence of
Fredryck Flypson
S.V. Cort Landt
Geo Farewell
The marke of
Tack Pousha
The marke of
Lowee Sonne of
the within Menconed Wenox
The marke of Rappa Pany

Petition, 30 July 1705

To his Excellency Howard Niscomb —- Cornbury Capn Gent & Govr in chief in and over her Majesties Provinces of New York & New Jersey and Vice Admiral of the Same in Council—–

The humble petition of Cornelis Van Texel, Jacob van Texel, Jan Van Texel, William Van Texel, sons of Jan Cornelissen Van Texel, late deceased, and Hendrick Lent, husband of Catharine, one of the daughters of said John; Barent De Witt, husband of Sarah, another daughter of said John, and Peter Storm, husband of Margaret also a daughter of said John:

Humbly showeth that whereas your petitioner’s father as heir to his mother, Catoneras, a native Indian of the Island Nassamo, who in her lifetime was seized of a certain tract or parcel of land, lying and being in the Island aforesaid, now in the county of Suffolk, next the town of Huntington, called by the natives, Anendesack, in English, Eader’s Neck beach, and so along the Sound four miles or thereabouts until the Fresh Pond, called by the natives, Assawanama, where a creek runs into the Sound, and from the Sound running in to the woods six miles or thereabouts.

And your Petitioners, being all Christians, and professing the Holy Protestant religion, and knowing that the Heathen never were disturbed in the possession of their lands of inheritance in the Government, your petitioner,as Christians, also would very willingly hold the same by his Majesty’s Letters Patent under the seal of this Province.

Yor Petrs therefore humbly Pray yor Excellency to grant them a Patent of the Land aforesaid accordingly And Yor Petrs in Duty bound shall Ever pray

Cornelis Van Texel
the mark of Jacob van Texell
Jan Van Texel
Willem Van Texel
the mark of Hendrick Lent
Barent De Wit
the mark of Peter Storm

(Land Records: 30 July 1705; 4:56).

Petition, 15 May 1713

To his Excellency Robert Hunter Esqr Capn Gentl Govr in Chief in and over her Ma’ties Provinces of New York and New Jersey and the Territories depending thereon in —- America and Vice Admiral of the same and the Honble Council of the Province of New York The humble Petition of Cornelis Van Texell, Jacob Van Texell, Jan Van Texell, William Van Texell, Catarin Lent, Barent DeWit and Pieter Storm all Children and Coheirs of Jan Cornelis van Texell late deceased

Most humbly Sheweth

That yor petitionrs said fathers Mother was an Indian native Sachem in this Province called Catoneras, on the Island of Nassau, then called Long Island; and her relations being owners of sundry large tracts of land on the said Island, did give unto the said Catoneras, the Petitioner’s grandmother, in part of her father’s inheritance a certain tract of land called Crop Meadow, scituate on the Island aforesaid in Suffolk County, running along the Sound four miles and six miles into the woods or thereabouts.

And yor said Petitionrs being all Christians, and members of the Protestant Church, and being willing to enjoy their inheritance by Patent under the Crown, as all other his Majesty’s subjects of this Province do enjoy and hold their lands.

They therefore do most humbly pray that they may have a Warrant to the Surveyor General of this Province to lay out the said Tract of Land for yor ——- Petitionrs & that upon the return —— thereof they may have a Patent and the great Seale of this Province under moderate quitrent as to yor Excy and yor honors shall seem meet.

New York 15th May 1713

And afd Petrs in duty bound shall Ever Pray etc

Cornelis Van Texel
Jacob Van Texel
Johannis Van Texel

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.

Almost Métis

I used to think my dad’s ancestors were Métis. They’re not, but I ended up with a seemingly permanent interest.

The Métis are a Canadian group, a mixture of Anglos and Indians from the area between the Great Lakes and the Rocky Mountains. Not all mixed-race people in Canada are Métis, just the ones where the men in the founding group were employees of the Hudson Bay Company.

One of those men was John Hourie (1779-1857). He came to Hudson’s Bay in 1800 from South Ronaldsay, one of the Orkney Islands off the northern coast of Scotland. About 1809 he married Margaret Bird, a Shoshone (“Snake”) woman. She was adopted daughter of James Curtis Bird.

Howery is not a very common surname. When I was maybe 13 or so and just getting started with genealogy, I knew almost nothing about my father or his family. I eventually eked out the information that his grandfather was Elmer Phillip Howery, who everyone agreed was born in England. (Recently it’s occurred to me that probably I was not hearing the difference between English and Anglo that would have been significant for my mother and some of the others I was talking to.)

I wrote confidently to Somerset House, the English vital records place. Nothing. No record, they said. In fact they had no records of any Howerys. That’s just England, though. Since it was obvious Howery is a British name (so naive back then!), I started thinking Howery is probably a Scottish name. Maybe Irish.

In those pre-Internet days each little nugget of information was a treasure. My access to information was essentially just the local library and quarterly issues of The Genealogical Helper.

I could also order Family Group Sheets from the LDS Genealogical Library in Salt Lake, but I had to be pretty focused. I needed to have name, date, and place. It’s hard to finesse a form when you don’t have much real information. There was no Family Group Sheet for Elmer Phillip Howery, so I was out of luck.

Lucky me. I found Black’s Surnames of Scotland (1946). Yep, there’s an entry for Hourie. I wasn’t finding anything remotely similar anywhere else in Europe, so I was sure this was going to be my family.

One of my strategies back then was to use phone books to find addresses of people who had the surnames I was looking for. The Grand Junction Public Library didn’t have a large collection but they did have some. I would also call directory assistance and do a little fishing for names and addresses. My allowance at that age wasn’t so high I could afford a lot of stamps, so I had to be cagey, looking for the best opportunities. Then too, most people never wrote back, even though I learned to type on my mother’s fancy Olivetti, she taught me to use business format, and I enclosed stamped return envelopes.

With my Howery search I eventually connected with Ian Howrie in Dallas, Texas. He told me, in one paragraph, the story of his ancestors John Hourie and Margaret Bird from Red River, Canada. I was sure that was my connection. The other people I talked to mostly agreed.

I think it was probably several years before I made contact with Pat Sorenson in Yuba City, California. That was through one of her ads in The Genealogical Helper. She couldn’t help with my line, not directly, but she offered the very firm advice that my line probably belonged to the large clan of Midwest Howerys and Howreys descended from Jacob Howry of Howrytown, Virginia, and he in turn from (she thought) the Mennonite Hauris and Howrys from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.

Pat turned out to be right. I gave up my Métis ancestry, almost without noticing. Too bad. I think my dad would have liked that line to pan out. Many years later when I wanted Ian Howrie to do a DNA test for the Hauri DNA Project, I couldn’t find him again. The whole Métis piece just receded into the distance, although I think there might be distant cousins here and there who still think we’re descended from John Hourie and Margaret, his Shoshone wife.

More Information

  • John Hourie“, Red River Ancestry <>, Dec. 5, 2016, retrieved Aug. 23, 2020.

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.

More Information

Remembering Russell Means

Russell Means died 7 years ago today. I thought he was one of the truly great men of our time. Not everyone agreed. His obituary in the New York Times said, “He styled himself a throwback to ancestors who resisted the westward expansion of the American frontier. With theatrical protests that brought national attention to poverty and discrimination suffered by his people, he became arguably the nation’s best-known Indian since Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse.

I vaguely remember some of the earlier stuff, but he really came into my world in 1973 when he was one of the leaders of the American Indian Movement, and the group that occupied Wounded Knee. His detractors criticize his showmanship, but I was 17. It was the showmanship that caught my attention and got me to read about the underlying issues.

I particularly like this video of him, because it has him talking about a wide variety of subject.  

Russell Means: Welcome to the American Reservation Prison Camp (Full Length)

Navajo Rock Piles

Navajo Historian, Wally Brown, teaches about rock piles. If you have ever stumbled across one, now you know what they were for. Maybe you could pick up the tradition and start a rock pile for your family, and make commitments to relatives, both close and distant.

I love this idea. I come from a family of rock hounds. Sister Laura foremost among us. She inherited Grandma Swanstrom’s piles of rocks, which at this point seem like an important legacy.

I have my own little collection, sitting in a bowl on the balcony, then also a collection of “crystals” in my medicine bag.

As soon as I saw this video from Wally Brown, I was converted. This will be my new habit. Whenever I make an important commitment I will now add a rock to the pile.

Native American Traditions, Rock Piles