Katie Ryder

Indian Lake

Why Do So Many People Erroneously Claim American Indian Ancestry, and What is the Wish Behind That Claim?

Discussed: White Americans Taking on Faux–American Indian Identities, Bob Dylan, The Two Most Popular Ancestral Myths in the United States, Elizabeth Warren’s High Cheekbones, The “Right Kind of People,” The Spirit of the Continent, 1820s “Vanishing Native” Narratives, Mohawk Insults, Grave-Digging in a Thunderstorm, Befriending Ghosts

In our story, my great-great-grandmother Eva Payne Brooks was half Iroquois. We didn’t know of what tribe, or what relationship her unmarried parents had. We knew she had light brown skin and came from a place called Indian Lake. My mother described, without irony, the long, dark braid she used to wear down her back. My second cousin told me years ago that there had been proof of Eva’s ancestry—papers of some kind, letters, or photographs—that Eva’s daughter had intentionally destroyed.

At the lake in the Adirondacks where we spent every August, I used to swim out into the middle, surrounded by blunted eastern mountains, pines straight as arrows, patches of gray rock face. I would imagine the lake as an empty green valley, the base of it far below, filling slowly with water from year to year. I saw myself suspended, legs dangling hundreds of feet from the place where the mountains met, and hundreds of feet still below their peaks.

As I grew older, there was a suspicious ease to it all: an English family crest and a blood claim on the American woods. If it were true, why did we have so little to tell? If my great-great-great-grandfather was an American Indian, who was he?

So in the summer of 2012, I drove north—or really west, north, and up in elevation and isolation—from that same spot at the lake, headed to the town where Eva Brooks was born.

In the northern Adirondacks, unless you’re driving down a town’s tiny main drag (you’ll know it by its closed-down soda shop, single gas station, orphaned barber poll, Grand Union) or crossing over water, you’re surrounded by thick forest. At first it was mostly tall pines and some birches.

As I drove, I passed Loon Lake, where beaten white farmhouses for sale and rent sat precariously close to the road after a century or two of route expansion. In case one couldn’t tell, rental signs insisted that they were indeed NEAR LAKE!

I passed a garage with two side-by-side reader boards advertising RUSTIC FURNITURE / SLABS / BURLS / SAWING and MINERALS / FOSSILS / BEADS.

I passed the WELCOME sign for the strangely named hamlet of Riparius, and crossed a small river—around a hundred yards across—realizing on the other side that it had been the Hudson. There were abandoned stone wells almost hidden in former yards, and a one-story-high rocking chair made of northern hardwood trunks sitting alone at the edge of the road. I passed a few eighteen-wheelers, and swamps and wetlands, and it began to rain. The trees became shorter and straighter—bristly mountain conifers. You would know just from looking at them that you were getting to the top of something.

It was about then that I had to acknowledge that there were things I might not want to know. A little nervous buzzing had kicked in in my gut and my arms, and half my mind insisted that nothing I learned could change what I already knew about myself. It was a bit like one part of me promising the other that it would collude in denial if necessary.

Soon I passed North Creek and North River and signs designating certain patches of highway NORTH COUNTRY this and NORTH COUNTRY that, so I put on Bob Dylan’s “Girl from the North Country,” and thought about my ancestral right to enjoy it. There was nothing to fear.

Where the Hudson was only fifty yards across, I entered Hamilton County, and soon the town of Indian Lake, marked by hand-painted letters on a flat, wooden moose. Just a few miles down the road was the town museum. Outside, standing on a raised little porch under an awning, was a carved, grayed wooden statue of an Indian woman, about eight feet tall. She had an enormous head and red eyes, and stood frowning, arms held behind her back, hair to the waist, guarding the old front door. I knocked on the side door, which appeared to be the museum’s entrance, and I let myself in to my great-great-great-great-uncle’s house.

American Indian ancestry is an extremely common claim made by white Americans all over the country. Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak, the genealogist who identified Michelle Obama’s slave ancestors in a New York Times project in 2009, told the Atlantic last year, “In terms of widespread ancestral myths, this is one of the top two (the other being those who think their names were changed at Ellis Island).”

Henry Louis Gates Jr., academic, host of three genealogy-reveal TV series (African American Lives, Faces of America, and Finding Your Roots) and a founding partner of the genetic testing company African DNA, told the Wall Street Journal that Indian ancestry stories area also common among black families specifically. “It’s the biggest myth in African-American genealogy: ‘My great grandmother was a Cherokee princess.’ [But] the average slave and the average Native American didn’t even see each other, which makes it very hard to mate.”

According to geneticists, the overwhelming majority of people who think they have Indian forebearers are wrong. Statistically speaking, the chances that you have Indian ancestry are slim. But what if you’re right?

Elizabeth Warren, blond, blue-eyed former special adviser to the secretary of the treasury and current Democratic senator from Massachusetts, says she’s one-thirty-second American Indian. In April of 2012, during her election campaign, news broke that she had enrolled herself for almost a decade in a national law school directory as a minority professor, during which time she had been designated nonwhite by her employers at the University of Texas and the University of Pennsylvania, while Harvard had publicly promoted her as a Native American faculty member.

Warren claims both Cherokee and Delaware Indian ancestry, but she hasn’t been able to produce proof of either. In her family’s stories, her great-great-great-grandmother was Cherokee, and though representatives of the New England Historic Genealogical Society originally stated that they had found an electronic copy of a marriage application confirming this, their researchers later retracted this statement, saying that they had never seen the original document and could not verify that it existed. Meanwhile, Warren held to her claims, saying simply that these were the stories that had been passed down through generations of her family. “My Native American heritage is part of who I am,” she said. “I’m proud of it and I have been open about it.”

Unsurprisingly, Scott Brown, incumbent senator and Warren’s opposition during the election, positioned the story as both a strike against Warren’s credibility and an ethical failure. The revelation uncovered some glaring (and jarring) missteps by the involved universities, such as Harvard’s decision to name Warren as the law school’s “first woman of color.” But most striking throughout was Warren’s inability to answer for her decisions with the coherence, self-awareness, and humility sufficient to a public discussion of racial identity. She responded to questions with slight impatience, shaking her head and repeating phrases like “I am proud of my heritage,” and “I am proud of my family,” in the same tone and with the same force of certainty with which she has been known to say that she “grew up on the ragged edge of the middle class.” Some of Warren’s answers took the form of long rambles through family lore: speaking of a picture of her grandfather on the family mantle, she said, “My aunt Bea has walked by that picture at least a thousand times”—she karate-chopped the air with her hand emphatically—“and remarked that her father, my Papaw, had high cheekbones, like all of the Indians do, because that’s how she saw it. And she said, ‘And your mother got those same great cheekbones and I didn’t.’ She thought this was the bad deal she had gotten in life.”

Considering how far afield these reminiscences take Warren, I don’t doubt they’re real. But she seems to have consistently missed the point. In stressing cultural singularity beyond one’s whiteness, we can tend to forget that multiculturalist theory and politics—and the important process of claiming and naming ethnic identity—arose out of inequity. Regardless of family “cheekbones,” Warren’s experience of the world is, and always has been, white.

Why did she identify herself as a Native American in official documents? “I listed myself in the directory,” she said, “in the hopes that it might mean that I would be invited to a luncheon, a group, something that might happen with people who are like I am.”

In the late 1980s, my great-grandmother Dot Brooks Hepworth—Eva’s daughter—stood in her home on the nearly two-hundred-year-old family farm, at the place where the cherry and apple orchards abutted the Hudson River. One of her sons had come out as gay twenty years before; another had disappeared during his first marriage, reappearing years later and states away with a new wife; and now one of her granddaughters was having a child out of wedlock with a black man. To her, these events were all of a type. She turned to my grandmother, her daughter-in-law, and said, “Well, they weren’t our kind of people. But I don’t know who our kind of people are anymore.”

It’s tempting to hear this moment as one of reckoning and resolution, to think a final conflict with her bigotry—a biracial great-granddaughter—had won ground for uncertainty and, in measured ways, acceptance. But truthfully, it’s just as likely that Dot meant that social standards were crumbling around her, that she was lost in a sea of aberrant behavior and “colored people.” Though I loved her—her lack of interest in fussing over children, her willingness to let me hang on the loose skin of her arms—she was also the confused, racist old lady at my mother’s fortieth birthday party, whispering in the corner about our black guests, that “yes, there are party crashers here.”

In that way, she wasn’t really our kind of people. And in the way that Dot intended the phrase—as shorthand for high standing defined by wealth, accepted sexual behavior, general propriety, and whiteness—“our kind of people” was, from her mouth, always a lie. The life that she was born into made her the “wrong kind of people” in all of these categories but one: she grew up poor; her mother was an illegitimate child, born of two people who never married, and, we believed, she was one-quarter American Indian, though Dot denied murmurs of the last with curt and final force.

Fortunately for her, she was academically inclined and beautiful, and a scholarship to the teachers’ college at SUNY New Paltz led to her marrying into a family that had been the “right kind of people” in the Hudson Valley since the Revolutionary War. She became the richest woman in Milton, New York, and, by most accounts, a snob. Each year of her life from then on—each year of success and affluence among the white, Protestant, and well-behaved, with cruises to the Panama Canal; a house in Golden Beach, Miami; a cabin in the Adirondacks; a Chris-Craft; Cadillacs—seems to have served as a mark in the ledger of who she was, weighing against her former poverty, her strange, unwed grandmother, and, perhaps most of all, her mother’s brown skin.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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Katie Ryder is a writer and editor living in New York. Some of her most recent work can be found in Black Clock and online with Bookforum.

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