I don't need to agree with Elizabeth Warren to recognize that she doesn't deserve all the grief she's getting for celebrating her Native American ancestors. Not from President Trump, not from the Republicans, not from the Democrats, and not even from Native Americans themselves.

Warren's memory of family stories is that somewhere among her forebears were some Native Americans. As a genealogist, I know that this is a fairly common family mythology, and that most of the stories turn out to have no basis in fact. Porter's family had just such a story about "our Indian ancestor," but I've found nothing to back that up in any of my extensive research. (That's okay; he has plenty of other interesting ancestors.)

Donald Trump mocked Warren for this claim, and challenged her to back it up with DNA testing. Recently she released the results: it's likely that somewhere, several generations back, she did indeed have Native American ancestry (from North, South, or Central America). More specific than that can't be said.

But now everyone is jumping on her, from the President to speakers for the Native American communty (not that they all agree), from the Left to the Right. The ancestry, if it exists at all, is too far back to count, they say. Tribal identity is not determined by genetics.

The report states that Elizabeth Warren's most recent Native American ancestor is six to ten generations back. According to many, that makes her heritage insignificant.

As far as I have been able to determine in my research, my own most recent immigrant ancestor is five generations back; most are ten or even more. All of my parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and great-great-grandparents were native-born Americans. So were all but two or three of my 32 great-great-great-grandparents. Beyond that, the data is not complete, but the percentage of native-born great-great-great-great-grandparents is at minimum more than 50%, and most of them were born before the United States even existed. If ancestors that far back don't count, does that make me Native American?

Of course not. And if Elizabeth Warren's Native American ancestry starts back six to ten or even more generations, it's still her own ancestry. Even if her DNA results had come back negative, it's still quite possible that her ancestry includes Native Americans, because the random recombination that happens from generation to generation means that you have ancestors who didn't give you any of their genes. Genetics isn't genealogy, and genealogy isn't genetics. Your great-great-grandfather is still yours, even if his genes aren't.

So what does this mean for Elizabeth Warren? Can she expect preferential treatment because of her Native ancestry? No, nor as far as I know, has she asked for it. Can she claim membership in a particular, modern tribe? Again, no. Even if the DNA test were tribe-specific, which it is not, qualifications for tribal membership are not based on DNA tests. Again, I believe she has not asked for any such thing.

But to celebrate one's ancestors and ancestral heritage, no matter how small? That's everyone's right. The current government of the Netherlands has no reason to grant me citizenship, but they can't deny my Dutch 9th-great-grandfather, and visiting Holland this summer was a bit more special because I know he existed. Similarly, England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Germany, and France hold a special place in my heart because of my ancestral roots. Should I not feel a special thrill standing on English soil because it has been three and half centuries since my English ancesors crossed the Atlantic?

I will celebrate my heritage, no matter how far back. I will also feel connected to Australia, Brazil, Japan, New Zealand, The Gambia, and any other country I have been privileged to visit, even if we have not a single gene in common. I will enjoy their cuisine and their culture, take an interest in their history and politics, and care about their people. If this be treason, I'll make the most of it.

Go, Ms. Warren! Celebrate your heritage and let the chips fall where they may.

Posted by sursumcorda on Wednesday, October 24, 2018 at 5:52 am | Edit
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