I Also Grew Up Thinking I Was Part Cherokee

The focus on Elizabeth Warren’s Cherokee heritage — or lack thereof — is a red herring, meant to distract voters from the important issues. Don’t get distracted!

Like Senator Elizabeth Warren, I grew up hearing family stories about a Cherokee ancestor — stories I happily shared with peers when I was a child. Later genetic testing indicated I may be approximately two percent Native American. Does this make me a Cherokee? No. Does it make me a liar? Also no. The same is true of Senator Warren.

My mother’s mother, Flora Rogers, was born in the Texas Panhandle in 1904, and she had always been told that her family migrated from Alabama through Oklahoma to Texas. She also passed on what she had learned from her own mother: that her great-grandmother (my great-great-great-grandmother), Cynthia (or Synthia) Jane Campbell, was Cherokee. Genealogical records indicate that Cynthia was born in Turkeytown, Alabama in 1822, and died in Santa Anna, Coleman County, Texas in 1892.

Turkeytown, located in Alabama’s Cherokee County, had been established as a Cherokee refuge during the Cherokee-American wars that took place between 1776 and 1795. The forced removal of the Cherokee from their ancestral lands in the southeastern United States took place between 1836 and 1839 (but primarily in 1838). The Cherokee removal was part of the larger Trail of Tears—a brutal, forced westward march of indigenous people of many Native American tribes from the southeastern United States — which occurred between 1830 and 1850, pursuant to an 1830 law called The Indian Removal Act.

My great-great-great-grandfather, Gabriel Keith, was born in Alabama in 1819 and died in Victor, Erath County, Texas, in 1909. Cynthia and Gabriel were married in 1837, when Cynthia was 15 or 16 years old, and they apparently migrated (either voluntarily or involuntarily) to Texas around that time. Their first child, George, was born in Texas in September of 1838.

Cynthia J. Keith, née Cynthia J. Campbell, is listed in the U.S. decennial census for the first time in 1850. This happens to be the first census that included a specific question about “color.” The column was to be left blank if a person was white, marked with a “B” if the person was Black, and marked “M” if the person was “Mulatto.” In the 1850 census, the column for “color” was left blank for Cynthia J. Keith.

The 1860 census for “free inhabitants” again contained columns of information which census enumerators were to fill out, including one for “color.” Race or color was not necessarily self-reported, but rather was one of many columns filled in by enumerators who went door-to-door to collect census data. In the 1860 census, Synthia J. Keith was listed as white. This could be because she was, in fact, white (whatever that actually means), or because she was “passing,” or because she was mixed race and either appeared, or considered herself to be, white. There was no separate “Indian” questionnaire, and prior to 1900, few Native Americans were included in the decennial census at all — although in 1860 any Native people who were living in the general population could have been identified by race, if their race was evident to the enumerator. (Beginning with the 1900 census, “Indians” were enumerated both on reservations and in the general population.)

I’ll admit that when I got back the DNA results showing that I am apparently only two percent (1/50th) Native American, I was disappointed. When my family moved from Oakland, California to Queens, New York when I was eight years old, we landed in a neighborhood where most of my classmates were second- or third-generation Russian Jews or Italian Catholics. As the new girl in class, kids would ask “what are you?” as a way of figuring out where I fit into the existing social order. Sometimes the question was as simple and direct as “Are you Catholic or Jewish?”

I savored being able to say that I was an agnostic Protestant, with Irish, English, Scottish, French, German and Cherokee roots. It identified me as part of a larger American diversity with a long history on the continent that, even as a young child, I had learned to treasure. Now I had to ask myself: Were those family stories just fables? Had I been passing tall tales on to my childhood friends, and, later, even to my own child? (And this was before I discovered the census records where my great-great-great-grandmother was listed as “white.”)

It’s not clear how far back this branch of the Campbell family tree goes in America, but it’s worth noting that there are many Campbells listed in the Dawes Rolls — also known as the “Final Rolls of Citizens and Freedmen of the Five Civilized Tribes” (Cherokee, Chocktaw, Creek, Chickasaw and Seminole) — which was a registration system created by Congress in 1893 for members of the five tribes for the purpose of land allocation after they were forced off their ancestral lands. There are also a number of people with the surname Keith registered in the Dawes Rolls.

The fact is that many Cherokee intermarried with both whites and blacks in the 19th century, not just for love but also for purposes of protection, and diplomacy. Or, like the real “Pocahantas”—whose name was actually Matoaka — Native women in particular may have been subject to forced marriage (to put it delicately) to white men. Moreover, the Cherokee Nation has never defined itself primarily based on genetics. Historically, the Cherokee welcomed intermarried whites, freed slaves and members of other tribes. This history is just one of many reasons why reliance on DNA results as a test of Cherokee “ethnicity” is problematic — not to mention the fact that sovereign tribal nations set their own criteria for citizenship, and the Cherokee Nation has disavowed any “blood quantum” requirement for citizenship and instead limits citizenship to direct descendants of those enrolled in the Dawes Rolls.

My apparent percentage of Native American “blood” indicates that I could very well have had a Native American ancestor six or so generations back. This in no way means that I can call myself a Cherokee, or that my life experience, or those of my maternal forebears who were alive during my lifetime (going as far back as my great-grandmother, who lived until I was 11 years old), can be said to have been shaped in any discernible way by a reputed past intermarriage between my putative Scottish and Cherokee ancestors. Notwithstanding my DNA results, the family stories may, in fact, be no more than myth — common, it turns out, among whites with roots in the southeastern United States.

In the wake of Elizabeth Warren having made public the results of her own DNA test, much has been made of this: that membership in the Cherokee tribe is more about social facts than genetics. In my case, I have neither benefited nor suffered from my ostensible Cherokee ancestry. While there is some history suggesting that Warren has sometimes held herself out to be a minority, specifically a Native American based on her purported Cherokee heritage, an in-depth investigation by the Boston Globe found that her ethnic background played no role in her rise as a law professor.

What is clear is that Warren’s family lore includes a very specific story about her parents deciding to elope because her father’s family did not approve of her mother’s Cherokee heritage. This is not a story Warren made up; her brothers have confirmed hearing the same story as children. And now she has DNA results that at least suggest there could be some truth to the story.

Does this mean that Elizabeth Warren can claim to be a member of the Cherokee tribe? No, it does not. But it also does not make her a liar. Like Hillary’s emails, or Obama’s birth certificate, this is a red herring thrown out to distract and manipulate voters. Let’s not let ourselves get distracted! When it comes to politicians — like Elizabeth Warren — let’s judge them on their records on issues we care about.

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Careen Shannon is a lawyer and writer based in New York City.

Careen Shannon is a lawyer and writer living in Brooklyn, New York.

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