Careful what you claim: the passions around identity

Racial and ethnic identity is complicated – and more powerful than you might think. Go to Spain and mistakenly call someone from the Basque region Spanish. Go to Wales or Scotland and mistakenly call someone English. Go to Afghanistan and make a statement that assumes everyone in the country is Pashtun. You will get a VERY passionate response that will show you just how powerful racial and ethnic identity can be.

I never really thought racial identify mattered to me, personally, until I realized what Caucasian meant – the term Caucasian race was created by a German philosopher, Christoph Meiners, in the late 1700s – he defined two racial divisions: Caucasians (“white and beautiful”) and Mongolians (“brown and ugly”).

And if that wasn’t enough to turn me off the term, then living in Europe was: no one there calls Europeans Caucasians. Not unless you are from the Caucasus Mountains.

So now, if I’m filling out the form, and instead of white or of European descent, the form says Caucasian, I choose other. ‘Cause I ain’t from the Caucasus Mountains. And no race is more beautiful than another.

I’ve wondered if, someday, choosing other in such situations is going to make someone think I’m trying to claim some ethnic minority status. I would never do that. In fact, if I ever raise the funds to do one of those DNA ethnic heritage tests, and anything other European shows up, I won’t claim it on any form – how could I claim a heritage when I was never raised in such, when it’s something I’ve no real knowledge of? THAT would be disingenuous, IMO.

In 1993, I worked with American Indians living in the San Francisco Bay area and Arizona, helping them to identify and develop projects they believed would help them economically. It was my first exposure to community development. A couple of people became lifelong friends. And one of the MANY things they taught me was this:

Never, ever claim American Indian heritage just because your family has always said a grandmother or great-grandmother or whatever was Cherokee.

If I heard this warning / complaint once, I heard it a dozen times.

(the groups I worked with also loathed the term Native American, hence my use of the term American Indian – always ask which is preferred)

I’ve never forgotten that lesson (and several others). And as a result, I’ve cautioned some friends who have made the I’m part Cherokee claim – don’t share it outside the family unless you can back it up, because eventually, you are going to get called on it.

All this has come to mind as I’ve watched Elizabeth Warren struggle over explaining the Cherokee heritage that her family claims. She believed the family stories were true, and she was proud of those stories. But she didn’t realize how common those claims are, and how, more often than not, they aren’t true – nor how much those false claims insult tribal members in the USA.

Family history is something most of us never question, that we accept whole-heartedly: why wouldn’t we believe the long-told story that a great-great-grandmother was born on a ship coming from Europe to the USA in the 1800s, or that a great-great-grandfather escaped slavery with the help of Harriet Tubman? It never dawns on you to ask for some kind of documentation, to engage in activities to prove whatever the claims are. And it never dawns on you that casually claiming something in your family heritage could eventually turn out not to be true and could cause you a very significant problem, even some controversy.

I hope this becomes a teachable moment: as much fun as family stories are, it’s a good idea to do some digging and get at least a bit of documentation before you share them outside your family. And unless you have some kind of proof that great-grandma was Cherokee, keep that legend to yourself.

And if you want to know if you really do have any family connection to an American Indian tribe, get busy tracing and documenting your lineage: get accurate names and birth places of grandparents and great-grandparents, and on and on, as far back as you can. Use for accurate birth/death records. Names and birth places on reservations will be clues to American Indian ancestry. Census records may also note your ancestors’ ethnicity. You may be able to find a family member that is listed on the census as a member of a tribe – and that means you will be able to get the name of tribe, the enrollment number, and the census number to prove your lineage. You have to get a state certified birth and death certificates of your enrolled ancestor for an official Certificate of Degree of Indian or Alaskan Native Blood from the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

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