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Native American DNA

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Native American DNA

"Cherokee Grandma" stories are harmful

Falsely claiming Native American identity is a white American tradition, with a deeply racist past. [1]

Stories from family lore of a "Cherokee grandma" or an "Indian princess" may seem like harmless fun, but to claim Native American ancestry without documentary evidence is harmful to the Native Americans themselves, and represents complicity in the racist and imperialist treatment of Native Americans since the founding of the United States.

Please consider the following effects that such a claim has:

  • Seizing the indigenous identity through individual claim: Tribal membership is a legal category, defined by the Native Americans themselves. False claims to tribal membership undermine the Native Americans' claims to their own land, resources, and sovereignty. [2]
  • Co-opting the Native American story to assuage guilt over their past treatment: "Retreat from white guilt" over the legacy of oppression [3]
  • Searching for government benefits based on Native American descent: participating in casino revenues, mineral rights, land, subsidies, preference in contracting, scholarships, or affirmative action in hiring/promotion
  • Conflation of “Native American ancestry” with Native American identity only continues a history of theft [1]
  • Reinforcing the social construct of 'whiteness' by defining an alternate 'primitive' group
  • Perpetuating 'scientific racism' with the caché of genetic testing (genomics) as a basis for race [2]
  • Indulging in bias by attacking the validity of genetic ancestry testing when preconceived notions are not confirmed
  • Perpetuating stereotypes and myths about Indian history, customs, and tribal lands, as though such understanding were easily acquired and assimilated
  • Climbing a social ladder (otherwise unavailable in western European heritage) by associating with an 'Indian Princess' of noble house, and almost never a lone male warrior who would be deemed too ‘savage’
  • Inclusion in a ‘tribe’ and community, as opposed to western European individualism
  • Creating an "imaginary blood tie to the Frontier and its dangers in order to experience what it means to be an American" [4]
  • The Cherokee are historically emblematic of the so-called ‘civilized’ Indian [5]
  • Choosing an ancestor distant enough (and 'civilized' enough) to avoid tarnishing one's own white privilege [6]
  • … thus avoiding the contradiction of the stereotype of being "shiftless, uncivilized half-breeds"
  • Drawing parallels between Cherokee removal, and the white Southerner's own struggle to preserve and extend the slave system, both being examples of 'Northern Aggression' [5][6]
  • Extorting Indian lands and resources by recognizing them as distinct parties to self-serving "land deals"
  • Perpetuating "paternalism" by self-serving definitions of Native Americans and their needs
  • Exoticizing and romanticizing Indians as a form of escape; making a "wild animal" into a household pet; reinforcing mythical beliefs about Indians [4]

There is a large literature on this topic. Before asserting innocent motives, genealogists need to educate themselves about this historical practice.


  1. 1.0 1.1 Estes, 2018
  2. 2.0 2.1 Tallbear, 2013
  3. Sturm, 2011
  4. 4.0 4.1 Deloria, 2018
  5. 5.0 5.1 Hilleary, 2018, quoting Smithers
  6. 6.0 6.1 Smithers, 2015
  • Chomsky, Aviva. HuffPost, "How DNA Tests Make Native Americans Strangers In Their Own Land: The use of DNA tests to claim “Native American” genes or blood trivializes history." 2018.
    • It should be obvious that being Native American (or Black, or Latino) in the United States confers far more risks than benefits. Native Americans suffer from higher rates of poverty, unemployment, infant mortality, and low birth weight, as well as lower educational levels and shorter life spans than do whites. These statistics are the result of hundreds of years of genocide, exclusion, and discrimination ― not the presence or absence of specific genetic variations.
  • Daniels, Jessie. HuffPost, "Why White Americans Love To Claim Native Ancestry." 2018.
    • In the 2010 census, more than 819,000 Americans self-identified as Cherokee ― but the combined population of the three federally recognized Cherokee tribes … amounts to fewer than 400,000.
  • Deloria, Vine. "Custer Died For Your Sins." Scribner, 2018; McMillan, 1969.
    • "It was a rare day when some white didn't visit my office and proudly proclaim that he or she was of Indian descent. Cherokee was the most popular tribe of their choice…"
    • "Whites claiming Indian blood generally tend to reinforce mythical beliefs about Indians. All but one person I met who claimed Indian blood claimed it was on their grandmother's side. … No one, it seemed, wanted to claim a male Indian as a forbear."
    • Somehow the white was linked with a noble house of gentility and culture if his grandmother was an Indian princess who ran away with an intrepid pioneer."
    • "Do they need some blood tie with the frontier and its dangers in order to experienc what it means to be an American? Or is it an attempt to avoid facing the guilt they bear for the treatment of the Indian?"
  • Dixon, TL. Roots & Recombinant DNA, "NATIVE AMERICAN DNA Is Just Not That Into You." 2015.
    • Your "full-blood" Native American ancestor may have lived so far back in time that your NA ancestor's DNA has "washed out" by the time it reached your generation.
    • It is possible your ancestors were not Native American by blood.
    • DNA ancestry testing has a problem assigning Native American DNA to your genome.
  • Estes, N. The Intercept, "Native American Sovereignty Is Under Attack. Here’s How Elizabeth Warren’s DNA Test Hurt Our Struggle." 2018.
    • Falsely claiming Native American identity is a white American tradition, with a deeply racist past. Forrest Carter, also known as Asa Earl Carter — a Ku Klux Klan leader and the former speechwriter for George Wallace (he co-wrote Wallace’s famous 1963 line, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever”) — reinvented himself later in life as a “Cherokee” writer of the famous children’s book “The Education of Little Tree.” Famous white Southern Americans like Miley Cyrus, Johnny Cash, and Bill Clinton have also all falsely claimed “Cherokee heritage.”
    • While Warren and white people like her are rushing to get DNA tests that prove “Native American ancestry,” there is less enthusiasm among white people about proving “African ancestry.”
    • These racial logics simply don’t grant Black and Native people the same visibility or authority over their own identities the same way they do to a powerful white woman who takes a DNA test. That’s called white supremacy.
    • While Indigenous nations face existential threats — from losing their children, land, and water — Warren’s conflation of her “Native American ancestry” with Native American identity only continues a history of theft. The purposeful distortion and misunderstanding of Native sovereignty and identity, whether by Trump or Warren, is a longstanding tradition of American imperialism that has facilitated the taking of resources, whether they’re Native lands or Native bodies. And we still want our stolen relatives and stolen land back, regardless of the settler infighting currently taking place.
  • Hilleary, C. Voice of America News, "Going 'Native': Why Are Americans Hijacking Cherokee Identity?" 2018.
    • More than 200 unrecognized tribes that claim to be Cherokee exist across the country, some of them selling fraudulent tribal ID cards, representing “Native culture” to non-Natives, and selling counterfeit “Native art.”
    • “To give themselves ‘Indian’ caché, they appoint ‘chiefs’ and give themselves outrageously ridiculous Indian names,” said Cornsilk. “For recognized Cherokee, we don’t use names like this. Our Cherokee names are kept private.”
    • The advent of do-it-yourself DNA test kits has made things worse, said Cornsilk. The tests are unreliable and can’t prove genetic affiliation with individual tribes. Even if they could, they would not satisfy criteria for tribal citizenship, which demands direct descendancy from individuals listed in historic government “Indian rolls.”
    • In the years leading up to the Civil War, white Georgians in particular felt they were under siege by the North, said Virginia Commonwealth University historian Gregory D. Smithers, and began to romanticize the Cherokees’ plight at the hands of the northern government.
    • “By either appropriating a Cherokee identity or drawing parallels between Cherokee removal and their own struggle to preserve and extend the slave system, white Georgians constructed a false equivalence to justify their pro-slavery politics,” Smithers said, adding that those who did fabricate Indian heritage “chose a ‘relative’ who was distant enough to ensure their white privilege wasn't tarnished.”
    • In the early 1900s, the U.S. government agreed to compensate the Eastern Cherokee for lands it had earlier seized. Encouraged by lawyers, fake Cherokees began popping up across the country, hoping for a share of the windfall.
    • “They feel lost. I think Gloria Steinem probably said it best when she described white Americans as ‘a people without a tribe,’” he said. “They hunger for it. But rather than going back and finding their own tribe — Ireland, England, France or Germany — they want a connection to this continent.” And they choose Cherokee identity, he added, because the Cherokee are historically emblematic of the so-called ‘civilized’ Indian.
    • “I believe that there is a retreat from white guilt that is happening here,” she said. “Whiteness is responsible for indigenous dispossession and the lack of societal connection that characterizes modernity.” (Circe Sturm)
  • Leroux, DRJ. The Conversation, "How some North Americans claim a false Indigenous identity." 2019.
  • Leroux, DRJ. "Distorted Descent: White Claims to Indigenous Identity." Univ Manitoba Press, 2019.
  • Smithers, G. "The Cherokee Diaspora: An Indigenous History of Migration, Resettlement, and Identity." Yale University Press, 2015.
  • Smithers, GD. "Why Do So Many Americans Think They Have Cherokee Blood?" 2015.
    • "Shifting one’s identity to claim ownership of an imagined Cherokee past is at once a way to authenticate your American-ness and absolve yourself of complicity in the crimes Americans committed against the tribe across history."
    • "By claiming a royal Cherokee ancestor, white Southerners were legitimating the antiquity of their native-born status as sons or daughters of the South, as well as establishing their determination to defend their rights against an aggressive federal government, as they imagined the Cherokees had done."
  • Sturm, Circe. "Becoming Indian: The Struggle Over Cherokee Identity in the Twenty-first Century." School for Advanced Research Press, 2011.
    • “I believe that there is a retreat from white guilt that is happening here,” she said. “Whiteness is responsible for indigenous dispossession and the lack of societal connection that characterizes modernity.”
    • "Race shifting"
  • Tallbear, Kim. "Native American DNA: Tribal Belonging and the False Promise of Genetic Science." Univ Of Minnesota Press, 2013


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