The Massachusetts Senate race between Scott Brown and Elizabeth Warren has brought heightened attention to claims of Native American ancestry in the U.S.. Warren appears to have at times claimed such ancestry, Cherokee and Delaware in particular. The Washington Post provided a thorough round-up of the issue. From what we know thus far, there’s no clear evidence of her claim. Like many families, especially in Oklahoma, her family has a vague account of one or more American Indian ancestors. The vagueness doesn’t necessarily mean it isn’t true, nor does a lack of tribal records. However, there’s a well-known “Indian princess” syndrome, where notably large numbers of people in the U.S. claim a distant Native American ancestor, about whom the details are usually sketchy and inconsistent. Certainly some of these family oral histories are based in some truth, but others are likely apocryphal (though the individuals reporting them may truly believe them).
So Warren’s claim to some Native American ancestry is at least unverified, and there’s an interesting issue there in why so many Americans happily accept stories of native ancestry with little question.
But I was struck by opponent Scott Brown’s comment in one of his debates with Warren. Via abc News:
“Elizabeth Warren said she was a Native American, a person of color,” Brown said, gesturing toward Warren. “As you can see, she’s not.”
The statement implies that we can tell, just from looking, whether someone is really Native American. We can see, obviously, that she isn’t. This gets at a bigger issue about judgements of authenticity. Individuals often have preconceived ideas about what a Native American should look and act like; their Indianness is expected to be clearly visible, both physically and culturally.
Given this, I was particularly struck by a video Katrin recently sent in a link to the Represent series created by The 1491s. The videos challenge the viewer to recognize that American Indians and their cultures are still vital and vibrant. But they also illustrate the problem with assuming that anyone can easily tell who is or isn’t Native American, and how they integrate or represent that identity in their daily lives. Here are a few, but I’d check out the full set at the 1491s website.