Why do white Oklahoma families tell their kids they have Native ancestry?
Elizabeth Warren, U.S. Senator from Massachusetts
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Pocahontas is back in the news again, and not because March of this year is the 400th anniversary of her death at the tender age of 21ish. The famed Native American woman’s name has become Donald Trump’s favorite sobriquet for Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a fierce leading voice in the Democratic opposition to his presidency, whom critics have scolded for claiming without much evidence to be of Native American descent.
Warren’s claim to Cherokee and Delaware heritage rests on the weak and wobbly foundation of “family stories.” The whole spectacle strikes most people as utterly bizarre, akin to Rachel Dolezal’s claim to be black. But as anyone who, like Warren, is from Oklahoma can tell you, it’s all rather more complicated than that.
I am white, of the ginger variety, and a fourth generation Okie. Every ancestor that I know of is of undeniably European heritage. But my grandmother used to tell me I was part Choctaw, and as strange as it sounds, it’s something I grew up sort of half believing. This, or some variant thereof—people of strictly European descent claiming native heritage—is a common story in Oklahoma, which raises the awkward question: why do white people do that?
In part this has to do with the fact in the early days of Oklahoma many Native Americans in the state were justifiably pissed at the government for stealing their lands in the eastern U.S. and refused to sign Uncle Sam’s official rolls. As a result, there probably are quite a few people in Oklahoma with native roots and no way to prove it. Also, after centuries of miscegenation—Cherokee County, Okla., has a higher rate of interracial marriage than any other county in America—a huge proportion of people of native extraction are mostly descended from Europeans or Africans, and thus, to put it in simple terms, don’t possess the traditional Native American phenotype. But I expect Warren’s claim to native ancestry may have more to do with the once common tendency among Oklahoma’s white families to tell the kids they had native blood.
My guess is she heard it as a little girl—in “family stories” probably repeated to her by a grandma only half paying attention as she tried to keep the kids entertained while cooking lunch to feed an army—and she repeated it in adulthood (though not on college or job applications) without giving it much thought.
This phenomenon, which I imagine has gone out of style in today’s climate of hyper-sensitivity around identity, is not an effort to whitewash native histories or to access racial grievance, though it does suggest a lack of appreciation and respect for the hardship and injustice native people once faced (and some still face). Rather, it’s something people told kids offhandedly at a time when people were less preoccupied with identity and when family histories were murkier than they are today. The claim that I am part Choctaw has almost as much going for it as the claim that I am part Martian, but I expect my grandma figured, hey, what the hell, it might by true. She was born in a log cabin in Arkansas in 1917 to parents born not all that long after the Civil War. As it has always been with poor people—for whom ancestry is more often something to escape than to celebrate—my grandma’s family history gets hazy fast. So she told her 5-year-old grandson stories about a supposed “Indian graveyard” hidden away somewhere on the farm where her dirt-poor family eked out a living and how he had Choctaw blood in his veins as she sent him out the door to go play with his pals.
Before you protest that no one in an earlier, more racist era would have falsely told kids that they were part Native American, consider these lines from an essay by Oklahoma writer George Milburn: “It is difficult to make clear, even to Americans in adjoining States, the peculiar social status Indians enjoy in Oklahoma today. Often the most refined white girl there feels that she has made a lucky catch if she can win a man with Indian blood, and there are Oklahomans of pure ‘Aryan’ ancestry who like to boast that they have ‘a sixteenth Cherokee.’”
Those words were written in 1949, the year Elizabeth Warren was born in Oklahoma City. Milburn notes that full-blood Native Americans in Oklahoma often carried credentials to prove their right to ride in the whites-only train cars forbidden to blacks.
If Warren heard she was part native as a girl, never thought much about it, and then repeated what is in fact a false claim thoughtlessly as an adult, it doesn’t strike me as that big of a crime. My advice to Sen. Warren is to cop to the fact that it’s possible she isn’t native and explain what may or may not be error with a statement something like the following: “Look, I don’t know. My grandma told me I was part Delaware and Cherokee so that’s what I thought. Maybe I’m not. Anyway, Dodd-Frank?”
For more from Denver, read his dispatch from Morocco.